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Planned Parenthood's Most Radical Response to Critics: To Listen, and Let Their Supporters Lead

BY Melissa Gira Grant | Thursday, May 3 2012

A pro-Planned Parenthood rally in St. Paul, Minn. in April. Photo: Fibonacci Blue

By the time news broke on Jan. 31 that Susan G. Komen for the Cure would cut funding to Planned Parenthood, the nonprofit was already prepared.

“We were anticipating that this was going to come out,” said Heather Holdridge, director of digital strategy at Planned Parenthood. "And we knew the Susan G. Komen has a lot of grassroots support, and we have a lot of shared support.”

What Planned Parenthood didn't anticipate was that their battle — nominally over a rules change at Komen that would see it cease funding breast cancer screenings at Planned Parenthood clinics — would spark a resurgent movement in women's health and reproductive rights activism. Beginning with the backlash against Komen, which occurred in large part online, activists won a string of victories. First, they were part of such pressure on Komen that leadership there was quickly forced to reverse its decision. And in several states, outcry grew against legislation that would mandate intrusive, medically unnecessary procedures in order to have an abortion.

Taken in aggregate, this didn't just mark a new victory for Planned Parenthood, the beleaguered standard-bearer for pro-choice politics. It also signaled a shift in the conversation about sexual and reproductive health from abortion to broader issues including breast cancer, contraception and preventive care. Owing in large part to the way social media can influence mainstream debate, as well as the work that grassroots reproductive rights activists have done to re-center the fight for reproductive rights on larger questions of economic and social justice, activists were able to put efforts to curtail access to abortion and birth control on the defensive.

Making a meme

Looking at the momentum that women's health advocates have built since February, some of them are asking if a new, Internet-savvy class of activists have shifted the balance of power in the ongoing fight between conservative groups fighting against access to birth control and abortion and progressive groups fighting to increase access to preventive care. And they're wondering if Internet activists can keep that momentum going.

Eesha Pandit, formerly director of advocacy at Raising Women's Voices and an editor at Feministing, started asking those questions after she saw a cartoon drawn by one activist on Feb. 1 get shared over 15,500 times on the popular microblogging service Tumblr.

“It was a very powerful commentary on women's healthcare more broadly,” said Pandit, “and that was a conversation that, in my experience in health reform organizing, that was really hard to get to – which would get subsumed in conversations about socialized medicine – and that came up really well in that image.”

When we spoke a few weeks after the Komen Foundation's decision to defund Planned Parenthood, she was watching for signs that this kind of hand-drawn activism would continue.

“I wonder where that bigger conversation has gone?" she asked. "And I wonder where that organizing will go.”

"Immediate, visceral, personal"

Those conversations began in early February, after the Associated Press reported that the Komen board had passed a rule prohibiting the foundation from giving grants to organizations under federal investigation. The rule seemed specifically aimed at Planned Parenthood, which attracted the public attention of one member of Congress, Florida Republican Cliff Stearns.

Heather Holdridge, Planned Parenthood's digital director, had prepared an email and Facebook post for the occasion. The nonprofit published those missives, she said, and "just started monitoring."

The response from Planned Parenthood's supporters was “immediate, visceral, and personal,” said Holdridge. “What we saw within, say, two hours –– and this happened on a Tuesday afternoon at 4 o'clock –– we had literally hundreds of comments on our Facebook wall. We had people going nuts, and the sentiment was almost universally, about 9 to 1 if not more, people were angry and upset that Komen had done this, asking us, 'Why did they do this, I don't understand.'”

Their supporters' anger moved quickly to Komen's own Facebook wall. “We didn't encourage it,” said Holdridge, “but people immediately started posting on their wall, too, saying, what's up?”

The outpouring of support (and rage) may have kicked off on Facebook, but it was fomenting on Twitter, too.

According to a Twitter spokeswoman, over the course of the next three days of the controversy, users posted 1.3 million tweets related to Komen and Planned Parenthood. The hashtag #standwithPP registered four million impressions, according to a tracking tool called Crowdbooster, a Planned Parenthood spokesman said.

Within 24 hours of Planned Parenthood's first public response to the Komen Foundation, a blog called Planned Parenthood Saved Me launched on Tumblr, the popular microblogging platform. The next night, Rachel Maddow read from the posts on her show.

The posts detail incredibly personal stories: broken condoms, financial struggles, abortion, cancer. When Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke fought and won the right to testify at a congressional hearing on birth control and commentator Rush Limbaugh called her a "slut" on national radio, they were engaging in a fight over what birth control is for — Fluke and others make the point that it is prescribed for a host of health concerns, including contraception — that heated up around this debate, weeks before the Capitol Hill hearings.

On Feb. 9, the tumblr's curator, Deanna Zandt, ran a post by an anonymous submitter who wrote that she was prescribed birth control as a means of suppressing uterine cysts:

When I went to pick up the prescription, it rang up at $80. For a one month supply. “What about insurance?” I asked. The heinous woman behind the counter said, as loudly and as self-righteously has she could, “insurance doesn’t cover BIRTH CONTROL!!!!” She didn’t say “you SLUT” but I know that she was thinking it.
There was no way I could afford to spend over $800 a year on this prescription. I was horrified by the way the woman spoke to me... Thankfully, someone, I don’t know who, told me that there was a Planned Parenthood on campus.

Stories like this changed the national conversation and kept Komen on the defensive — all without Planned Parenthood's active intervention.

Zandt, a media technologist, was not working for the nonprofit. She set up the tumblr, posted a link to Facebook, sent it to twenty friends, and it was off. Planned Parenthood did reach out to her – not to interfere, but to ask if there was anything they could do to help.

“I can't imagine many organizations of the size that Planned Parenthood is,” Zandt said in an interview a few weeks after the Komen scandal broke, “calling me up and saying, we love what you are doing it, keep doing it. They recognize that they need to be open to people taking something and running with it.”

Broader protests

There are some signs indicating what staying power the success over Komen might have for reproductive rights activists taking up more conventional policy battles. When Virginia lawmakers were considering a bill mandating a transvaginal ultrasound for any patient seeking an abortion, a coalition of activists organized a silent protest at the state legislature: over 1000 people lined the walkway legislators needed to pass through to reach their session, forcing them to confront the faces of their constituents and their disapproval before placing their vote.

After the protest, Virginia's Republican governor, Bob McDonnell, said he would not sign the bill, and the transvaginal ultrasound provision was dropped. It was a momentary victory — the state legislature passed an amended version of the bill that still required a conventional abdominal ultrasound — so the call went out again on activists' Facebook pages, and over a thousand protestors returned to the Virginia capitol. This time they were met with lines of riot cops, and 34 people were arrested for staging a sit-in. News and images of the protest came out immediately on Twitter and Facebook. On March 7, Virginia' governor signed the bill into law, and it is expected to go into effect July 1, though this group of protestors continue to mobilize in Virginia.

These protests, using direct action for reproductive rights, are a media-friendly mix of Occupy-era tactics – the silent protest itself borrowed from an action at the University of California Davis and an accompanying video that circulated widely on YouTube – amplified by an upswell of interest in the politics of women's health in the weeks following the Komen controversy. Planned Parenthood had little to do directly with the protest's success in getting the transvaginal ultrasound provision dropped. A local affiliate lent support to a sanctioned rally a few days later, but Planned Parenthood itself is no position to organize a protest using tactics like civil disobedience. That moving-and-shaking is up to grassroots activists, with supportive individuals spreading the word on social media. The momentum – protests in the street and immediate social media attention – might be sustainable, too. A few days after the first Virginia protest, Republicans in Pennsylvania canceled a debate on a copycat mandatory ultrasound bill.

Have women won?

Is this a game-changing moment for reproductive rights? In looking for the kick-off moment, both staffers at Planned Parenthood I spoke to point back to early last year, when they were at risk of losing all federal funding.

Between February and March 2011, when the issue dominated the news, Planned Parenthood spokesman Tait Sye said, Planned Parenthood added 1.2 million new supporters to their lists. Half of those supporters were under the age of thirty-five.

That's because young women are the ones affected the most when reproductive and sexual health issues enter the legislature, said Eesha Pandit, the former advocacy director.

Those numbers also shouldn't be surprising given that existing networks of activists already organized offline and on.

Around the same time last year that Planned Parenthood faced federal defunding, many of these younger reproductive rights activists were immersed in a national fight of their own. Dozens of anti-abortion billboards began popping up in communities of color and low-income neighborhoods, with slogans like “The most dangerous place for an African-American is in the womb” and “Abortion is black genocide.”

In Atlanta, New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, locally based reproductive justice activists called out the billboards' rhetoric as racist, identified the conservative organizations behind the billboards, and ultimately got them removed.

“Women of color in different communities were sharing information with each other about how to get the billboards down, and that was all happening on social media,” Pandit said. “While there was the campaign online to get the billboards down, to take direct action, it was also infused in a larger online discussion connected to a movement to get these billboards down all around the country. Social media was just one tool here to effect things in the world, not only on the Internet.”

Pandit said that grassroots activists can move quickly to capitalize on a political moment, giving a small organization the ability to make a lot more noise than a meager communications budget might allow. But she cautioned against looking at the ongoing fight over women's health and deciding that social media was the ultimate equalizer.

"Building a movement around reproductive justice, or any other issue, requires sustained momentum, that equips communities with what they need to organize," she said. There needs to be a deep connection there that's not just superficial. Even smaller grassroots groups need to think about where they put their social media organizing in context with the rest of the organizing they do.”

Republicans and Democrats are framing "the war on women” as another culture war on which to stake out a side. But activists and organizers for reproductive rights are working to keep the focus on the fall-out from these attacks on women's daily lives — the denial of life-saving healthcare, as in the breast cancer screenings Komen attempted to defund, and the likelihood that more women will be forced to carry a pregnancy to term — and looking online to do it.

Though Planned Parenthood is so far the most visible beneficiary of this online activism — during and immediately after the Komen fight, their email list grew to 6 million members — their win owes to a successful combination of grassroots organizing and online amplification. What remains to be seen is how grassroots activists, coming off these victories, can adapt their tactics to take on other reproductive rights' fights –– and how old institutions, like Planned Parenthood, are going to react.