Defending choice

Graphic by Haewon Ma

An hour and a half before sundown, the protesters began mobilizing. They dispersed from the New Haven Green’s southwest corner wielding megaphones, waving signs, and wearing coral shirts brilliant enough to halt traffic. Soon, they commandeered the four corners at the intersection of College and Elm. There, they chanted: “This is what Planned Parenthood looks like!” “Freedom to choose!” and “We love women!”

The pink army, more than a hundred strong, assembled to combat weeks of critical publicity and political turbulence surrounding the event’s organizer, Planned Parenthood. But the rally, one of 250 events held across the country on Sept. 29 as a part of Planned Parenthood’s “Pink Out Day,” was more smiles than jeers. It was about “emphasizing what we do and not what divides us,” in the words of one protester. In addition to rallies, events such as sex-ed teach-ins and free STD testing were held to highlight Planned Parenthood’s broad reach.

In the wake of recent videos depicting Planned Parenthood affiliates illegally profiteering off of aborted fetuses and attempting to prevent a live birth, the nine- ty-nine-year old provider of reproductive services has returned to the forefront of the national conversation on abortion. Though Planned Parenthood remains popular nationally and in New Haven, the tenor of recent at- tacks against the group has unearthed deep anxieties over abortion across Connecticut.


Strife surrounding a woman’s right to choose is not new. Planned Parenthood’s predecessor was founded in 1916, when Progressive Era feminist Margaret Sanger and two colleagues opened the nation’s first birth control clinic in Brooklyn. Sanger was a champion of reproductive health, an issue that, at the time, hit at the heart of femininity. “No woman can call her- self free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother,” Sanger said.

Public controversy regarding the clinic’s tumultuous beginning was virulent, though not strictly partisan. Some social conservatives viewed birth control as a Darwinian method of artificial selection that could beat back population gains among immigrants, slum-dwellers, Jews, southern European Catholics, the poor, and the socially or physiologically defective. Sanger herself shared some of the beliefs of the eugenic faction that backed contraception.

The troubling amity between Planned Parenthood’s visionary and early-twentieth century eugenicists upsets Catholic Friar John Paul Walker of St. Mary’s Church, a Catholic parish on Hillhouse Avenue in New Haven. “Margaret Sanger was a terrific racist,” he said. “It’s something no major media outlet wants to talk about.”

To supporters of publically funded reproductive centers like Planned Parenthood, Sanger’s loose association with eugenics distracts from her primary passion: building a national coalition to empower women. In Connecticut, at the nexus of the crusade, Sanger worked closely with leaders like Kit Houghton Hepburn, founder of the Connecticut Birth Control League in Hartford.

The contentiousness of women’s healthcare issues persisted in the following decades. It wasn’t until 1965 twenty-three years after the founding of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, that the landmark Supreme Court case Griswold v. Connecticut sanctioned the legal use of contraception under Constitutionally-protected rights to privacy.

The case was born in New Haven. Argued by Yale Law School Dean Thomas Emerson ’28, LAW ’31, the proceedings targeted Estelle Griswold, Executive Director of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut. Her 1961 arrest in New Haven inaugurated the suit’s legal challenge to an 1879 Comstock law barring the distribution of contraceptives in Connecticut.

In the decade following Griswold, many Republicans mounted support for reproductive rights. Fiscal Republicans like President Nixon viewed the issue in economic terms, seeing family planning as an approach for pre- venting cyclical poverty (and, thus, expensive welfare payouts) that unwanted pregnancy perpetuated. Others, like then-Congressman George H.W. Bush, DC ’48, emphasized in religious language the humanitarian impetus to curb “the needless suffering of unwanted children and overburdened parents.”

More willingly than their successors, Republicans of the 1960s and early 70s viewed universal access to contraception, healthcare, and medical services for women as a question of individual freedom from big government interference and big unplanned families. Conservatives of the era equated family planning with individualism and autonomy.

The tables then turned. In the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, the Supreme Court legalized abortion, scrambling the alliances that had buoyed maternal services through- out the decade prior.


Today, abortion generally remains what Democratic President Bill Clinton, LAW ’73 had hoped: “safe, legal, and rare.” But the numbers vary by region.

Nationally, only three percent of Planned Parenthood’s services involve abortions. But according to Judy Tabar, President and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Southern New England, in Connecticut that figure is just under 10 percent. According to an article in the New Haven Independent, defunding Planned Parenthood will result in substantial cuts to preventative health coverage, especially for low-income populations: 76 percent of the organization’s centers are located in areas with limited access to health services.

Supporters of publicly funded reproductive services see efforts to curtail abortion, or to equate Planned Parenthood with abortion, as an attack on services that have made beneficial contributions to women’s health. “Planned Parenthood is the only organization in New Haven that’s always there for me,” said Jenna Lupi, a New Haven resident at the rally who has used Planned Parenthood’s healthcare services.

“It’s our bodies, and our right to choose,” said Erinolira Vanagas, a Planned Parenthood advocate. It’s a rationale that often underlies the arguments of the pro-choice contingent in New Haven, led by women like Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro and Mayor Toni Harp. At the rally, Harp cast the debate in terms of misogyny. As Harp said, while it is veiled, anti-Planned Parenthood activism is a “real affront to women across the country.”

But even in Connecticut—one of the bluest states in the U.S.— there are many who view abortion as filicide rather than an expression of a right to choose. Friar Walker, who holds a Master’s in Environmental Engineering and Chemistry from Johns Hopkins, renounces abortion through the Church’s long-standing policy that “life begins at conception.” Those who disagree, he says, “need to study some biology.”

“All life is very precious,” pro-life activist and lifelong New Haven Resident Xiomara Sellan said. “It’s not a woman’s right to kill her baby.”

Twenty minutes into the rally, Planned Parenthood received company. Ten men and women emerged with signs heralding their cause: “There are other ways out,” one read. “Abortion is murder,” another declared. The words were emblazoned over an image of a fetus in utero.

On the sidewalk outside Bingham Hall, two protesters were locked in heated argument. On one side, Brandon, who proudly flexed the pink Planned Parenthood shirt like a shield of armor. Catherine, a pro-life advocate, stood in front of him holding pamphlets lined with scripture. The conversation grew louder by the sentence, rising in pitch and intensity until in the middle of an impassioned epithet, Catherine stopped. “Can we talk about this…civilly?” she said, laying a hand on his shoulder.

These conversations—whether on the Green or beyond—are the ones that seem to endure.

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