As the 2010 midterm elections approached, it initially looked organic: Dozens, sometimes even hundreds of people were attending congressional town halls across the country, turning every event into a referendum over the recently passed Affordable Care Act. At that point, “Obamacare” was still considered a slur rather than the now-popular health care reform act that has helps millions of people, and Democrats were scrambling to defend their support of a program that at that time had no lived experience to offer to critics.
Every public event they attended pivoted into a demand from an angry mob of constituents to defend their votes, and every policy take derailed into a debate over the threat of government healthcare. Soon it became apparent that this alleged grassroots groundswell of opposition was actually being manufactured by right-wing think tanks who were offering strategy memos and talking points, and then being promoted by conservative talking heads who recruited their audiences to attend.
The town halls, which dominated both mainstream and conservative media, combined with a low voter turnout election, are considered by many to be major factors in the 2010 Tea Party election wave. Unsurprisingly, the right wing is anxious to be able to replicate that effort, and now, with their focused battle against Planned Parenthood, they may be preparing to try again.
The GOP has focused like a laser on Planned Parenthood this cycle, eager to pick as big of a fight as possible with the nation’s largest reproductive health care entity. Politicians are playing just as big of a role in the escalating vendetta as the anti-abortion activists who concocted fake identities in order to record the secret interviews with staff members. Nationally, Republican members of Congress admitted to early access to the videos that are now being released weekly, and in Texas, last week’s legislative investigation led to the discovery that Texas lawmakers had also seen videos that had yet to be released to the public.
Much of the protests, media releases, and calls for investigations appeared to be a ramp-up in preparation for this week’s senate vote in favor of pulling all federal funds from Planned Parenthood, allegedly with the intention of giving them to community health centers as an alternative. The bill received majority backing, but not enough votes to overcome a filibuster.
Some may be tempted to think that the failed vote—as well as new polling showing how popular the organization is, despite the smears in the media—would mean an end to the attacks on Planned Parenthood. Instead, they may just be beginning. And they may be becoming far more localized, as well.
Students for Life of America has been one of the key players in the aftermath of the first few anti-Planned Parenthood videos released by the anti-abortion group calling itself Center for Medical Progress. For SFLA, the controversy presents a perfect opportunity to promote their own organizational goals. SFLA itself has “The Planned Parenthood Project,” an endeavor “to expose the nation’s abortion Goliath, Planned Parenthood, with whom they target the most—young people,” allegedly educating students on college campuses about Planned Parenthood’s “plan” to sell them faulty birth control, fill them with hormones, then counsel them into aborting when their hormonal birth control fails.
SFLA took the lead on arranging nationwide, public protests after the first videos were released, arranging the “Women Betrayed” rallies that popped up in more than 60 cities across the country. While other groups have taken over the organization for the next national protest, SFLA has a new target in mind.
Yes, they want to hit the town halls, 2009-style.
“August is a time when Members of Congress are usually in their home districts as Congress is out of session,” writes SFLA President Kristan Hawkins in an email to supporters. “During this time, Congressmen and Senators will often hold Townhall meetings to listen to their constituents concerns and get a pulse on what’s happening at home, as they well should. These Townhall meetings are perfect opportunities to question your Congressman or Senator about his or her votes and ask them to defend why they voted a certain way or how they think they may vote on a similar issue in the future.”
Just like the Great Town Hall Invasion of 2009, a list of potential events to attend is provided, and sample questions are offered as well, such as:
Why did you vote to give my money as a taxpayer to Planned Parenthood?
Why did you vote to fund an organization that has been caught aiding and abetting sex traffickers, taking money to abortion black children, covering up sexual abuse, and selling the body parts of aborted babies?
Do you think that dissecting the body parts of aborted babies to see which organs are good enough to sell is okay?
Do you think that Planned Parenthood affords any human dignity to the children they rip up and sell piece by piece?
It’s almost, “We all understand that National Health Care means rationing health care. What aspects of health care would you propose rationing? And to whom, or to what groups of people would you ration care?” all over again.
Will Students for Life of America have the same success with the town hall gambit that the early Tea Party organizers managed to create leading up to the midterms? If so, that could mean a summer season of unprepared sitting members of Congress seeing their constituent outreach events hijacked into an all-abortion-all-the-time political brawl. And of course the more the right can force politicians to focus on abortion, the less they have to worry about the fact that their stances on marriage equality, climate change, wages, education, immigration and health care are out of step with a majority of Americans.
If 2016 conservatives can manage to grassroots-organize with the same effectiveness as 2010 conservatives did, another GOP wave could be on the way. And we are seeing signs now that they are ready to try. The question is, can they really manage to make Planned Parenthood into the bogeyman that they turned Obamacare into six years ago? If they can’t, then this is one strategy may just end up blowing up in their faces.
Robin Marty is a freelance writer, speaker and activist. Her current project, Clinic Stories, focuses on telling the history of legal abortion one clinic at a time. Robin’s articles have appeared at Cosmopolitan.com, Rolling Stone, Politico, Ms. Magazine and other publications.