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Sex, laws and video tape: How Planned Parenthood became an enduring target of the GOP

A woman holds a birth control pill dispenser in New York in August 1974. (Jerry Mosey/AP)

The GOP has its knives out for Planned Parenthood.

Senate Republicans have said they will push for a procedural vote Monday to defund the women’s reproductive rights group.

[Rand Paul: Defund Planned Parenthood, fund community health centers instead]

Ostensibly, the vote is tied to the four now infamous videos, filmed covertly by antiabortion activists and featuring Planned Parenthood executives discussing in graphic detail how best to harvest fetal body parts.

Republicans have said they are shocked, disgusted and outraged over what they say is evidence of the group selling fetal tissue for profit. Planned Parenthood has denied the accusation and said the heavily edited videos are misleading.

Democrats have mostly backed the nonprofit and plan to block the vote. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton admitted the videos were “disturbing” but has also come out against Republican proposals to defund Planned Parenthood. The White House, meanwhile, has said the videos are the work of “extremists” and promised to veto any “ideologically driven” bill defunding Planned Parenthood.

[Undercover video shows Planned Parenthood official discussing fetal organs used for research]

Whatever happens Monday, however, this latest showdown is about more than a few grainy videos.

It’s really about Planned Parenthood itself: an organization that, for better or worse, has done more to change this country than almost any other in American history.

Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul is calling on Congress to defund Planned Parenthood. (Video: Rand Paul)

Lost in the frenzy of accusations and undercover footage is the fact that Planned Parenthood isn’t just the largest provider of contraception in America. Instead, Planned Parenthood practically invented contraception. The organization’s charismatic yet controversial founder, Margaret Sanger, made the birth control pill her life’s obsession. With the help of a handful of outcast doctors and a basement full of test bunnies, Sanger launched a sexual revolution.

But Sanger and her organization didn’t stop there.

Planned Parenthood has been at the center of a half century of legal battles as well: Supreme Court-level skirmishes that redefined Americans’ constitutional rights and led to some of the most important and polarizing decisions in U.S. history, from Roe v. Wade to Obergefell v. Hodges, the recent case that effectively legalized gay marriage.

From its clinics to the Supreme Court, Planned Parenthood has reshaped America.

[Opinion: Planned Parenthood and the barbarity of America]

Along the way, the nonprofit has also reshaped American political discourse. Planned Parenthood has persuaded liberal justices and politicians to expand women’s reproductive rights. But it has also become a bugaboo for conservatives: an easy and perennial target that can be instantly transformed into public enemy No. 1 in politically decisive moments.

“Planned Parenthood has become a lightning rod,” Jonathan Eig, the author of “The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution,” told The Washington Post.

“The bottom line is that in a very short amount of time, the pill and birth control have shaken up the world dramatically, maybe more dramatically than any other invention in our time,” Eig said. “That leads to some fallout. There are always going to be some people who resent that and that leads to some backlash.

“I think this is part of the backlash,” he said of the latest Planned Parenthood showdown.

Editor's note: Contains graphic language. The Center for Medical Progress released a video that allegedly shows a Planned Parenthood executive talking about selling fetal organs. (Video: The Center for Medical Progress)

The story of Planned Parenthood begins with Sanger, a woman Eig described in his book as “a sexy slip of a woman, a redheaded fireball of lust and curiosity” who was also doggedly obsessive in her efforts to liberate women.

Sanger was born in 1879 to a politically progressive family in the factory town of Corning, N.Y. Her mother had 11 children, a fact that Sanger blamed for her mother’s early death at age 50, according to Eig.

Sanger enrolled in nursing school but longed for more. “I wanted a world of action,” she wrote. “I longed for romance, dancing, wooing, experience.”

Despite her dreams and reservations, she married young and moved to New York City. It was in the teeming immigrant cauldron of Greenwich Village that Sanger would witness the toll childbirth took on her mother, only on a much greater scale.

“Sanger was astonished by the poverty and the misery: children sick, dirty, and underfed; tuberculosis rampant; and women seemingly unaware of how their own bodies worked and the risks of repeated pregnancies and venereal disease,” Eig wrote. “She watched women die because their bodies could not hold up against the strain of producing so many babies in such poor conditions, or because they used primitive birth-control devices that cause infection, or because butchers posing as abortionists botched their jobs.”

Abortion dates back to at least 1500 B.C. and the use of tampons covered in honey and crushed dates, according to Eig. But in Sanger’s time, the remedies women resorted to were more ruthless: Lysol, lye, gunpowder, leeches, needles, poison, hammers to the abdomen or simply throwing one’s self down the stairs.

These horrors led Sanger to an elegantly simple but maddeningly elusive solution: a pill that a woman could take — without a man’s involvement — to control if and when she had children.

Just as important, the pill would allow women to have sex for pleasure — a truly radical idea for a country still rooted in Victorian ideas of femininity.

Sanger knew how revolutionary such an invention could be.

“She was beginning to believe if sex were something disconnected from childbirth, women might be liberated in ways they’d never imagined,” Eig wrote. “Marriage would change. Human dynamics would change. The meaning of family would change. Career and educational opportunities for women would change.”

(Sanger, it should be pointed out, has been criticized for her ties to the eugenics movement. Some critics have accused her of racism, although historians have come to her defense. “I don’t think that’s fair,” Eig said of the accusations. “She did open work in Harlem and had W.E.B. DuBois on her board of directors. I think she worked with the eugenicists because they had some overlapping goals. I think it’s easy from today’s standards to say that she was a racist but by the standards of her day, I don’t think you’d say that. So I think it’s a cheap shot.”)

Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in Brooklyn in 1916, which was raided just 10 days later. Sanger was arrested and charged with the illegal distribution of birth-control products but claimed she was a political prisoner and refused to be fingerprinted.

Five years later, she founded the American Birth Control League, which was eventually renamed Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

For all her adult life, Sanger sought a “magic pill” to liberate women. She even experimented with herbs from Fiji, Eig wrote. But it was in 1950, at age 71, that Sanger would finally seize upon a practical solution.

By then, Sanger was famous. Planned Parenthood centers had slowly appeared in most American cities, although they could only offer condoms (which required a man’s cooperation) or less effective contraception such as diaphragms, douches and early versions of intrauterine devices (IUDs).

Post-war America was booming, including the sciences. And a new technique suddenly made it possible to mass produce progesterone, a hormone key to pregnancy.

Sanger approached a down-and-out scientist named Gregory “Goody” Pincus about using progesterone for birth control pills. Using a minuscule budget of $2,000, a cramped basement laboratory and a herd of rabbits as test subjects, Pincus and his small team created “the pill.”

It took five years to perfect the formula and almost as long to win government approval. But in 1960, the the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the pill as a contraceptive.

It didn’t take long for contraception cases to work their way up to the Supreme Court. In 1961, America’s top court refused to rule on a lawsuit challenging Connecticut’s law prohibiting contraception. The non-decision was a blow to the women’s rights movement, but it was only temporary.

Four years later, the same court would hand Margaret Sanger — now near death — and her movement a stunning victory.

Estelle Griswold, executive director of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut, sued the state to allow her to distribute contraception (she had been arrested for doing so against state law).

Griswold was not a radical, however, but a seasoned civil rights activist. And her lawsuit was a carefully crafted test case designed by the national birth control movement to upend the nearly nationwide ban on contraception.

Although unknown to most Americans, Griswold v. Connecticut would arguably become one of the most important Supreme Court cases of the 20th century.

On June 7, 1965, the court ruled 7-to-2 in favor of Griswold. Although the decision initially only enabled married couples to access birth control, that right would soon be opened to unmarried women as well.

Margaret Sanger’s vision had been fulfilled.

But Griswold v. Connecticut would have an even greater impact on America, sowing cultural conflict and court battles for years to come.

That’s because the case gave “birth to the modern right to privacy,” according to Yale law professor Reva B. Siegel. In a recent article titled “How Conflict Entrenched the Right to Privacy,” Siegel spelled out Griswold’s incredible impact on America.

“From Griswold’s understanding of ‘liberty’ grew the right to make decisions about abortion, and the right to engage in same-sex sex,” she wrote.

“Over the ensuing decades, pushed by growing movements debating the decriminalization of abortion and the decriminalization of same-sex sex, the Supreme Court progressively expanded Griswold’s reach, first extending the right to contraception to unmarried persons in the 1972 case of Eisenstadt v. Baird and then declaring in the 1973 case of Roe v. Wade that the ‘right of privacy . . . is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy,'” Siegel wrote.

Roe v. Wade, in particular, was a pivotal moment in American politics. It enabled Planned Parenthood and other clinics to openly and legally perform abortions, in the process helping to launch the “culture war” that still rages in some form today, more than 40 years later.

The decision, stemming from Sanger’s dogged pursuit of the pill, also shattered American politics.

“As we know, controversy escalated around these decisions,” Siegel wrote. “Architects of the New Right appealed to conflicts over race, sex, and other ‘social issues’ of the 1970s to attract traditional Democratic voters to the ranks of the Republican Party. This strategy helped elect Ronald Reagan president in 1980 on a campaign platform promising to appoint ‘judges at all levels of the judiciary who respect traditional family values and the sanctity of innocent human life.’ Once in office, President Reagan set out to nominate judges who would roll back liberal judicial decisions, elevating William Rehnquist to Chief Justice and appointing Sandra Day O’Connor and Antonin Scalia to the Supreme Court.”

In 1986, this increasingly conservative court ruled 5-to-4 to limit the privacy doctrine and uphold a state law against sodomy. The case, Bowers v. Hardwick, “signaled that Roe’s future was at risk,” Siegel wrote.

A year later, the court looked poised to shift even further to the right. Reagan nominated Robert Bork to Supreme Court. Bork was a fierce critic of the Griswold decision, calling it — in a phrase that echoes today — an “‘unprincipled’ usurpation of democratic authority unauthorized by the Constitution’s text,” according to Siegel.

But, in what would become a milestone for American politics and constitutional jurisprudence, Bork was famously grilled by the Senate Judiciary Committee, led by then-Sen. Joe Biden.

Backed by civil rights and reproductive rights groups, including Planned Parenthood, Biden famously asked Bork if he would allow the government to tell “a married couple . . . what they can or cannot do about birth control in their bedroom.”

“After days of televised hearings, many Senators and commentators pronounced Judge Bork as ‘outside the mainstream,’ polls ran against Judge Bork’s confirmation, and the Senate voted decisively with 42 senators voting in favor of, and 58 voting against, confirming him to the Supreme Court,” Siegel wrote.

Bork’s failure would have a double impact on the Supreme Court. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who would prove to be the swing vote in many left-leaning decisions, would take his place on the court. Just as important, even conservative nominees like Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. would have to publicly affirm the Griswold decision before taking the nation’s highest bench.

“In short, the wide-ranging conflict over Judge Bork’s confirmation helped entrench Griswold,” Siegel wrote. “After this great conflict, subsequent nominees concluded that Griswold, like Brown, was part of the constitutional canon — accepted as mainstream.”

In other words, a woman’s right to contraception was untouchable.

(The Griswold decision would go on to have even wider effects on America. As presciently predicted by Siegel in her article, published in March, the Supreme Court cited Griswold prominently in its June 25, 2015, Obergefell v. Hodges ruling that legalized same-sex marriage across the country.)

But birth control’s untouchable status didn’t mean Planned Parenthood stopped being a perennial target of the GOP.

Just the opposite.

Planned Parenthood’s crucial role not only in providing abortions but also in inventing the pill, establishing a woman’s right to privacy and undermining Bork has ensured that the nonprofit is one of the top public enemies for conservatives.

Starting shortly after Roe v. Wade, Planned Parenthood clinics became literal targets for some antiabortion activists. Over the years, several of the organization’s clinics have been set on fire. One was rammed by a man in an SUV.

The attacks are down from their peak in the ’70s and ’80s but still continue. In 2012, a Planned Parenthood clinic in the small town of Grand Chute, Wis., was damaged by a homemade explosive device placed on its windowsill. A year later, a man who said he opposed abortion was arrested after attacking a Planned Parenthood clinic in Indiana with an ax.

Increasingly, however, antiabortion activists have taken nonviolent and technologically savvy approaches to attacking Planned Parenthood.

In a 2000 incident almost identical to the present controversy, an antiabortion group claimed to have exposed the illegal sale of fetal tissue by a Planned Parenthood clinic in Kansas. The FBI looked into the matter, however, and concluded that the clinic did not break any laws.

In 2011, another incident involving Planned Parenthood became a national scandal. Using the same undercover video tactics that brought down ACORN in 2009, antiabortion activists posing as a pimp and a prostitute recorded a New Jersey Planned Parenthood clinic manager apparently advising the pair on how to obtain services for illegal immigrant prostitutes and sex workers as young as 14.

[Planned Parenthood fires worker caught on video]

Planned Parenthood said it was “shocked” by the video and fired the employee, but the fallout was serious. Republicans in Congress announced they were investigating the nonprofit, which, in turn, led Susan G. Komen, a leading breast-cancer charity, to pull its funding from Planned Parenthood.

[Susan G. Komen stops Planned Parenthood funding: Who does the decision hurt more?]

The current scandal is a near carbon copy of its predecessors, with undercover video and heavy — Planned Parenthood says misleading — editing used to discredit the organization.

“The attempt is to make it an emotional argument as opposed to a rational one, because rationally there is no argument,” Eig said. “Planned Parenthood isn’t doing anything illegal. This country makes abortion legal. Of course, there are some people who would rather that not be the case, and I understand that, but they are not attacking it legally, they are attacking it emotionally.”

[How Planned Parenthood videos set off a renewed wave of activism on abortion]

Eig admitted that it is a “tough moment” for Planned Parenthood because “the publicity has not made them look good. Nobody wants to hear the lurid details of any medical procedure,” he said.

But by threatening to defund Planned Parenthood, the GOP runs the risk of looking like its values are straight from the Victorian era, he said.

“I think the attitudes are the same” as back then, Eig said. “We are very uncomfortable with the idea of women having sex for pleasure. It’s okay for men. You look at a Viagra ad and it’s clearly saying that it’s okay for men to have sex for fun, but you could never run an ad like that for a women’s contraceptive product. It’s a completely double standard, and I think that’s really at the root of a lot of these attacks not just on Planned Parenthood but on reproductive rights.”

Eig went as far as to argue that “the straight line that runs through all these controversies, from 1916, when they opened the first clinic, to today, is sexism.”

“Some of it, of course, is religious and moral and there are people opposed to abortion on religious or moral grounds, but I still think that none of this would be happening if we were talking about medical treatments that were available to men,” he said. “I don’t think that men would allow anyone to take those medical options away from them and I don’t think you’d see an attack on a group like Planned Parenthood if not for sexism.”

Republicans disagree, claiming that Planned Parenthood has simply broken the law. Senator and presidential candidate Ted Cruz of Texas has called the nonprofit “a criminal enterprise that sells the body parts of unborn children.”

Amidst the undercover videos and allegations on display on Monday, one thing will be incontestable: Planned Parenthood remains at the center of America’s ever-raging culture war.