Planned Parenthood wasn’t always such a partisan lightning rod.
In the 1960s and 1970s the organization that has recently become the prime target of House Republicans drew the support of prominent members of the Grand Old Party.
President Richard Nixon signed family-planning legislation in 1970 that authorized federal funding for groups such as Planned Parenthood, which Republicans now want to cut. Former Sen. Barry Goldwater’s wife, Peggy, was a founding member of Planned Parenthood in Arizona. And George H.W. Bush, as a Republican Congressman from Houston, spoke so frequently on the House floor about the issue that he was tagged with an eyebrow-raising nickname.
“He was so supportive of family planning that people called him ‘Rubbers,’” said Gloria Feldt, who was national president of Planned Parenthood from 1996 until 2005.
This support did not mean that Planned Parenthood was controversy-free. Bush’s father, Prescott Bush, lost his first bid for Senate in Connecticut in 1950 after receiving criticism from a syndicated columnist and church officials over his role in supporting Planned Parenthood. The elder Bush was treasurer of the family planning group’s first national fundraising campaign.
But divisions didn’t so neatly break down along party lines back then.
“Family planning has always been a bipartisan issue. Everybody has sex,” said Feldt, who also headed Planned Parenthood’s West Texas affiliate in Midland, where the Bush family settled, and the Arizona chapter backed by the Goldwaters.
Such bipartisan consensus, however, began to fall apart with the legalization of abortion and the growing role of religious conservatives in the Republican Party.
The 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion fueled Planned Parenthood’s growth as an abortion provider, but it also galvanized abortion opponents nationwide.
By 1980, the “right-to-life” movement was a key pillar of the conservative coalition that helped elect Ronald Reagan, an anti-abortion Republican president whose administration sought to impose restrictions on groups receiving family planning funds.
Laura Woliver, a professor of political science and expert in women’s studies at the University of South Carolina, said as states adopted restrictions that made it harder for smaller independent abortion providers to survive, Planned Parenthood stepped into the vacuum.
“Planned Parenthood is the most visible and branded,” abortion provider, Woliver said. While it is the nation’s largest abortion provider, Planned Parenthood says that abortion accounts for only 3 percent of its services.
The group says the vast majority of its services are in the areas of contraception and other aspects of women’s health, such as pap smears, tests for sexually transmitted infections and breast cancer screenings.
Although federal dollars allotted to Planned Parenthood cannot be used for abortion services, critics charge that the funding gives the group flexibility to shift other money to its abortion clinics.
To respond to the increasing challenges to its funding and protests around abortion clinics, Planned Parenthood has stepped up its lobbying, legal and political efforts over the past three decades.
In the 1990s the group created a political action fund to support candidates who backed family planning issues, and over the past decade political giving by the Planned Parenthood Action Fund has increasingly tilted Democrat.
In the last election cycle, all but $2,000 of the $346,846 that the Planned Parenthood Action Fund contributed to candidates and political parties was given to Democrats.