Planned Parenthood — the New Election-Day Giant

Planned Parenthood — the New Election-Day Giant

The organization’s advocacy arm offers thousands of newly politically energized volunteers the resources and training to become seasoned activists. What does that mean for the abortion-rights movement—and the left?

November 5, 2018

Most people either weren’t home or were ignoring the Saturday-morning knocks on their doors. But the Planned Parenthood volunteers, their pink hats and T-shirts contrasting brightly with the blue-gray sky over Norristown, Pennsylvania, were undeterred.

The dozen canvassers who arrived in Norristown, a working-class, racially diverse borough just outside of Philadelphia, on a cool and breezy October morning were a mix of seasoned volunteer door-knockers, Planned Parenthood staff, and newcomers who hadn’t been of voting age in the 2016 presidential election. Before dividing up into pairs, veteran canvasser Manny Lampon showed Abby Peabody and Sophie Auerbach, both 19, how to use an app called Minivan to record information about their interactions. Conveying lessons he’d learned in his years of talking to total strangers, Lampon went through the script.

It was less than three weeks before the midterm elections, and the canvassers were talking to Norristown residents about supporting the re-election of Democratic Governor Tom Wolf. Auerbach, a sophomore at nearby Ursinus College, knocked on a door while Lampon stood back at the bottom of the steps. Auerbach introduced herself to the man who answered the door and asked him what issues were most important to him in the upcoming elections. He said something about getting rid of “those idiots in Washington.”

“I know what you mean,” Auerbach said cautiously, before explaining that Planned Parenthood was backing Wolf because of his support for abortion rights and women’s health. The man nodded politely, and thanked her when she handed him a card, then shut the door without committing to vote for Wolf.

“I’m not sure who he meant by ‘idiots,’” she said as she walked down the path, debating how to categorize the interaction in the app. Auerbach had interned with Planned Parenthood and was starting a Planned Parenthood group at her small school through the organization’s Generation Action program. After the 2016 presidential election, more than 20,000 student members joined the program, which now has more 50,000 members at more than 350 campus groups across the country.

Like many progressive organizations in the months immediately after Donald Trump’s election, Planned Parenthood saw a huge influx of support, not just in monetary donations, but in volunteer sign-ups: Of the organization’s 12 million supporters, two million joined following the 2016 election. For most of its history, Planned Parenthood—unlike other reproductive-rights groups—had largely shunned this kind of direct political action because of its status as a direct-services health-care organization. In recent years, however, Planned Parenthood has abandoned its attempt to appear apolitical and become a formidable grassroots operation, instrumental in turning out voters for progressive candidates and issues—and in turning first-time volunteers into trained organizers.

(Photo: Amanda Teuscher)

Planned Parenthood canvassers Sophie Auerbach, left, and Manny Lampon knock on doors in Norristown, Pennsylvania, on October 20, 2018.


PLANNED PARENTHOOD’S CONTINUED growth isn’t just a result of renewed energy on the left, though that is undoubtedly part of it. Cecile Richards, who became the organization’s president in 2006, realized that the group had become a favorite right-wing political target despite its avoidance of direct political action—and responded by creating a wing of the organization explicitly devoted to direct political action. Following Trump’s election—after a campaign in which he denigrated women and signaled the advent of a government opposed to reproductive rights—Planned Parenthood played a key role in building the resistance and helping women translate their anger into political action. (In 2018, 235 women nominees are running for U.S. House seats, up from 167 just two years ago.)

Earlier this year, Richards announced that she would be stepping down as president, and in  September, the organization announced that Baltimore’s commissioner of health, Dr. Leana Wen, would succeed her, the first time in half a century that a doctor would lead the group. Richards had brought decades of experience in union and political organizing and progressive coalition-building that had bolstered the organization as it withstood attacks on both the state and federal levels from anti-abortion politicians and activists. But the shift to building political power was also one of necessity, says Deirdre Schifeling, the executive director of Planned Parenthood Votes, part of the organization’s political arm.

Like Richards, Schifeling also came out of union organizing, and had previously worked for the Democratic caucus in the New York State Senate before joining Planned Parenthood in the middle of 2010, just before the Tea Party wave swept a slate of far-right candidates into statehouses and federal office. Few were prepared for the level of attack that came after. “When I came in, we had five staff and $900,000 to run our whole national program,” she recalls. “We were still in the middle of this culture change, from a social-service orientation, where our job is to help people, to a power-building orientation, where our job is to still help people, but through politics.”

The shock of the 2010 midterms made it clear to people in the organization that their political organizing had to ramp up. Before that year, Schifeling says, “there was a definitely a feeling across the federation that maybe we could skid under the radar, just stay quiet, don’t be too loud, don’t be too aggressive, because then we’ll draw more attention. That clearly didn’t work as a strategy.”

By 2012, Schifeling had grown her team, but she says she could see that the organization, both nationally and in its state-level affiliates, lacked a unified approach to how to develop that political power. Using staff members’ experience in union organizing and community organizing, they created a training program called Path to Power that remains today the foundation for all Planned Parenthood trainings. Having that “shared approach” across all affiliates proved necessary in the years that followed: According to the Guttmacher Institute, from 2011 to 2016, state lawmakers passed 338 abortion restrictions30 percent of all such restrictions since the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.

To increase their organizing capacity in the states, Planned Parenthood hired regional campaign directors to work with state affiliates. “Having that layer of support is critical, and it lets us have a closer tie to what’s happening on the ground,” Schifeling says.

On the national level, as Rachel Cohen wrote in the Prospect in 2015, “the clout and moral credibility” that Planned Parenthood gained under Richards’s leadership ensured that congressional Democrats provided a unified check against repeated Republican attempts to use spending bills to defund the organization. As the attacks intensified in the lead-up to the 2016 election—including the release in 2015 of deceptive videos purporting to show the organization profiting from the sale of fetal tissue—there was no escaping the spotlight on Planned Parenthood and the political force it had acquired. The 2016 presidential election was the organization’s largest independent expenditure in its history—a combined $30 million, twice the amount in 2012.

(Photo: Benjamin Shmikler/ABImages via AP Images)

Former Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards on February 23, 2017.

“We are so thrilled that Planned Parenthood stepped up finally, under Cecile Richards,” says National Organization for Women (NOW) President Toni Van Pelt. “We had been asking them, begging them, to please start a 501c(4) [the legal designation for the political wing of a nonprofit organization], please start becoming involved. … Because for so long, they wouldn’t do it because they accepted government funding and they were worried about being seen as partisan. And finally they realized they were under so much attack that they had to start doing this political work.”

“Planned Parenthood is almost thrust into a political position,” says Marlene Gerber Fried, a professor of philosophy at Hampshire College and long-time reproductive rights activist who was founding president of the National Network of Abortion Funds. “It can’t just put its head down and say, ‘We’re just running the clinics.’ Every aspect of what PP does … is under attack. You just kind of have to take up the mantle, and Planned Parenthood also has the resources to do some of the combat that other groups don’t have.”

Planned Parenthood’s unique position as a health-care provider that relies heavily on Medicaid reimbursements had often made it act more cautiously than other groups, an approach that some abortion-rights activists had sometimes privately found frustrating. For a time, a number of activists criticized a Planned Parenthood talking point—that just 3 percent of its services were abortion-related—for stigmatizing abortion, something groups like the 1 in 3 Campaign and Reproaction have been working to change. In recent years, however, Planned Parenthood has taken steps to be more unapologetic about supporting abortion rights. “I still hear people use the 3 percent statistic, so it’s a pernicious thing that’s hard to get away from,” says Erin Matson, a co-founder and co-director of Reproaction. “But I recently attended a Planned Parenthood event where they were giving away free T-shirts that said ‘abortion’ on the front. That has changed [in the last three years].”


AN APRIL 2018 Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that a remarkable one in five Americans had attended a political rally since the election, and of those people, a fifth had never before participated in such an event. For many, threats to reproductive rights were a primary reason they’d chosen to rally or march. Planned Parenthood suddenly had two million more supporters, from different parts of the country and with varying levels of prior political experience. It needed give those new volunteers something to do while the energy was still high—and it needed to do that fast: 2017 would see three attempts by the Republican Congress to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA), each of which would have defunded Planned Parenthood.

“We saw hundreds of thousands of folks going to our website, wanting to do more,” says Kelley Robinson, the national organizing director. Digital organizing tools are a key way for Planned Parenthood to maintain connections to its members. One tool, myRVP, helps new supporters volunteer at a level of engagement they’re comfortable with. The user enters contact information for friends and family members (RVP stands for “relational voting program”), and the app matches those personal contacts with voter files, allowing the volunteer to have conversations in whatever way makes the most sense for a particular relationship. “It’s one of the new tools that takes the work to the next level,” Robinson says.

The week after Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, Planned Parenthood introduced its “Defenders” program, which currently has nearly 100,000 members who have signed up to take online action or contact elected officials every week. Within two weeks of the launch, Planned Parenthood says that there were more than 600 meet-ups across the country. And when House Republicans made their first attempt of the year to repeal the ACA in March, thousands of the Defenders showed up at representatives’ offices, alongside disability-rights activists, before the bill was pulled on March 24.

With so many energized supporters—who’d stayed involved to counter the many administrative and congressional actions to curtail reproductive freedom—Planned Parenthood began thinking big about the 2018 midterms. The organization’s total investment in this year’s election is $20 million, but through its partnership with the Win Justice coalition (which also includes the Service Employees International Union, the Center for Community Change Action, and ColorOfChange PAC), the 2018 effort almost reaches 2016’s $30 million investment. The electoral program is targeting Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, and Planned Parenthood is coordinating with federal campaigns in New Jersey, Virginia, California, Arizona, and Missouri. Planned Parenthood Votes and local advocacy organizations are spending more than $4 million in 24 key House races in those states, reaching more than half a million voters through canvassing, digital ads, and mail.

(Photo: Amanda Teuscher)

Planned Parenthood organizer Danitra Sherman, left, waits for a resident to come to the door in Norristown, Pennsylvania, as volunteer Abby Peabody looks on.

One of those House districts, Ohio’s 12th, made national news back in early August, when a special election was held to fill the seat of Republican Pat Tiberi, who resigned earlier in the year. The district, which had been held by a Republican for decades, saw a close race in which the Democratic candidate, Danny O’Connor, came within one percentage point of Republican Troy Balderson. A few weeks later, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Ohio (PPAO) joined groups including the Human Rights Campaign, NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio, and Conservation Ohio for a canvass in Gahanna, a Columbus suburb on the border between Ohio’s 12th and Third Districts.

On this day, the canvassers, many of whom had campaigned for O’Connor the previous month, were knocking on doors in support of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Richard Cordray, the former head of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, and were talking with residents about health care and their opposition to the recent nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Earlier in the afternoon, the volunteers had met in a downtown Columbus office to divide into pairs and get their turf assignments. Some of the volunteers who were there that day had knocked on doors for O’Connor the month before, and Rhiannon Childs, PPAO’s digital communications manager, went over the script and made sure everyone knew how to use the Minivan app.

It was a quiet Sunday afternoon, with people staying indoors to avoid the heat. The neighborhood was quintessentially swing-state, with a pro-police Blue Lives Matter flag hanging in the humid air around the corner from a front door plastered with “Coexist” and Democratic bumper stickers. One woman who spoke with volunteer Kirbie Jones said she didn’t follow politics and wasn’t familiar with Kavanaugh; another woman gave an enthusiastic “Yes!” at the sight of the brightly colored Planned Parenthood hat worn by Vashitta Johnson, NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio’s field and political director.

Another volunteer, Kathleen Knost, had gotten involved with Planned Parenthood after the 2016 election, when she said she realized that “it’s not enough to vote.” Knost is retired, and splits her time between Ohio and Georgia. “I’m an old-school feminist,” she said. “So I contacted NOW, trying to get involved. And there wasn’t much that I could find to do there. Planned Parenthood was putting on a rally around the statehouse about abortion access, and I showed up for that, met some of the people, and started getting involved with [Planned Parenthood].” Since then, she says she’s been attending three or four volunteer events a week, though not all with Planned Parenthood.

One way Planned Parenthood is ensuring that its growing grassroots infrastructure stays around through 2020 and beyond is through robust training. Another Columbus canvasser, Hunter Leslie, had attended the organization’s July “Power of Pink” conference in Detroit, where 2,000 supporters attended workshops on grassroots organizing and digital outreach. In Pennsylvania, state field director Danitra Sherman said that their monthly volunteer orientations throughout the state included as many as 70 people at a time in the months after Trump’s inauguration.

“The thing that we’ve built that I’m so proud of is a highly trained thousands-and-thousands-strong cadre of leaders all across the country who are committed to protecting women’s access to health care—and have the skills to do it,” says Schifeling. To that end, the group has created “volunteer action councils”—groups of activists, similar to Indivisible. “We want to empower the folks coming into us who are eager to do something to fight back … they don’t need to wait for us. We want to give them enough direction and material and support to be effective, but we don’t want to get in their way.”

But figuring out the balance between giving more freedom to often passionate on-the-ground activists and maintaining control over Planned Parenthood’s brand and consistent messaging has been a “tension point inside the organization,” says Schifeling. “When you say, ‘Planned Parenthood,’ it means something,” she adds. “When you’re in rapid-response mode and you’re putting out a message across the country, you’re relying on folks at a local level to know the right tone and tenor.”

Some volunteers, like Knost, came to Planned Parenthood simply because it has the resources to do the work, and has a presence in their communities. Even in the reddest states, eager new activists can find an affiliate or one of the roughly 500 volunteer action councils across the country. It helps that many new volunteers were once part of the one-in-three American women who have been to a clinic as a patient, and Planned Parenthood has developed programs that can turn those patients into advocates.

Mallory Long, the organization’s associate director of organizing and training, says that when she was working at a Planned Parenthood health center near Cleveland, patients would often be confused and frustrated by Ohio’s mandatory 24-hour waiting period to have an abortion. “People said, ‘I just do not understand why I can’t do that today.’ It was just so frustrating to not be able to tell people, ‘Actually, the reason that we have a 24-hour wait period is that the Ohio legislature is just incredibly anti–women’s health.’”

(Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

Demonstrators participate in a rally for Planned Parenthood in Austin, Texas, on April 5, 2017.

“Here are people sitting in the waiting room, experiencing the services, they’re right there,” adds Schifeling. “We should be talking to them about how their ability to have this health care is under attack right now in their states and what they can do about it.”

One former patient, Gina Walkington, became part of Planned Parenthood’s “storytelling” cohort, and testified about her experience as a patient when she was in college during a May 2017 Senate Democratic hearing on the House-passed American Health Care Act. (The AHCA failed to pass the Senate two months later when Republicans Lisa Murkowski, Susan Collins, and John McCain voted against it.) She began working for Planned Parenthood as a field organizer in Wisconsin shortly after that, and in the summer began considering a run for office. She credits Planned Parenthood with encouraging her to run a campaign against the longest-serving Republican in the state assembly. “Planned Parenthood was so supportive of whichever decision I wanted to make. It’s just a different avenue for advocacy, right?”


IN SOME WAYS, THE awakening of new activists turning to Planned Parenthood mirrors the organization’s own political strengthening that began before the 2016 election. But while existential threats may have catalyzed that awakening, Planned Parenthood’s commitment to an intersectional approach—one that takes into account how racial and economic justice are intertwined with reproductive justice—reflects the work of grassroots activists, especially women of color.

In early October, Planned Parenthood took some heat from abortion-rights activists for announcing a “bold new plan” to protect post-Roe abortion access: The plan is to build up a network of service providers and providing women in states where abortion would be illegal with travel expenses and assistance in getting to states where it would still be legal. Activists pointed out that this was, in fact, what abortion funds across the country already do, since the Hyde Amendment prohibits the use of federal Medicaid funding for abortion services. “With all due respect Planned Parenthood is not the architect of abortion access in this country,” tweeted Yamani Hernandez, the executive director of the National Network of Abortion Funds. In response, Dawn Laguens, the executive vice president of Planned Parenthood, wrote that it had been “a huge mistake not to lift up the critical and fundamental role” of the NNAF.

Laurie Bertram Roberts, the co-founder and executive director of the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund, says this kind of pushback is important for an organization that occupies such an outsized space within the reproductive-rights world. She says that she’s seen Planned Parenthood become “way more receptive to critiques from women of color and the LGBTQ community.”

“Planned Parenthood is not just influencing the reproductive movement, it is influenced by the reproductive movement and the people on the ground who are doing this work every day,” says Matson of Reproaction. “And as a movement overall we have gotten much bolder and stronger.”

Matson notes that a majority of Americans believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. “There’s an irony in 2018,” she adds, “which is that the reproductive movements are vibrant, and they are strong, audacious, bold, and creative … [yet] while all of this flourishing is happening within the movement, the political power is totally off.”

Katherine Spillar, the executive director of the Feminist Majority Foundation, says that Planned Parenthood’s ability to marshal resources, as well as its popularity, makes it well-positioned to take advantage of a political moment in which women’s rights is a huge motivation for voters and activists. “They’ve understood the importance of boots on the ground,” she says. “They’ve always been extraordinary in mobilizing resources.”

Planned Parenthood’s Schifeling compares the organization’s advocacy work to that of unions, in that it also provides services to members while maintaining strong political and organizing arms. The historical reliance on the labor movement to turn out Democratic and progressive votes also bear some similarity to Planned Parenthood’s new standing in the electoral arena. But it remains to be seen what it means for the politics of abortion rights that one of the biggest entry points for political activism is an organization centered on reproductive justice—especially with a number of abortion-related cases wending their way to a radically conservative Supreme Court.

“I think this is going to be an interesting decade,” says Spillar. “This year is not going to solve everything, that’s for sure, but it’s going to be heavily driven by a surge in women voting.”

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