First, there was the uproar that followed a decision by the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation to cut off funding to Planned Parenthood. Then, President Barack Obama found himself fending off a fresh outcry over a new rule that would require religiously affiliated hospitals to provide free contraceptives.
As the Republican primaries surge ahead, birth control and abortion seem to have suddenly snapped into focus. Veteran observers of the ‘abortion wars’ in the United States, however, say it’s not that these issues have simply burst into the spotlight. Rather, they never left.
Nearly 40 years after Roe v. Wade, abortion remains the United States’ most deeply polarizing issue, dividing the country in half. A 2009 Gallup poll showed that there are as many American women who oppose abortion as there are American women who support abortion rights.
All it takes is an upcoming election to underscore that essential divide.
What about abortion makes it such a hugely contentious, deeply entrenched issue in American politics, even in an era where most voters are preoccupied with their jobs and the economy?
“It’s the most powerful mobilizing device a politician has,” says Carole Joffe, a professor at the Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health at the University of California, San Francisco, who refers to abortion as the “central drama” of American culture.
Amidst the heated rhetoric in Washington, it’s easy to forget the United States remains an intensely apolitical place, with a notoriously low voter turnout compared to other countries.
Republican politicians use abortion to fire up the faction of their base that is deeply engaged, without necessarily risking anything because nobody else is really paying attention, Prof. Joffe argues.
“You simply can’t get elected to office unless you have a very anti-abortion record,” she says. “That’s the reality of American politics.”
Fanning the abortion debate has become baked into the election cycle.
It is no coincidence that in 2011, an unprecedented number of abortion restrictions – 135 – were introduced by Republican lawmakers in state legislatures.
The controversy around Komen, the best-known breast cancer charity in the United States, however, underscores something completely different: A backlash.
The decision by the cancer charity to reverse an earlier decision to sever its funding to Planned Parenthood signals to some that the American people have had enough of the debate. Politico.com predicts the backlash will become the “textbook case on the political power of social media.” Far from settling the abortion debate, however, tools like Twitter and Facebook appear poised to amplify it in other ways.
“There is a tipping point we are reaching,” says Jodi Jacobson, editor of the online women’s health advocacy outlet RH Reality Check. “This issue is really just a dry forest waiting to explode into flames. In Komen’s case, it really just exploded against the anti-abortion movement.”
Some say the outcry against the Komen decision was inevitable because Planned Parenthood, a provider of women’s health services including contraceptive distribution, breast cancer screenings and abortions, was the wrong target.
One in five women in the United States has visited a Planned Parenthood centre at least once in her life, the organization says. Meanwhile, breast cancer affects one in eight American women.
Komen executives were also overwhelmed by a Twitter campaign, 80 to one, against their decision to defund. Online petitions signed by nearly 850,000 people were delivered to Komen headquarters in Dallas calling on the organization to continue its support for Planned Parenthood.
Still, the ‘abortion wars’ are doomed to rage on the United States because of the country’s political institutions, where congressional committees hold enormous sway and states hold more power, argues Mildred A. Schwartz, a Professor Emerita at the University of Illinois at Chicago and Visiting Scholar in the Department of Sociology at New York University
“When those on the extreme sides of this debate decide to mobilize their followers, they have a lot of places where they can make their voices heard,” Prof. Schwartz says.
Especially, it seems, when the White House is up for grabs.