I recently moved to Cincinnati, Ohio and have been researching adolescent sexual health and contraception. The story is incomplete without addressing the constant attacks on Planned Parenthood, the only abortion clinic in Cincinnati. To understand this, I began with a mini ethnography, where I observed the area for 3 hours and came back home with many more questions in my field diary. The activities of the day combined with a literature review of the topic helped dissect these attacks and also shared a new emerging argument on the pro-life side. I set aside my pro-choice stance and socialized with the activists to write an unbiased article based on my experience. The photos in the article are part of my primary documentation.
Formerly known as American Birth Control League, Planned Parenthood is a non-profit reproductive healthcare provider established in 1921. Throughout its history, has been debated as being beneficial or detrimental to the health of families across 14 countries in the world. These debates have taken many forms ranging from peaceful protests to violent attacks on employees and patients. The Planned Parenthood Surgical Centre at Auburn Avenue, Cincinnati is a highly active site for such protests and religious activities, being the sole provider of abortion services in the city. When viewed from the Google satellite street view, the image results show activists, indicating how frequent these protests are. This was also confirmed by the preparedness of the protestors that I observed during the ethnography, with collapsible mobile furniture and their attire, that made it apparent that this was a routine activity.
Throughout the ethnography, several clues emerged leading to deeper follow-up secondary research to be able to translate the occurrences into meaningful insights. In the following section, I backcast into the history of Planned Parenthood, abortion laws and political ideologies that continue to cause polarisation on the subject even today.
The predominant controversy related to Planned Parenthood is their abortion service and its polarizing effects on America. To establish the early vision and mission of Planned Parenthood, quoted below is the text from a 1917 pamphlet distributed by Margaret Sanger, an American birth control activist, sex educator and founder of the first birth control clinic in the United States, which evolved to be called Planned Parenthood in 1942.
‘It seems inartistic and sordid to insert a pessary or a suppository in anticipation of the sexual act. But it is far more sordid to find yourself several years later burdened down with half a dozen unwanted children, helpless, starved, shoddily clothed, dragging at your skirt, yourself a dragged out shadow of the woman you once were.’
She was repeatedly imprisoned for her illegal actions of publicizing family planning and for providing ‘a medically accurate explanation of how the reproductive system works, and instructions on using contraceptives through trained nurses at ten cents per consultation’ ( Latson, 2015) in Brooklyn in 1916.
Political contentions and religiosity
The right-to-life movement was founded in the mid-nineteenth century by physicians who were anxious about their professional status that was being increasingly challenged by reproductive healthcare providers. Physicians used anti-abortion laws, pushed in state legislatures, to increase their own stature and undermine their opponents. The same story when narrated through the perspective of the physicians was grounded in medical insights. It was later discovered that embryonic knowledge was highly inaccurate at the time and so this movement was in fact not grounded in science (Holland, 2016). Following liberalization movements, abortion was briefly legalised for sexual assaulted women, deformed foetuses and women with uncertain mental health (American Law Institute, 1959). Images of white middle-class women and their deformed infants stormed American media, capturing the imaginations and parental fears of many Americans. However, the contention resurfaced, this time led by small groups of Catholic doctors, nurses, lawyers, and housewives. In 1967 the National Council of Catholic Bishops aided their campaigns with support, money, and the formation of the National Right to Life Committee. The right-to-life movement pivots on the belief that all life is sacred, beginning at conception, as stated in article 5 of the Fifth Amendment ‘You shall not kill: and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ The message was about protecting the unborn among the weak and voiceless unless it threatens the mother’s life. In the 1970s the anti-abortion movement remained heavily Catholic, and they continued to pitch their issue as a rights issue rather than a religious one. In 1973, the Roe V. Wade decision liberalised abortion in all fifty states. In opposition to this feminine autonomy, the anti-abortion movement multiplied exponentially with support from non-Catholics, usually Protestants, Mormons, or Orthodox Christians (Holland, 2016). As a result, the abortion issue effectively transformed the US political landscape and continued to cause unrest.
Eugenic value propaganda
In the present day, Sanger’s family planning movement has been majorly opposed due to her Eugenic arguments leading to accusations of racial discrimination and classism. In one of her publications, she states ‘the most urgent problem today is how to limit and discourage the over-fertility of the mentally and physically defective.’ (Sanger, 1921) While she traditionally justified abortion based on potential developmental abnormalities or social hardship, scientific advances in prenatal diagnosis, particularly in post-Roe America, increased emphasis is laid on parental preference and self-assessment of familial capacity. This shift in the definition of Eugenics was reportedly initiated by the extreme ‘Eugenist’ genocide witnessed in the Holocaust from 1933. (McCurdy, 2015)
The short ethnography at the Cincinnati Surgical Center of Planned Parenthood was conducted on 10th April 2019, Wednesday at 1 pm in the afternoon. It was a continuous three-hour observation of the Auburn Avenue location of the medical institution and its surroundings. I entered the space with an initial literature review to understand the abortion laws.
I also must disclose my predetermined individual stance on the subject, which is certainly pro-choice and has been shaped by my personal experiences, values and knowledge. In light of different ‘field note accounts invoking and relying on different lenses to interpret, frame, and represent matters’ (Emerson, Fretz, Shaw, 2011), my individual perspective does emerge at certain instances in my field notes when I am unsettled by the pro-life activities around me. However, during the ethnography, my resocialization was limited as I deliberately disassociated from my position on the subject to be a neutral observer as well as a participant of the environment. I engaged in brief conversations with the people on site, none lasting more than 5 minutes, as the environment seemed to evoke solemnity (through my lens).
This study was certainly limited by time, and thus lacks the understanding a researcher may gain by actually immersing in the experiences of the organisations and ‘become skilled at activities they are seeking to understand’ (diamond 1992; Lynch 1985; Wacquant 2004) or, join churches or religious groups (Jules-Rosette 1975; Rockford 1985) on the grounds that by becoming members, they gain fuller insight and understanding into these groups. In order to bridge that gap, I conducted a follow-up literature review mostly focussed on the organisations and institutions that were identified in the field notes to understand the context of many occurrences in the ethnographic documentation.
At the site, I also procured and photographed some documents that were used in the activities I observed. I retrace their origins and purpose but do not elaborate on their content, to be able to base the findings primarily on the ethnographic observations itself.
Racial eugenic strategies
The most visibly evident majority of peaceful protestors was white older adults, seemingly over 60 years old. However, the majority of passersby were black and seemed to live around the area, as they were carrying grocery bags and were walking and not waiting for the bus. This difference was stark and can be explained by pro-life positionality to be directly related to the conservative ideology with 77% pro-lifers self-identifying as conservative in a poll in 2018. (Gallup News, 2018) This data can be combined with the information that white conservatives in America form 66% of the total conservative population (Pew Research Center, 2014) to understand the racial divide. Hence, the activists protesting the abortion services of Planned Parenthood were all caucasian even though a majority of the passersby were black.
This indicated the area might be a majority Black community, bringing in question Planned Parenthood’s eugenic selection advocacy, which has been deemed as racist at multiple points in history. 2010 US Census-based studies conducted by an African-American Pro-Life organisation Protecting Black Lives, show that 78 per cent of their total facilities are within walking distance (less than 2 miles) of Black and Hispanic/Latino communities, claiming that Planned Parenthood strategically targets minority communities for abortion (Enquen, 2015). However, on studying the census I identified more white teens than black and way more black older adults as compared to white. The population distribution by race of the neighborhood of Mt. Auburn consists of 3,233 Black or African-Americans and 1,453 Caucasians. The other minority races collectively form the other 98 (US Census, 2010). The racial composition by age is 15%-30% white and 60%-80% black in the age group 60-80+ years. However white young adults comprise 45%-60% of the population and 25%-40% black residents (US Census, 2010). Considering the target audience for Planned Parenthood is the young adults, the data contests racial discrimination in the eugenic strategy adopted by Planned Parenthood.
Another contention against Planned Parenthood is that they are strategically located next to schools and colleges to target ‘vulnerable young women’. (Enquen, 2015) The researched location is in fact at walking distance from over 20 education institutions, including religious schools, private schools, a public school, elementary and high schools, colleges and universities. But this claim doesn’t seem to address that the exact same location benefits apply to Crossroads Uptown(for example), a church at 0.5 miles from Planned Parenthood. This is an attribute of mere proximity and may or may not influence the community’s ideologies. The location itself alone is not substantial enough to prove the strategy to target vulnerable populations, hence re-ambiguating the alleged racist intentions of Planned Parenthood’s eugenics.
Banners and the new messaging
The messages heard on site, banners displayed by the activists and the various documents I photographed and collected on site, had several nuanced intentions that I trace in this section. In the broadest sense, the message from the activists towards Planned Parenthood was one of ‘praying for them’ or ‘asking for forgiveness on their behalf’, labelling them as sinners who needed the help of the church to redeem themselves. The visual language of the banners can be distinguished as undiplomatic, making a bold statement with display typefaces paired with heavy contrast backgrounds. The lack of additional design elements emphasizes the singular message in a matter-of-fact fashion. On investigating closely, most of the banners belonged to the Catholic church. But other private pro-life organisations also left banners tied to the fence, however with seemingly subtle signs of a brand name.
One of the organisations was Optionline.org identified under the sign that read ‘Abortion is NOT healthcare.’ However, their website has detailed descriptions of abortion as an option and how it varies at different stages of pregnancy. At the end of a long scroll of text-heavy information on each page, the very bottom holds a disclaimer that Option Line aims to spread accurate information but does not offer or refer anyone for abortion. Their main service is an online chatroom for post-abortion emotional healing. This ties in with the other clues I found in the church’s artefacts, such as their newsletter and pamphlets, in it that the current wave of the pro-life advocacy has an increased concentration on support resources. Support resources include chatroom, pregnancy care, health insurance, prenatal care, adoption centres and maternity shelters. Cincinnati Right to Life’ messaging in their newsletter (procured on site) as well the text on the back of the banners advocated pro-life ideologies as ‘the option’, which severely challenges the perception of pro-choice as the option-giving ideology. Pro-life is being framed as ‘the option’ in that there are resources available for a caregiver to explore and steer away from abortion as the resolution. The culpability of the activists and their messaging lies in the banal overuse of foetus and foetal parts as provocations of murder. The images intended to personify the foetus as a living being, in turn, seem to dehumanise and disrespect the nascent life due to the gory details.
A by-product of this high social activity zone outside Planned Parenthood is its commercial value for small businesses to advertise. Considering most of the protestors are Catholic older adults, one advertisement among others, was of customisable candles found stapled on electric poles around the area. Another banner simply read ‘Jobs? Abby Johnson’. I assumed it was a job portal catering to the target audience identified here. However, a keyword search on Google resulted in a blogging website of a former Planned Parenthood employee, sharing her transformation from pro-choice to anti-abortion based on her experience inside the institution. If she is communicating her story from pro-choice to pro-life, it is uncertain how effective her banner would be, for passersby to investigate with the given keywords.
Schools shaping ideologies
Many afternoons, Planned Parenthood is visited by groups of middle-school students. On the day of the ethnography, a uniformed group of 18 students came to Planned Parenthood, to put their arms around the fence with rosaries in their hands to pray for them. They seemed to be merely following instruction and reciting prayers led by the two teachers. They were reciting ‘Hail Mary’ which is a prayer of forgiveness for forbidding the fruit of the woman and they referred to Planned Parenthood as the sinners. The students did not seem truly involved. They were students on a field trip enjoying themselves and chatting, easily distracted when I passed by them. They recited the prayer in unison but appearing to be unmoved by the purpose of their visit. The choreographed photographs taken of the school group by other activists seemed to be the official documentation of the visit, which suggests that such visits and professing pro-life ideologies are a requirement in some schools.
Summary and Conclusions
Abortion is still a polarising issue much like its foundations in the early 1900s, but with an urgent threat presented by the current political scenario. The Roe V. Wade constitutional right to abortion is quite likely to be overturned due to the failing health of liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who is one of the crucial votes for the continued legalisation of abortion. (Linker, 2019)
There is a shift in the participation of pro-life private organisations, that are now taking the role of building a collection of resources and alternative services to protect the personhood of foetuses through advanced opportunities of external support from anyone who feels incapable to take care of a child. The attacks on Planned Parenthood are centred around their counselling methods that are perceived as persuasive towards abortion, in order to profit as a business.
In speculation, the vision of Margaret Sanger was launched at a time when society wasn’t ready and is misconstrued now that a large part of the population identifies as ‘moderate’ in ideology, which places them at the tipping point between liberal or conservative. If Planned Parenthood can bring back their eugenic value advocacy (Sanger, 1921), they might be able to diminish the ideological gap between the opponents, as they both seem to be targeting healthy personhood for each viable child.
Anon. 2010. Mt. Auburn, Statistical Neighborhood Approximation, US Census Data. Anon. 2014. Race and Ethnicity in Mt. Auburn, Cincinnati, Ohio.
Anon. “Cincinnati Right to Life, Life Issues.” Retrieved (https://cincinnatirighttolife.org/life-issues/abortion/).
Anon. n.d. “Option Line Website and Services.” Retrieved (https://optionline.org/options/undecided-overview/).
Enquen, Susan. 2015. “Planned Parenthood Update: Eugenics as Marketing Strategy.” Retrieved (https://www.protectingblacklife.org/planned-parenthood-update-eugenics-as-marketi ng-strategy/).
Gallup news. 2018. “Pro-Choice” or “Pro-Life,” 2018 Demographic Table.
Holland, Jennifer L. 2016. Abolishing Abortion: The History of the Pro-Life Movement in America.
Latson, Jennifer. 2015. “Why Birth Control Pioneer Margaret Sanger Kept Getting Arrested.” Time.Com, October 16.
Linker, Damon. 2019. “Why America Is Becoming More Polarized on Abortion.” The Week, January 30.
McCurdy, Stephen. n.d. “Abortion and Public Health: Time for Another Look.” SAGE Journals 83(1):20–25.
Pew Research Center. 2014. Racial and Ethnic Composition among the Unaffiliated by Political Ideology.
Primrose, Sarah. 2012. “The Attack on Planned Parenthood: A Historical Analysis.” UCLA Women’s Law Journal 19(2).