Are the Risk Managers Running Planned Parenthood?

Are the Risk Managers Running Planned Parenthood?

Are the Risk Managers Running Planned Parenthood?

Eyal Press on courage and caution among abortion providers.


Jon Wiener: When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, a lot of our friends immediately sent a check to Planned Parenthood—because Planned Parenthood is known to all as the organization that provides abortion services and defends abortion rights. But it turns out some of the affiliates are less willing to provide abortion services than others. And in many places, independent abortion clinics do a lot of the work, and face a lot of the threats from violent anti-abortion activists: for example, in Montana.

Eyal Press: Montana is one of the states that could well have had a trigger law go into effect banning all abortion services because the Republican Party now has a super-majority in the Montana legislature; the governor is very anti-abortion, as is the attorney general. But the Montana Supreme Court has recognized in a previous ruling that Montanans have a right to privacy that covers the decision of whether to terminate a pregnancy. So abortion has protected status. That’s important because Montana is surrounded by states where immediate bans went into effect right after the Dobbs decision last June. So right away the question arose about whether Montana abortion providers would welcome patients from other states.

The independent clinics in Montana both said, “Yes, we should provide abortion care to patients coming from other states.” They will mail mifepristone, the abortion drug, to any address inside the state of Montana, even if it’s just one mile over the Wyoming line—to, say, a Fedex office, or a motel. But Planned Parenthood balked, initially, and is still saying that patients from out of state have to come to one of its facilities in person—to Billings, or Helena or Missoula or Great Falls. That can be a long trek. I interviewed a woman who drove for five hours to get to Missoula. Suppose they don’t have a car, or a day to do that.

JW: Abortion rights is an issue you’ve been thinking about and writing about for a long time.

EP: I’m the son of an abortion provider. I’ve written a book called Absolute Convictions about the murder of a physician who performed abortions in Buffalo, New York, where I grew up: Barnett Slepian, who was murdered in his home in 1998. I am well aware that anyone who provides abortion care in this country, any physician who is in any way associated with abortion, takes a physical risk, in addition to the risk of being stigmatized, of facing death threats—things my own father has faced during his time as a physician. It’s important that we talk about who is taking the biggest risks when it comes to this care, and who has the least resources.

JW: One reproductive rights scholar told you that Planned Parenthood has “turned over this movement to a whole new group of lawyers, not the constitutional lawyers, but the risk managers,” and that has left it to the independent clinics to do the work and take the risks. Another example, Casper, Wyoming, where you visited Julie Burkhart, the founder of an abortion care nonprofit named Wellspring Health Access.

EP: Julie Burkhart is a remarkable figure. She’s a poster child for moral courage. She worked in Wichita, Kansas, at an abortion clinic where Dr. George Tiller worked; in 2009, he was murdered in the foyer of his church. And that took away the only clinic serving not only Wichita but a vast rural area surrounding it. And who stepped in to say, ‘Let’s reopen this clinic’? It wasn’t Planned Parenthood, which had a facility in Wichita. It was Julie Burkhart. It took her a couple of years. She faced death threats. She was warned by advocates of abortion rights, “This will only bring more violence to the community.” But she persisted and opened the clinic. In the beginning, nobody came. Soon, hundreds and then thousands of women and patients were being served.

She then did the same thing in Oklahoma City. Again, a place where no one was doing abortions, even though there was a Planned Parenthood there. And now she has opened a clinic in Casper, Wyoming. It’s a remarkable step because Wyoming just passed a ban on abortion. Who challenged them in court? Julie Burkhart, citing the state Constitution, saying, “You’ve got a right to privacy provision and we think we will win and we will continue to be able to provide care here.” Her clinic in Casper just opened. It’s a hostile, remote area, the kind place one would think a well-funded organization like Planned Parenthood would circle on the map and say, “You know what? Let’s go here.”

JW: There’s a second part of Planned Parenthood, in addition to the service provider, there’s the political arm, Planned Parenthood Action Fund. And their motto is, “We will never back down in the fight to protect abortion access.” They push for pro-choice laws and policies in every election, they mobilize and educate voters. Last year Planned Parenthood Action helped defeat anti-abortion ballot initiatives in many states, notably Kansas and Kentucky. And along with the ACLU, they filed lawsuits across the country, challenging state restrictions.

Partly because of the work of Planned Parenthood Action, in 2022, Democrats in Minnesota won a trifecta, control of both branches of the state legislature and reelected the Democratic governor. This is a huge success for abortion rights, especially since the Dakotas and Iowa are anti-abortion states right now. But Planned Parenthood Action Fund has also made some controversial decisions about which battles to fight and which to avoid.

 Tell us about UnRestrict Minnesota and the organization Gender Justice.

EP: This is a campaign led by a group of reproductive justice organizations that see abortion as part of a broader struggle for equality. They said, “Our state, Minnesota, has all kinds of restrictions: parental notification laws, 24-hour waiting periods, laws requiring physicians to read false or misleading information to patients before providing abortion care. Let’s get rid of all these laws. Let’s file a lawsuit and let’s launch a grassroots campaign that will rally popular support for abortion rights.”

An extraordinary coalition came together called UnRestrict Minnesota, including LGBTQ organizations, progressive faith community groups, and others. But Planned Parenthood was curiously missing. They not only didn’t participate in the lawsuit; those who led and brought the lawsuit told me they tried to scuttle the effort.

JW: What was Planned Parenthood’s reasoning?

EP: I think that they felt that this kind of aggressive lawsuit would backfire. This was when Donald Trump was president, when there was a sense of precariousness about Roe and also about him being reelected. Is this a time to be aggressive? Their view was, let’s just defend what we’ve got and try to get the governor of the legislature on our side. Of course Gender Justice, the organization that brought this lawsuit, also saw that Roe was hanging by a thread, but they had a very different approach. They said, “Let’s mobilize. Let’s organize locally and within this state to make it a beacon of access.” They decided to take the risk, a risk that Planned Parenthood did not want them to take.

JW: What happened to the lawsuit in Minnesota that Planned Parenthood refused to join?

EP: That lawsuit won. Judge Thomas Gilligan, a district court judge, declared when rolling back those restrictions, “The right to choose to have an abortion would be meaningless without the right to access abortion care.” That is what we all have to keep an eye on as we move forward.

JW: Most of Planned Parenthood’s contributions, it turns out, come from the families of a few billionaires. Warren Buffett’s family foundation has given hundreds of millions to Planned Parenthood. MacKenzie Scott last year gave Planned Parenthood $275 million, the largest single contribution in the organization’s history. It’s hard to say that Planned Parenthood needs money. For people who want to give money to someplace other than Planned Parenthood, what are some good choices?

EP: There’s the National Network of Abortion Funds. These are justice funds that help women of lesser means obtain access to abortion care. There’s the Abortion Care Network, an association of independent clinics. And then I would suggest individual outfits like Just The Pill, which is doing extraordinary work to get abortion medication to patients in remote places. And of course, Julie Burkhart’s Wellspring Health Access, which provides a model of how this work can be done.

JW: Is there anything else you’d like to say in closing?

EP: This issue is so polarized and so violent that I think it has created a code of silence, not just among advocates and providers but also among journalists and progressive news outlets who feel that, even if you know there are issues with Planned Parenthood, it’s not the right time to air them. It will not benefit the movement. But movements benefit by reflecting on what has gone wrong and what might go right. I am a hundred percent supportive of the mission of Planned Parenthood. What I ask is, can they go further? Can they be bolder in fulfilling that mission? If we don’t talk about this, nothing will change.

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