Stop treating abortion like a dirty word

We talk about the war on reproductive justice in this country in a lot of different ways, and as we pick our way through them, we have to take care to avoid harming even as we’re trying to do good — as, for example, in the case of the ‘justified abortion,’ which suggests that some abortions are more or less okay than others, creating an opening for the right to oppose abortion in general and cite the left’s own words while doing it. One important place where this comes up is in the context of Planned Parenthood, a critical provider of reproductive health services in the United States that offers a variety of preventative care, routine treatment, management of ongoing conditions, and, yes, abortion.

Founded in 1916, Planned Parenthood has been under attack almost since its inception. The idea of giving women control over their bodies, the freedom and independence to make decision about the timing and spacing of their families, was radical and revolutionary. In an era where birth control options were limited, Planned Parenthood fought to expand access and educate the public about their bodies, and their right to autonomy. In the following years, the organisation took a leading role in pushing for women’s rights, health care reform, ready accessibility of a range of medical services, and, yes, abortion.

Planned Parenthood provides abortions.

I know it, you know it, the right certainly knows it.

Planned Parenthood provides abortions.

How great is that? People who have unwanted pregnancies or who find themselves at great medical risk because of a pregnancy can find a Planned Parenthood clinic that offers the procedure (not all do) and get compassionate, safe, appropriate care during their pregnancy termination. Or a clinic can refer them to a site that does provide the procedure if it doesn’t offer abortions or doesn’t feel it can meet the needs of a complex termination safely. Whether it’s a medical or surgical abortion, it’s performed in an environment with trained care providers who know exactly what they’re doing and have years of experience to draw upon. Given that abortion is barely taught in US medical schools today and people need to actively request training, that’s a big deal.

When we talk about Planned Parenthood, constantly under attack from conservatives who believe that people should not be able to access health care services, there’s something that a lot of people tend to do, and it’s to repeat this line: ‘Only three percent of Planned Parenthood services are abortion-related.’ I’m guilty of saying it myself. The underlying idea is to dismiss the notion that Planned Parenthood is some kind of babykilling abortion factory, and to stress that actually, the organisation provides a huge range of services for people who need things like STI screening and treatment, cancer screening and preventative care, routine checkups, pregnancy care, birth control, and so much more. Idea being that when you destroy Planned Parenthood in the name of putting a stop to abortion, you take all these services away too.

There are two problems with this. One is that it refuses to recognise the fact that the right doesn’t care. In fact, since it’s largely opposed to social services, and extremists think that even birth control is abortion, it would be just as happy to see Planned Parenthood as an entity defunded and closed. There’s even an active investment in some corners of the right that freely and happily admits that its goal runs much deeper than abortion. It’s a mistake to bite at the lure that says abortion is the only thing that matters to the right, because it isn’t. The right has no problem with tossing more services that it doesn’t like — remember, the right is opposed to government-funded and provided healthcare in general, so why would it support Planned Parenthood even if the organisation stopped performing abortions tomorrow?

But there’s something else that’s more important, and it’s this: There is absolutely nothing wrong with abortion. Abortion is a value-neutral medical procedure that some people need at some point during their lives and they need access to it. Organisations willing to provide it even with the awareness that doing so endangers their staff and support personnel are great, and they’re doing a critical social service. They’re proud of being able to treat patients who need abortions, of, in the words of Cecile Richards, keeping the doors open and refusing to be intimidated by domestic terrorists determined to shut down Planned Parenthood one arson, one bombing, one shooting at a time.

So we need to openly talk about that. Because if we minimise the role of abortion, we contribute to the stigma that surrounds it. By saying that abortion makes up a small part of Planned Parenthood’s services, we imply that it’s something to be ashamed of, and that the organisation’s good work far outweighs this little teeny thing that makes people uncomfortable. So Planned Parenthood provides abortions. So what. My dentist provides root canals. There’s no reason to be afraid of talking about abortion, unless you do genuinely think it’s a bad thing, and advocates who repeatedly underplay Planned Parenthood’s abortion care are doing themselves no favours.

Abortion is not a four letter word. It’s not something that should be giving us the vapors. It’s a service that some people need, in a variety of circumstances in settings, that they have varying reactions to because of the complicated personal and cultural politics surrounding it. Let’s not make the stigma worse by suggesting that Planned Parenthood has something to hide when it should be celebrating the fact that it can serve patients this way, and hopefully will continue to be able to do so well into the future.

Image: fire, woman, Flood G, Flickr