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.
The organization first waded into presidential politics in 2004, when it threw its support behind Democratic Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), who unsuccessfully challenged incumbent Republican George W. Bush, an abortion opponent. The group also endorsed Barack Obama when he ran for president against Republican Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) in 2008.
Feldt said the organization has been increasingly forced to rely on Democrats for support in Congress as the number of socially moderate Republican allies dwindled or became more fearful of primary challenges.
In February only seven GOP House members voted against an amendment sponsored by Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) to eliminate federal funding for Planned Parenthood.
“There has always been a real attempt to remain nonpartisan,” Feldt said. “But it has become harder and harder to find pro-choice Republicans.”
But Tom McClusky, senior vice president of the Family Research Council Action fund, a socially conservative group, said that by shifting its giving to mostly Democrats, Planned Parenthood has contributed to the defeat of possible Republican allies.
“They got greedy,” he said.
McClusky said that Planned Parenthood is viewed by Republicans as part of the liberal coalition that includes teachers unions and other progressive groups that push for Democratic programs, such as the health care overhaul approved last year.
Social conservatives point to the growing legal and political activity by Planned Parenthood as a key reason the group has become more of a partisan target.
“Planned Parenthood’s mission and political activity has changed significantly,” said Clarke Forsythe, senior counsel for Americans United for Life, an anti-abortion group that supported Republican efforts to eliminate funds for Planned Parenthood.
He said Planned Parenthood’s reputation has been sullied by the recent scandal in which an anti-abortion group, Live Action, made an undercover video of a clinic manager advising someone disguised as a sex trafficker asking about care for under-aged prostitutes.
Some conservative groups, including the Family Research Council, have also attacked the philosophy of Planned Parenthood’s founder Margaret Sanger, an early birth control advocate who they say embraced the eugenics movement in the early part of the last century.
Herman Cain, an African-American conservative businessman who has indicated interest in running for president, recently accused Sanger of setting up birth control clinics in black neighborhoods, “so they could help kill black babies before they came into the world.” This assertion, however, has been debunked by the fact-checking group PolitiFact in Georgia.
Even though Democrats rebuffed Republicans’ effort to cut Planned Parenthood funding in the recent budget deal — instead, Republicans are getting a separate vote on the Planned Parenthood funding — Forsythe said the group’s critics haven’t given up.
“This is not just one skirmish,” he said.
Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of public policy and advocacy of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, admitted that in Congress the abortion debate has become more partisan.
“The House Republicans have become a tougher audience for Planned Parenthood,” she said, but in the Senate the group still has allies among moderate Republicans.
Laguens also said that according to recent polls, the public is currently siding with Planned Parenthood. In a CNN poll conducted April 9-10, almost two-thirds of respondents said the federal government should continue funding Planned Parenthood.
The recent battle does appear to have bolstered Planned Parenthood’s fundraising. Spokesman Tait Sye said the number of online donations increased 500 percent in February and March.
Laguens said the group is unlikely to expand its lobbying team in response to the budget challenge. Last year, Planned Parenthood spent $483,904 on federal lobbying, according to filings with Congress, including a six-person in-house team and a contract with the Glover Park Group, a lobbying and public relations shop.
In addition, Planned Parenthood of California spent $120,000 and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund spent $112,458 on federal lobbying last year.