This Summer's Battle Over Abortion Rights Was The Most Fierce In Decades, Advocates On Both Sides Say

"We've taken this to a new level."

Congress will vote on — and very likely strike down — a federal budget bill that would defund Planned Parenthood later this week, capping the most recent protracted battle over abortion rights that advocates on both sides of the debate told BuzzFeed News was perhaps the most ferocious in history.

"I think this is one of the most aggressive attacks on abortion rights I've seen," Kate Michelman, former president of NARAL Pro-Choice America from 1985 to 2004, told BuzzFeed News.

"There’s no doubt this [fight] is a whole different animal," Troy Newman, the president of anti-abortion activist group Operation Rescue and Center for Medical Progress (CMP) agreed. "We've taken this to a new level."

The most recent months-long battle began in July, when CMP started releasing a series of secretly recorded and allegedly heavily edited sting videos accusing Planned Parenthood of profiting from the procurement of fetal tissue for medical research. A bill drafted the following day drew a failed Senate vote to defund Planned Parenthood in August, and later generated the threat of a government shutdown after a second defunding bill was passed on Friday.

Both groups agreed this summer's battle had a unique place in the history of the debate. Michelman believes this is due to a combination of anti-abortion activists' use of social media to "spread misinformation" and the decades-long buildup of state laws imposing restrictions on abortion clinics. Newman believes it is because people's "eyes are being opened to the rhetoric of the other side."

"Thanks to the videos, the fight is no longer about a woman's right to decide ... about pro-choice versus pro-life," Newman told BuzzFeed News. "It's about people seeing the humanity of the unborn child and the inhumanity of the abortion providers on full display."

What the anti-abortion activists do well that the pro-abortion activists don't is "mustering public, moral emotions in their favor," Emily Winderman, an academic at University of Georgia and expert in abortion rhetoric, told BuzzFeed News. Most of the political and social success anti-abortion activists have had since the the early 1970s, Winderman said, have been when they are able to elicit feelings of disgust from both sides of the aisle. "Disgust is an extremely necessary and powerful emotion."

Before Roe v. Wade ruled that abortion was a right, Winderman said, the pro-abortion rights side had images and tales of back-alley abortions and the horrors that women had to face in a country where abortion was illegal. "Now that people take access to birth control and safe abortion for granted," Celeste Condit, a UGA professor who has been writing about abortion rhetoric since the 1980s told BuzzFeed News, "the ability to use really graphic emotional associations lies with the other side," with anti-abortion activists.

Anti-abortion picketers have stood outside of abortion clinics with images of bloody fetuses for decades, said Dawn Johnsen, a former member of President Bill Clinton's administration and expert in constitutional and reproductive rights law. She and Michelman both brought up an effort from anti-abortion groups in the 1980s and early 1990s in which they spread medically unfounded rumors that abortion caused infertility and cancer.

Now, because of the ease and accessibility of the internet, this method is more effective than ever before, Johnsen and Michelman agreed. "Social media is excellent at communicating incorrect information ... preying on negative attitudes and bringing them to a boiling point," Michelman said. The methods used by anti-abortion activists aren't much different than they were 20 years ago, Johnsen said. "It's just more than ever before."

The CMP videos are also "a new level of intimidation" that Johnsen said she had never seen before. They were filmed over three years by actors posing as a biotech research company with the government registration to prove it. Abortion providers are used to being harassed by picketers, receiving death threats, or even having a bounty placed on their heads, Johnsen said. But now, "they have to worry about every single person they talk to, every word of every two-hour conversation they have. Even with people supposedly vetted by the government. ... It's psychological warfare."

In the month after the videos were first released, 13 Republican governors from around the country opened investigations into Planned Parenthood — none of which found any legal violations. Other state legislators defunded Planned Parenthood and passed legislation restricting abortion-providing health clinics.

By the end of the summer, Planned Parenthood began an aggressive countercampaign. They commissioned an analysis of the videos, which found they were deceptively edited to make the doctors appear to be replying to questions they were not asked. (CMP is also facing other legal issues: The group received subpoenas from the attorney general of Arizona, and the National Abortion Federation filed a federal civil lawsuit against CMP claiming conspiracy to defraud.)

Michelman, Johnsen, and Newman all agreed that these elements made up one of the most aggressive fights from both sides they had seen in decades.

Planned Parenthood also pursued legal action state-by-state, in Louisiana, Alabama, Florida, Ohio, and, most recently, Texas, challenging seemingly innocuous pieces of legislation being passed that — often through loopholes — threaten to shut down dozens of Planned Parenthood clinics.

"Many of these laws sound reasonable individually, but there is a cumulative effect that people don't talk about," Johnsen said. "More restrictive legislation has been passed in the past 3 years than the past 10, but the new and old [laws] often end up contradicting each other and making it impossible for clinics to function at all."

An illustration of these types of laws can be found in a civil rights case Planned Parenthood filed against Ohio's Department of Health in early September. An injunction in the case seeks to block a law — signed by Ohio Gov. John Kasich in June — that Planned Parenthood says creates a legal impasse. The new law builds on one passed in 2013 requiring all abortion clinics to have a patient transfer agreement with a local hospital in case of an emergency at the clinic. If a clinic doesn't have such an agreement, the 2013 law says, it needs to apply for an exemption from the Ohio Department of Health. This poses religious and geographic issues for clinics in the southwestern part of the state. Those clinics have applied for exemptions but said they have been waiting nearly two years to receive them.

The new law passed this year requires clinics to receive the exemption within 60 days or be shut down. Should Planned Parenthood's injunction not be granted, the clinics would probably be closed before the end of September — displacing an estimated 5,500 patients in Cincinnati and Dayton. The closest abortion clinics would then be in Columbus or Cleveland, roughly one to four hours away. Gov. Kasich's office declined to comment and referred BuzzFeed News to the Ohio DOH, where officials said they do not comment on pending litigation.

Michelman told BuzzFeed News that similar tactics have been employed by anti-abortion politicians since the 1980s. "They chip away at the ability of women to exercise their right to decide through an unrelenting assault on the capacity of clinics to provide the service." It is not new, but is now becoming more effective than ever before. "Our greatest fear is that women will have a shell of a right with no substance to that right," Michelman said. "And it's getting worse."

"Women’s anger has historically been disciplined and dismissed. ... It's time for us to be angry for the right reasons."

Most of the veteran activists on both sides of the debate spoke of the history of the nation's attitude toward abortion as "pendulum-like" or "occurring in waves." Every decade, it seems, the national rhetoric seemed to be pro-abortion, then the next, anti-abortion.

"In the 1990s all a candidate had to do was say they were pro-choice to get elected," Carol Tobias, president of the anti-abortion group National Right to Life told BuzzFeed News — a point Newman also made separately in nearly identical wording — and throughout the 2000s the pendulum has slowly swung back to the right. So, where will it swing next?

"Abortion is gonna go the same way Nazism, slavery, and Stalinism went," Newman said. "Planned Parenthood is going the way of the 8-track, the VHS tape, and now DVDs." Other than the success of this summer's campaign against Planned Parenthood, both Newman and Tobias think abortion is "becoming extinct."

Winderman held that the best way for pro-abortion rights activists to win back the nation's rhetoric is by following the example of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, whose motto is "be brave and angry."

"Women’s anger has historically been disciplined and dismissed," Winderman told BuzzFeed News. "It's time for [Planned Parenthood and its supporters] to be angry for the right reasons," which, according to Winderman, include the threat making abortion inaccessible to women poses to their health, particularly for impoverished women unable to travel long distances to attain legal abortions. "We've seen what happens when legal abortion is inaccessible in the past," Michelman added. "What makes anyone think it will be different now?"

The best possible result of this summer's tumult over Planned Parenthood, said Eric Ferrero, vice president of communications for Planned Parenthood, is to get people not previously involved in the pro-abortion rights debate.

"In the end what these extremists will actually spark is an outpouring from people who are enraged that this is happening," he said. "Those are the ones who will make the difference."

Skip to footer