The Magazine

Planned Parenthood's Unseemly Empire

The billion-dollar "non-profit."

Oct 22, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 06 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

No matter what one may think about abortion, episodes such as those above would turn most charitable organizations into political pariahs. Not Planned Parenthood. The mammoth tax-exempt nonprofit with 122 affiliates nationwide reported revenues in June of a record $903 million during its 2005-06 fiscal year, and it continues to bask in an amazingly exalted reputation, at least among Democratic politicos, celebrities, a largely sympathetic and even sycophantic press, and the gigantic family foundations set up by such tycoons past and present as David Rockefeller, David Packard, Bill Gates, and the ubiquitous George Soros, all of whom have donated hundreds of millions of dollars to Planned Parenthood causes. Among upper-middle-class Americans who pride themselves on their progressive views, the name "Planned Parenthood" still conjures up founder Margaret Sanger's long-ago crusade against the Comstock Laws that once outlawed contraceptive devices even for married couples. It also still conjures up images of adult women taking rational steps to postpone childbearing and limit family size so as to fit their economic and emotional needs--not unwed high school girls seeking clandestine abortions that won't get the creepy adults who impregnated them in trouble with the law.

Planned Parenthood also trades on most people's relaxed attitudes toward sex and birth control. Although certain religious groups, notably the Catholic church, frown on artificial contraception, the overwhelming majority of Americans (including Catholics) see nothing wrong with, and much good to be gained from, planning births via whatever medical devices are deemed safe and effective. Nor do many Americans object nowadays to young people, even teens, having sex before marriage, as long as it is not outrageously promiscuous or coercive--and under such circumstances, birth control strikes them as essential. Although most Americans are distressed by abortion, and many would like to restrict it by varying degrees (they are largely prevented from so doing by the Supreme Court's 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade declaring it a constitutional right), few, even among political conservatives, wish to ban the procedure altogether, and many who are morally repulsed by abortion do not believe that women should be restrained by law from choosing it.

Someone, then, has to do the dirty work, and in many people's thinking, that someone should preferably not be the corner-cutting medical hacks (who else would want to be an abortionist?) who staff many a for-profit clinic and pop up in occasional news stories about women killed or seriously injured in botched procedures at seedy facilities reminiscent of the legendary back-alley abortionist's lair that Roe v. Wade was supposed to have abolished. That's where Planned Parenthood steps in: It's the nice abortion provider. The organization's cleanly designed powder blue-and-white website abounds with the words safe, health, trust, medical standards, high quality, and training, along with soothing photographs of crisply groomed, white-clad professionals, most of them female.

Other literature from Planned Parenthood portrays the organization's abortion business as a tiny droplet in an ocean of medical and social services focused on prevention of pregnancy--along with such worthy works as screening for sexually transmitted diseases and reproduction-related cancers, and even prenatal care. "Prevention is the cornerstone of our services," declares Planned Parenthood's online financial report for 2005-06. The organization boasts that 81 percent of the clients at its 860 or so "health centers" nationwide received some sort of contraceptive. A pie graph accompanying these statements displays "abortion services" as representing a tiny sliver--just 3 percent--of the more than 10 million individual health services that Planned Parenthood provided during the last fiscal year, with contraception taking up 37 percent of the pie, tests and treatments of sexually transmitted diseases 29 percent, and cancer screening and prevention 20 percent. Indeed, the pro-choice but abortion-disapproving GOP presidential contender Rudy Giuliani defended the $900 that he donated to Planned Parenthood during the 1990s on the grounds that the organization "makes information available" about other options, including adoption, available to women facing crisis pregnancies.