Why Is Planned Parenthood Endorsing a White Man with a Shaky Record Over a Pro-Choice Black Woman?

Kerri Evelyn Harris is gaining momentum in an insurgent campaign to oust centrist Sen. Thomas Carper (D-Delaware), who voted for the “partial birth” abortion ban. But she won’t have the help of Planned Parenthood.

Mekdes Maryam Amare

Kerri Evelyn Harris (L) is challenging incumbent centrist Thomas Carper (R) from the left for a Delaware Senate seat. (Photo from Kerri Evelyn Harris campaign / Photo by Jeff Fusco/Getty Images)

The Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry for a Delaware Sen­ate seat this year is show­cas­ing the sharp divide in the par­ty. Incum­bent Tom Carp­er, a pro-cor­po­rate white male cen­trist with a track record of anti-choice votes faces a chal­lenge from Ker­ri Eve­lyn Har­ris, a Black woman and anti­war Air Force vet­er­an with work­ing-class roots and a trans­for­ma­tive pro­gres­sive agenda.

Carper was one of just four Democrats who supported the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the D.C. Circuit Court in 2006, paving the way for Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, which reproductive-rights activists believe imperils Roe v. Wade.

The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty estab­lish­ment has ral­lied around Carp­er. He’s received endorse­ments from Hillary Clin­ton, Joe Biden and the Delaware Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. The Delaware AFL-CIO also backs Carp­er, despite his sup­port for anti-work­er trade deals like CAF­TA and the TPP. So does the League of Con­ser­va­tion Vot­ers, although he vot­ed for the Key­stone Pipeline four times and to con­firm Rick Per­ry, Trump’s scan­dal-taint­ed pick for ener­gy secretary.

But per­haps the most sur­pris­ing endorse­ment of Carp­er has been from the Planned Par­ent­hood Action Fund, the polit­i­cal action com­mit­tee of the non­prof­it Planned Par­ent­hood Fed­er­a­tion of America.

In August 2017, long­time Planned Par­ent­hood pres­i­dent Cecile Richards crit­i­cized Demo­c­ra­t­ic Con­gres­sion­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee (DCCC) Chair Ben Ray Lujan (D‑N.M.)’s state­ment that sup­port for abor­tion should not be a lit­mus test” for back­ing Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­dates in 2018. Richards told Politi­co, I think he’s total­ly wrong, and I’ll use every oppor­tu­ni­ty to con­vince him of that.”

Yet Carp­er has a record of anti-choice and anti-women votes. In 2003, he vot­ed for the so-called Par­tial Birth Abor­tion Ban Act, which banned late-term abor­tions even when a woman’s health was in jeop­ardy. Planned Par­ent­hood unsuc­cess­ful­ly sued to over­turn the law. In 2006, Carp­er vot­ed with Repub­li­cans for the Child Inter­state Abor­tion Noti­fi­ca­tion Act, which would have forced clin­ics to noti­fy par­ents of teenagers if they had crossed state lines for an abor­tion. (Carp­er lat­er vot­ed against a more extreme ver­sion of the bill.)

Carp­er was also one of just four Democ­rats who sup­port­ed the con­fir­ma­tion of Brett Kavanaugh to the D.C. Cir­cuit Court in 2006, paving the way for Kavanaugh’s nom­i­na­tion to the Supreme Court, which repro­duc­tive-rights activists believe imper­ils Roe v. Wade. Carp­er says he regrets the vote: If I had known 12 years ago how Judge Kavanaugh would have ruled on any num­ber of issues, includ­ing health care and the envi­ron­ment, I nev­er would have vot­ed for him in 2006,” he wrote in a recent state­ment. I have no inten­tion of vot­ing for him now.”

Reached for com­ment on these votes, Planned Par­ent­hood Action Fund Polit­i­cal Out­reach Direc­tor Wen­di Wal­lace point­ed to the organization’s Con­gres­sion­al Score­card, which tracks votes on key bills going back to 2011. Carp­er scored 100 per­cent sup­port­ive of women’s health, with votes against mea­sures to defund Planned Par­ent­hood, block abor­tion access and gut the Afford­able Care Act.

One of things we real­ly work with mem­bers of Con­gress on is edu­ca­tion and evo­lu­tion and we are excit­ed that Sen. Carp­er has tak­en all pro-wom­en’s health vot­ers since 2006,” Wal­lace said. Of the vote to con­firm Kavanaugh, Wal­lace echoed Carper’s point that in 2006, Kavanaugh had not yet served as a judge and his anti-abor­tion stance was less clear: He didn’t have the record he has now when those votes were taken.”

How­ev­er, with the excep­tion of Neil Gorsuch’s nom­i­na­tion to the Supreme Court (which Carp­er opposed), the action fund does not score con­fir­ma­tion votes. On these, Carper’s record has arguably been less favor­able to women’s health.

In May 2017, Carp­er vot­ed to con­firm FDA Com­mis­sion­er Scott Got­tlieb, one of just five Democ­rats to do so. Got­tlieb had pub­licly attacked fed­er­al fund­ing for Planned Par­ent­hood and had opposed cov­er­age of birth con­trol under the Afford­able Care Act, which drew strong crit­i­cism from NAR­AL Pro-Choice Amer­i­ca, the Nation­al Women’s Health Net­work and the Planned Par­ent­hood Action Fund.

Carp­er also vot­ed last year to con­firm right-wing Michi­gan judge Joan Larsen to the Sixth Cir­cuit Court of Appeals, a con­fir­ma­tion hailed by the anti-abor­tion Susan B. Antho­ny List as a pro-life victory.”

In Jan­u­ary, Carp­er was again one of just six Democ­rats to vote to con­firm for­mer Eli Lil­ly exec­u­tive Alex Azar as Sec­re­tary of Health and Human Ser­vices. Azar has since issued the most sweep­ing attacks on Planned Par­ent­hood from the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment in a gen­er­a­tion by pro­mul­gat­ing rules that would pre­vent the orga­ni­za­tion from per­form­ing abor­tions at clin­ics that receive fed­er­al fund­ing for fam­i­ly plan­ning services.

Stand­ing with Black women?

Planned Parenthood’s endorse­ment of Carp­er, a white man, over Ker­ri Eve­lyn Har­ris, a pro­gres­sive LGBT Black woman, also stands in appar­ent con­tra­dic­tion to Stand With Black Women,” a frame­work that Planned Par­enthoood is rolling out to inform the work of the non­prof­it and the PAC. We know that stand­ing with Black women does not stop at pro­vid­ing health­care,” explains Nia Mar­tin-Robin­son, PPFA’s direc­tor of black lead­er­ship and engage­ment. We must invest in poli­cies, resources and actions that dis­man­tle sex­ism, anti-Black­ness and oth­er barriers.”

Over 1,500 white men have served as U.S. sen­a­tors, com­pared to only two Black women; I asked Planned Parenthood’s Wal­lace about the deci­sion to endorse Carp­er over Har­ris, in light of the Stand with Black Women cam­paign. Wal­lace not­ed Planned Par­ent­hood Action Fund’s 2018 work on behalf of oth­er Black women in Con­gres­sion­al races, includ­ing Reps. Gwen Moore in Wis­con­sin, Alma Adams in North Car­oli­na and Karen Bass in Cal­i­for­nia, and chal­lengers Lucy McBath in Geor­gia and Lau­ren Under­wood in Illinois.

Regard­ing the Delaware race, she said, Iden­ti­ty is impor­tant, but work­ing across the aisle and advanc­ing our agen­da is impor­tant. We have to eval­u­ate all of those aspects. That’s not to say that we wouldn’t love to have more Black women and more women of col­or and more young peo­ple — we would love to have a Con­gress that is tru­ly rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the Amer­i­can people.”

By con­trast, after Planned Parenthood’s unprece­dent­ed deci­sion to endorse Hillary Clin­ton in the 2016 Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry against anoth­er pro-choice can­di­date, Bernie Sanders, the orga­ni­za­tion empha­sized the role of iden­ti­ty. Intro­duc­ing Clin­ton in June 2016 when she became the pre­sump­tive nom­i­nee, then-pres­i­dent Cecile Richards said, There are three women on the Supreme Court — hur­rah! 20 WOMEN in the U.S. Sen­ate. And when the Planned Par­ent­hood Action Fund and all of us do our work right over the next five months, we will proud­ly be part of elect­ing the first woman Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States!”

Richards neglect­ed to men­tion that the record rep­re­sen­ta­tion of women in the Supreme Court and Sen­ate did not extend to Black women. No Black woman has ever been on the Supreme Court, and at the time there were no Black women senators.

Planned Parenthood’s rela­tion­ship to Black women is com­pli­cat­ed,” says Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia Pro­fes­sor Dorothy Roberts, author of Killing the Black Body: Race, Repro­duc­tion and the Mean­ing of Lib­er­ty. It’s com­pli­cat­ed by the roots of Planned Par­ent­hood in the inter­sect­ing birth con­trol and eugen­ics move­ment back in the 1920s and 30s. This is a his­tor­i­cal back­ground, which I think con­tin­ues to rever­ber­ate today in var­i­ous ways.

Roberts also notes, Anoth­er point in the his­to­ry of the repro­duc­tive rights move­ment is when women of col­or were advo­cat­ing for fed­er­al and state reg­u­la­tions com­ing out of a his­to­ry of ram­pant abuse of ster­il­iza­tion, and Planned Par­ent­hood opposed some of those reg­u­la­tions because of a con­cern that it would vio­late white wom­en’s rights to be sterilized.”

As a counter to the white fem­i­nist-led repro­duc­tive rights move­ment, Black fem­i­nists devel­oped the frame­work of repro­duc­tive jus­tice. As Roberts defines it, repro­duc­tive jus­tice includes not only a woman’s right not to have a child, but also the right to have chil­dren and to raise them with dig­ni­ty in safe, healthy, and sup­port­ive envi­ron­ments. This frame­work repo­si­tioned repro­duc­tive rights in a polit­i­cal con­text of inter­sect­ing race, gen­der and class oppressions.”

I asked Planned Parenthood’s Wal­lace if Carper’s vot­ing record aligns with prin­ci­ples of repro­duc­tive jus­tice, espe­cial­ly in com­par­i­son with Ker­ri Eve­lyn Har­ris’ plat­form, which advo­cates Medicare for All, paid mater­ni­ty leave, a job guar­an­tee pro­gram and crim­i­nal jus­tice reform, in addi­tion to being firm­ly pro-choice.

Planned Par­ent­hood is a repro­duc­tive health orga­ni­za­tion, not a repro­duc­tive jus­tice orga­ni­za­tion,” Wal­lace said. We have sim­i­lar goals and we’re com­mit­ted to doing the work on cross-move­ment issues, like on immi­gra­tion or LGBT rights. Our spe­cif­ic issue is to fight for repro­duc­tive health­care. I want to make sure to clar­i­fy that repro­duc­tive jus­tice is led by women of col­or. While there are many women of col­or in lead­er­ship roles in Planned Par­ent­hood, we are not a repro­duc­tive jus­tice orga­ni­za­tion.” Mar­tin-Robin­son adds that Planned Par­ent­hood sup­ports the repro­duc­tive jus­tice move­ment and that Stand With Black Women will engage repro­duc­tive jus­tice lead­ers who have been lead­ing the charge.”

While Planned Par­ent­hood may reject the notion that it is a repro­duc­tive jus­tice orga­ni­za­tion, the group and its chap­ters use the term. Planned Par­ent­hood of New York City recent­ly announced a Repro­duc­tive Jus­tice Fel­low­ship named after Joan Malin, a white woman who was the long­time head of the branch. The inau­gur­al recip­i­ent of the fel­low­ship, announced in July, is also white.

Roberts argues that repro­duc­tive jus­tice pro­vides a more com­pre­hen­sive approach than the nar­row­er repro­duc­tive health” ser­vice advo­cat­ed by Planned Par­ent­hood. A repro­duc­tive jus­tice frame­work rejects the idea that the solu­tion to high rates of pover­ty, to lack of health­care more broad­ly, to low wages — that the answer to that is for peo­ple who are dis­ad­van­taged to have few­er chil­dren,” says Roberts. That’s the false view of abor­tion that Planned Par­ent­hood has tak­en in the past — that abor­tion is the solu­tion to these social prob­lems. The plat­form of [Ker­ri Eve­lyn Har­ris] is that we need social change so that we can have true repro­duc­tive free­dom. Repro­duc­tive jus­tice embraces not just access to abor­tion — that’s just a piece of a much more holis­tic and broad way of dis­cussing repro­duc­tive jus­tice. The ide­ol­o­gy that abor­tion solves these prob­lems — it’s anti-free­dom, it’s anti-human rights because it sub­sti­tutes pop­u­la­tion con­trol for true repro­duc­tive free­dom and human rights.”

Har­ris is fight­ing an uphill bat­tle, to be sure. As of the last cam­paign finance report June 30, Carp­er had 30 times the cam­paign war chest of Har­ris, who is refus­ing cor­po­rate dona­tions. But Har­ris has gained momen­tum in recent weeks, buoyed by the sup­port of Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez, Jus­tice Democ­rats and the Work­ing Fam­i­lies Par­ty, which is invest­ing in door­knock­ing and attack ads against Carp­er in the final days of the cam­paign. And, as Paula Gid­dings doc­u­ments in her famous his­to­ry of Black wom­en’s work for social jus­tice, When and Where I Enter, if there’s any­thing that defines Black women’s expe­ri­ences in Amer­i­ca, it’s uphill battles.

Update: This text has been expand­ed to clar­i­fy the role of Stand With Black Women

Mekdes Maryam Amare is a fem­i­nist, com­mu­ni­ty activist and mom work­ing to end oppres­sion. She is based in the Mid-Atlantic.
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