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Historical Overview of Planned Parenthood

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​The fierce political debate surrounding abortion in the United States boils down to a back-and-forth between politicians on each side of the spectrum, writing bills to support their agenda and subsequently fighting the opposition—this can be said for attempts to both expand and reduce access to the medical procedure. At the heart of the debate is an organization that has made a name for itself by showing no fear in their willingness to get in the ring and fight a few rounds on behalf of access to women’s health care, including abortion, and that is Planned Parenthood. As the largest abortion provider in the United States, it’s not shocking to find them at the epicenter of the conversation, but it might be more surprising to learn how they got there (O’Brien 2019). The first Planned Parenthood opened its doors in 1946—but it wasn’t until we got closer to the passage of Roe v. Wade that the organization started throwing its weight around in the political arena in support of pro-choice movements, and in result, garnered more attention from politicians (Britannica Editorial Staff 2019). But to fully understand their position in the debate, it is necessary to take a closer look, and perhaps not in the place you once thought. Planned Parenthood’s stance has always been apparent, but what’s worth examining is how the opposition took shape over the second half of the 20th century. Abortion’s original opponent was the medical community, and the religious community wasn’t even participating until they sought to continue segregation and needed a political ally. As these communities morphed over time, the stage was slowly set for the abortion debate, and Planned Parenthood’s role came by way of both political action and a desire to help low-income families.

Based on much of what is told through the media present-day, it’s easy to assume that religious leaders were always leading the charge against abortion access—but the original detractors were actually physicians. The American Medical Association worked to outlaw abortion in the late 1800s, as they believed that following fertilization, a new human life would take shape if no one interfered. Additionally, on a moral basis, they felt that taking that “life” was wrong and undermined what was believed to be a woman’s traditional role at the time. There was also a practical concern that midwives, who were willing to offer abortions, would begin to steal patients from physicians (“A Brief History of US Abortion Law, Before and After Roe v Wade” 2019). Their disapproval proved successful, and “by 1880, every state in America had introduced criminal abortion laws (making narrow exceptions when the procedure was needed to save a woman’s life” (“A Brief History of US Abortion Law, Before and After Roe v Wade” 2019). This position held for several decades, until improvements were made in obstetric and gynecological care in the 1930s and 40s, and a faction of doctors began calling for legal reform.

Convinced of the wrongful nature of abortion laws that made the procedure illegal even when women would suffer adverse health consequences by continuing with the pregnancy, some doctors demanded reform. In 1959, the American Law Institute (ALI), a group of legal experts, released a draft proposal that would make abortion legal in cases of fetal abnormality, rape or incest, or when there was a threat to the woman’s health (“A Brief History of US Abortion Law, Before and After Roe v Wade” 2019).

This shift in physicians’ attitudes started to move the needle, and on the state level, the ALI model law was getting passed. Abortion access was expanding, and in 1970, Planned Parenthood started providing them at their New York location (The History & Impact of Planned Parenthood 2019). In the same year, just three years shy of federal legalization through Roe v. Wade, the American Medical Association publicly softened its position and said decisions on abortion should be made between a woman and her doctor (Rovner 2019). And while there was a rogue moment in 1997 when the AMA supported a GOP-backed measure against abortion, they are now ardent supporters who have joined in fighting legal battles for access to the procedure. In 2019, the American Medical Association sued two states for regulations they claim put physicians in a position where they would be forced by law to commit ethical violations (Rovner 2019). Just as the opinions of medical professionals morphed over time, so did those who fight to criminalize the procedure.

​Religious communities were not originally part of the political debate on abortion—some of them even supported the passage of Roe v. Wade. Both before and after the landmark Supreme Court case, the evangelical community refrained from involvement in the political debate on abortion. According to researcher Randall Balmer:

In 1968, for instance, a symposium sponsored by the Christian Medical Society and Christianity Today, the flagship magazine of evangelicalism, refused to characterize abortion as sinful, citing “individual health, family welfare, and social responsibility” as justifications for ending a pregnancy. In 1971, delegates to the Southern Baptist Convention in St. Louis, Missouri, passed a resolution encouraging “Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.” The convention, hardly a redoubt of liberal values, reaffirmed that position in 1974, one year after Roe, and again in 1976 (Balmer 2014).

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When Roe v. Wade passed in 1973, W. Barry Garrett of Baptist Press wrote of the ruling, “religious liberty, human equality, and justice are advanced by the Supreme Court abortion decision” (Balmer 2014). These supportive sentiments, of course, are a far cry from what is seen from those same communities today, who have appeared in the news protesting outside of abortion clinics with signs reading “baby killer in hell.” For such a dramatic shift to occur, we must look closer at another complicated and historic human rights debate: segregation.

​Years before Roe v. Wade reached the Supreme Court, judges were deciding on another landmark case—Brown v. Board of Education. In 1954, they ruled in favor of Brown to require all public schools to desegregate. After the ruling, it was a slow-moving process, and states with deeply racist beliefs sought ways around integration. In an attempt to access a loophole within the ruling, private schools began popping up where administrators could once again segregate the student body. But this, too, eventually found its way to the Supreme Court, with Green v. Kennedy in 1970 (and eventually became Green v. Connally when John Connally replaced David Kennedy as Secretary of Treasury). Judges again ruled in favor of desegregation and stripped tax-exempt status from “segregation academies”—Christian schools that were founded in response to Brown v. Board of Education in an attempt to prevent African-American students from attending (Balmer 2014). The IRS took an active role in preventing these types of institutions from skirting their tax-paying duties and began sending out questionnaires to the religious academies asking about their racial policies. This agitated some religious leaders who supported segregation. In a move to defy the Supreme Court, Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist college in South Carolina, refused African-American students’ admittance, arguing that racial segregation was mandated by the Bible. The IRS inquired directly with the university about their segregation practices, and the university made mild attempts to placate them. As Randall Balmer explains:

Following initial inquiries into the school’s racial policies, Bob Jones admitted one African-American, a worker in its radio station, as a part-time student; he dropped out a month later. In 1975, again in an attempt to forestall IRS action, the school admitted blacks to the student body, but, out of fears of miscegenation, refused to admit unmarried African-Americans. The school also stipulated that any students who engaged in interracial dating, or who were even associated with organizations that advocated interracial dating, would be expelled (Balmer 2014).

The IRS was not satisfied, and in January of 1976, they rescinded Bob Jones University’s tax exemption; in that moment, evangelical leaders were galvanized. “As Elmer L. Rumminger, longtime administrator at Bob Jones University, told me in an interview, the IRS actions against his school ‘alerted the Christian school community about what could happen with government interference in the affairs of evangelical institutions. ‘That was really the major issue that got us all involved” (Balmer 2014).

​As evangelicals were stirring, Paul Weyrich, a religious conservative, saw an opening to use a large number of Christians within the Republican Party to create a “formidable voting bloc” to push back on segregation (Balmer 2014). However, as Jaclyn Friedman writes, “they knew that organizing rank-and-file evangelicals to explicitly defend racism would be a harder sell” (Friedman 2017). The opposition movement was a slow build—but during the 1978 Senate races, just five years after Roe v. Wade, abortion was still a hot-button issue and “many Americans—not just Roman Catholics—were beginning to feel uneasy about the spike in legal abortions” (Balmer 2014). Following some organization on behalf of the evangelicals and negotiations with Republican leadership, “a deal was struck: evangelicals would help elect Republicans, and Republicans would become the party that opposed abortion and sexual freedom in a general while, of course, defending the church’s right to be as racist as it wants to be” (Friedman 2017). Simultaneously, the “Stop ERA” campaign was forging ahead with Christian rights leader Phyllis Schlafly at the helm, looking to wipe out the Equal Rights Amendment, which banned sex discrimination. As Amanda Marcotte explains, “By the time Christian conservative leaders like Weyrich and Falwell decided to make abortion a centerpiece issue, Schlafly had done the yeoman’s work of convincing huge numbers of evangelical Christians that feminists were a threat to the very fabric of society. With hostility to women’s equality rising, making the anti-abortion pitch was probably much, much easier” (Marcotte 2014). The stage was set, and the attack on abortion was underway.

​In this complicated web of history and politics, where does Planned Parenthood fit in as the modern-day target? Just as the opposition’s buildup was slow, so was Planned Parenthood’s recognition as a both an accessible abortion provider and a force against the Religious Right. They first jumped into the political arena when acting as a plaintiff in Griswold v. the State of Connecticut in 1965, where the Supreme Court ruled to allow married couples access to contraception (Britannica Editorial Staff 2019). They also joined the grassroots movement to legalize abortion, which led to the historic ruling in Roe v. Wade in 1973. Then, in 1992, they sued then-governor of Pennsylvania Robert Casey over his newly-enacted abortion statutes—and they won. In that ruling, the Supreme Court upheld Roe v. Wade and prevented states from restricting a woman’s access to abortion within her first trimester (Britannica Editorial Staff 2019). As their recognition within the abortion debate grew, they simultaneously became a target for anti-abortion protestors. According to the National Abortion Federation, there were 6,550 violent incidents against abortion providers, including Planned Parenthood, between 1977 and 2012 (Kohut 2015). It’s also worth noting that, with the help of Title X funding, Planned Parenthood provided affordable healthcare options to people with low income or no health insurance. According to a 2017 study by Kaiser Family Foundation, the racial groups with the highest rates of poverty in the United States are black, Hispanic, and American Indian/Alaska Native (“Poverty Rate by Race/Ethnicity” 2017). Given the racist roots of the Religious Right movement, it fractures the abortion debate into potentially new ways of understanding why, just this month, the Trump administration moved to once again “defund” Planned Parenthood—ultimately removing their ability to use federal funding to provide cancer and STI screenings, birth control, breast exams, and more, to low-income women. While Planned Parenthood is publicly fighting this battle, it may just be a pawn for those who are looking to win the war.

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Historical Overview of Planned Parenthood. (2022, December 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved September 24, 2023, from
“Historical Overview of Planned Parenthood.” Edubirdie, 27 Dec. 2022,
Historical Overview of Planned Parenthood. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 24 Sept. 2023].
Historical Overview of Planned Parenthood [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Dec 27 [cited 2023 Sept 24]. Available from:
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