In Response to Anderson and George: Why Funding Planned Parenthood Respects Life

Priscilla J. Smith

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I write in response to Ryan T. Anderson, Ph.D., and Robert P. George, J.D., D. Phil, “Government Should Not Fund Organizations that Kill Innocent Human Beings,” Harvard Health Policy Review (Nov. 2015), available here, arguing that the federal government should defund Planned Parenthood because it provides abortions.[1] These arguments to defund Planned Parenthood are counterproductive and illogical, even from an anti-abortion viewpoint, because defunding would undermine safe attempts to lower rates of abortion. Moreover, while anti-abortion sentiment clearly fuels much of the authors’ antipathy towards the organization, the attacks on Planned Parenthood are part of a broader attack, an attack aimed at contraception in addition to abortion. This broad attack is grounded in moral opposition to non-procreative sex, and elevates concern for “preborn life” over concern for the health of born, living humans.

First, those who are truly dedicated to reducing abortions should seek an increase in funding of Planned Parenthood’s contraceptive services, not elimination of that funding, as do Anderson and George. Eighty percent of Planned Parenthood’s patients receive contraceptive services that prevent approximately 516,000 unintended pregnancies each year.[2] Because approximately 42% of unintended pregnancies end in abortion,[3] Planned Parenthood’s contraceptive services prevent an estimated 216,000 abortions each year.[4] Recent studies confirm that increasing access to the most effective contraceptives decreases the rates of teenage births, unintended pregnancies, and abortions dramatically.[5] As just one example among many of these encouraging results, one study showed a decline of almost 20% in the abortion rates of 20-24 year-olds with no change in sexual activity.[6]

Consider also that the authors don’t care that federal funding to Planned Parenthood does not cover abortion services, but instead covers only non-abortion related preventive care services, like contraception, prenatal care, pediatric care, cancer and STD screenings. Nor does it matter to them that 97% of the health services provided by Planned Parenthood are non-abortion related, or that one in five American women have visited a Planned Parenthood health center at least once in her life, often for contraception, cervical and breast cancer screenings or STD testing.[7]

The authors’ attack on Planned Parenthood’s provision of contraceptive services makes more sense when one learns that Robert George is opposed to contraception, and indeed all non-procreative sex. In the pages of Public Discourse,[8] social conservatives, including George, are transparent about their hostility to contraceptive use and their view that all non-procreative sex is “immoral,” even sex between married couples using contraception.[9] Scholars advocating a “natural law” approach,[10] such as John Finnis and George, believe that all forms of non-procreative sex, from sex between persons of the same sex, to masturbation, fornication, adultery and bestiality, share the same “one morally disqualifying feature,”[11] that is, “in diverse forms, they involve disrespect for the basic good of marriage.”[12] Finnis and George write, “[I]f people are willing to perform a sex act that fails to embody permanent commitment, or a bond that is procreative in type (whether or not it is, or can in the circumstances be, procreative in effect), they disable themselves from willing in such a way that their sexual congress can actualize and express the good of marriage, which is inherently permanent and procreative in type.”[13] Thus, the attack on Planned Parenthood is revealed as part of a broad attack on contraception and all non-procreative sexual expression.

There is more. Why are Anderson and George opposed to preventive health care services for low-income families, including children, services that have nothing to do with abortion or contraceptives? Underlying the authors’ opposition to abortion and contraception is a belief that the “unborn,” the “innocent” human life, is at least the moral equivalent of the born. This belief elides the significant biological distinctions between zygote, embryo, previable fetus, viable fetus, and born infant. Indeed, to Anderson and George, the “innocent” unborn appears to be the moral superior of the pregnant woman who seeks an abortion. As George has expressed elsewhere, the “sexual congress” of the woman seeking an abortion, like that of the woman who has sex using contraception, is immoral because it “[does not] actualize and express the good of marriage, which is inherently permanent and procreative in type.”[14] In other words, in George’s view a woman who engages in sex without being willing to carry any resulting pregnancy to term has sinned; she has lost any “innocence” she might have had.

While the authors are of course entitled to their moral beliefs about developing life, abortion, and women who have sex without wanting to become pregnant, losing sight of the biological distinctions between zygote, embryo, previable fetus, viable fetus, and born infant—the scientific realities of developing life—leads to a loss of perspective on the relationship between unborn and born life. It leads to illogical and callous arguments, like those being made to condemn Planned Parenthood and remove a vital source of health care for many in need. I don’t delude myself that seeing these distinctions will change the minds of those who are against abortion. But I do believe that keeping these distinctions in mind should help policymakers stay alert to the differences between a “preborn life” on the one hand, and born people, including children and pregnant women, on the other—people who are known, loved and often depended upon by others.[15] With this reality in mind, rather than defunding women’s health services and pediatric care, and abandoning humans after they are born, policy makers should focus on helping women and their families live the healthiest, happiest lives possible.



Priscilla J. Smith, J.D. is an Associate Research Scholar in Law at Yale Law School, where she directs the Program for the Study of Reproductive Justice.



  1. The article also half-heartedly repeats claims that Planned Parenthood violated fetal tissue donation laws and other federal laws on abortion. No evidence exists that Planned Parenthood has violated any laws, even in the heavily and deceptively edited tapes that were secretly recorded in a failed sting attempt. See, e.g., Memorandum from Committee on Energy and Commerce Democratic Staff To Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations Democratic Members and Staff (Sept. 9, 2015) (indicating “[t]hus far, the investigation has revealed that PPFA requires all affiliates to ensure compliance with all state and federal laws and that specific PPFA guidance requires affiliates to ensure that reimbursement for fetal tissue is limited to actual costs” and that “the videos . . . are incomplete selectively edited, and intentionally misleading.”); Christine Hauser, Missouri Finds Planned Parenthood didn’t Mishandle Fetal Tissue, (Sept. 29, 2015) (reporting Missouri, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Indiana, South Dakota, and Massachusetts found no violations and seven other states declined to investigate),
  2. See Planned Parenthood At a Glance,
  3. Lawrence B. Finer & Stanley K. Henshaw, Disparities in Rates of Unintended Pregnancy in the United States, 1994 and 2001, 38 PERSP. ON SEXUAL & REPROD. HEALTH 90-92 fig.1, 93 tbl.1 (2006).
  4. Id.
  5. Gina M. Secura et al., Provision of No-Cost, Long-Acting Contraception and Teenage Pregnancy, 371 NEW ENG. J. MED. 1316, 1320 (2014) (Abortion rates from the study cohort were less than half the regional and national rates; the rate of teenage birth within the study cohort was 6.3 per 1,000, compared to the U.S. rate of 34.4 per 1,000); Sue Ricketts et al., Game Change in Colorado: Widespread Use of Long-Acting Reversible Contraceptives and Rapid Decline in Births Among Young, Low-Income Women, 46 PERSP. ON SEXUAL & REPROD. HEALTH 125, 125 – 129 (2014) (with no significant change in sexual activity, birth rate among 15-19 year olds declined 26% in two years, and abortion rates declined 18% for twenty to twenty-four year-olds).
  6. Ricketts, et al., supra n.4.
  7. See Anne Davis, MD, MPH and Pratima Gupta, MD, MPH, Harvard Health Policy Review, Attacks on Planned Parenthood are Ideologically Driven and Dangerous, available at (Nov. 2015). See also Planned Parenthood At a Glance, available at
  8. Public Discourse is an online publication of the Witherspoon Institute publishing scholarship about “the moral foundations of free societies.” See
  9. See, e.g., John Finnis, Robert P. George, Natural Law and the Unity and Truth of Sexual Ethics: A Reply to Gary Gutting, at 3 PUBLIC DISCOURSE, /2015/03/14635/?utm_source=The+Witherspoon+Institute&utm_campaign=7523d98a78- RSS_EMAIL_CAMPAIGN&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_15ce6af37b-7523d98a78-84111329. See also Priscilla J. Smith, Contraceptive Comstockery: Reasoning from Immorality to Illness in the Twentieth Century, 47 Conn. L. Rev. 971, 984-85 (May 2015) (discussing relationship between nineteenth century campaign against contraception and its modern day counterpart).
  10. Id. (arguing that “Catholic sexual ethics are as fully reasonable today as they were in the time of St Paul. In fact, the natural law understanding of human fulfillment is inherently intelligible even without a theistic framework.”).
  11. [11] Id.
  12. [12] Id.
  13. [13] Id.
  14. [14] See Finnis and George, supra n.7.
  15. [15] Rachel Jones et al., Patterns in the socioeconomic characteristics of women obtaining abortions in 2000-2001, 34 PERSP. ON SEXUAL & REPROD. HEALTH 226, 228 (2002) (61% of women who obtain abortions already have at least one child; 34% had two or more children).