It might never have happened. Planned Parenthood just made it to its 100th anniversary despite what may have been its hardest year ever. Hillary Clinton just clinched the Democratic nomination after a long and sometimes bruising obstacle course years in the making.
On Friday, the two met for Clinton’s first general election address, and the timing seemed only fitting.
“As president, I will always have your back,” Clinton told the assembled activists. She unapologetically proclaimed support for abortion rights: “Defending women’s health means defending access to abortion – not just in theory, but in reality.” She called for the expansion of Planned Parenthood’s funding for nonabortion women’s health services and for federal funding of abortion, and she name-checked transgender health issues and reproductive justice activists. In a room that was rapt and grateful, she fluently spoke their language.
Both Clinton and Planned Parenthood had come a long way to reach that moment, and not just because Clinton had run before for the Democratic nomination and lost; or because she weathered a strong challenge from Bernie Sanders; or because of any number of scandals, real or perceived, hers or those of the people around her.
Though Clinton has always voted in favor of access to abortion and contraception, a decade ago, she infuriated women’s health advocates by using gauzy “common ground” language on abortion that they saw as unilaterally disarming in the face of attacks. Back then in 2005, she called abortion “a sad, even tragic choice to many, many women,” which activists saw as stigmatizing patients and adopting the framing of the right, which often justifies restrictions on abortion by saying they protect women.
That’s not what she said Friday. “We know that restricting access doesn’t make women less likely to end a pregnancy,” Clinton said. “It just makes abortion less safe. And that then threatens women’s lives.” She lauded comprehensive sex education and affordable, effective contraception in lowering the unintended pregnancy rate.
It was a testament to activists in favor of abortion rights who have pushed Democrats to draw clear lines on the issue, a process that has been mirrored on the right as Republicans respond to their grassroots by calling for Planned Parenthood’s defunding and broader bans on abortion. It’s also harder to talk common ground as hundreds of restrictions on the procedure proliferate in the states and the Affordable Care Act’s efforts to expand birth control coverage provision are mired in court battles brought by religious objectors.
As for Planned Parenthood, it has survived a decades-long campaign, sometimes a violent one, to force it out of business. In the last 11 months alone, it has been accused, via secretly recorded videos of its staff made by anti-abortion activists, of trafficking in fetal parts. (Clinton initially described the videos as “disturbing.”) In November, a gunman stormed a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood and killed three people, rambling to police afterwards about “baby parts.” About a dozen states have blocked the group from using public funds to provide services, over which it is mired in litigation. Every single Republican presidential candidate took aim at them, including Donald Trump.
Most of these battles are ongoing, but in several key ways, Planned Parenthood has weathered the storm. No state investigation into its fetal tissue donation has yielded any evidence of wrongdoing. A Texas grand jury that was convened to investigate the women’s health provider instead indicted the creators of the videos, who also face numerous civil lawsuits, including from Planned Parenthood. In the face of President Barack Obama’s refusal to sign a budget that defunded Planned Parenthood, congressional Republicans backed off. State affiliates are fighting their defunding in court. Planned Parenthood still faces an ongoing, GOP-led House select committee not unlike the Benghazi-focused one that hauled Clinton before it and was unable to break her cool. But the proof that the right has so far failed to marginalize Planned Parenthood as a political force, as ACORN was when its employees were also secretly recorded, was in Clinton’s presence Friday.
Not that things have ever been easy for the health provider and political advocacy group. As Clinton herself said, “Just think when Planned Parenthood was founded, women couldn’t vote or serve on juries in most states. It was illegal even to provide information about birth control, let alone prescribe it.” And of course, a woman couldn’t be, never was, her party’s nominee for president, let alone in a way that was so unapologetically feminist in rhetoric and policy focus. Some things haven’t changed, but that has.