Last Friday, Barack Obama became the first president of the United States to offer an address at Planned Parenthood’s National Conference. While his appearance at the event and the rousing welcome of the organization is historically and culturally significant, his address proved to be out of sync with current trends in health care, the pro-life sentiment of Americans, and contemporary feminism.

During his address, Obama promised his fidelity to the group in the “fight against the war on women” that he and Cecile Richards, President of Planned Parenthood, have staunchly opposed. This supposed campaign against women’s rights and equality is largely characterized by the passage of state-level restrictions on abortion, as well as legislative proposals that challenge particular requirements of the Affordable Health Care Act.

Obama fervently opposed these laws, calling them “absurd.” By implication, he called into question the moral, legal, and scientific soundness of the laws when he said, “When you read about some of these laws, you want to check the calendar. You want to make sure you’re still living in 2013.” He also rallied his supporters by saying,

As long as we’ve got to fight to make sure women have access to quality, affordable health care, as long as we’ve got to protect a woman’s right to make her own choices about her own health, I want you to know that you’ve also got a president who’s right there with you, fighting every step of the way.

Start your day with Public Discourse

Sign up and get our daily essays sent straight to your inbox.

His inaccuracies were numerous, given scientific and cultural shifts in this generation. But more troublesome are the assertion that quality health care includes unrestricted access to abortion, the sweeping statements about the moral pulse of the nation on the issue of abortion, and the assumption that all persons who advocate for women’s interests, health, and flourishing support the services that Planned Parenthood supplies and the government funds.

“The thing that’s incredible to me—North Dakota being case in point—is the thought that … there are now states where it’s not safe to be a woman,” Cecile Richards recently claimed. Richards was responding to the passage of laws in North Dakota, which have proposed to restrict abortion after the detection of a fetal heartbeat, in the case of gender preference, and in the case of certain genetic conditions.

Arkansas has passed a similar fetal heartbeat law, while other states continue to enact restrictions including waiting periods, mandatory sonograms, parental notification, and banning abortion after 20-24 weeks (since science and top neonatal care can now gauge viability much more accurately).

In direct contrast to Richards’s pontification, it’s never been clearer that women’s safety is actually advanced by banning late-term abortions. The trial of Kermit Gosnell, the late-term abortionist in Philadelphia who is being prosecuted for four counts of
first-degree murder of babies who survived late-term abortions, and one count of third-degree murder of a woman fatally injured at his abortion clinic, shows that abortion after twenty weeks simply cannot be sweepingly labeled “quality health care.”

In fact, the president’s silence on the Gosnell trial could be viewed as a wariness to condone an absolute, unrestricted right to abortion at all stages of a pregnancy, despite the implications of his speech. Many people in the scientific and health care communities have published about the health risks related to abortion at any stage of pregnancy. Even Planned Parenthood informs its clients of adverse health effects related to their services.

If ensuring women’s quality health care is important, then Planned Parenthood and the president might think about how better to regulate and standardize the health code expectations of abortion clinics across the country. One only needs to skim the newspaper to find headlines detailing the health code violations of a number of abortion clinics in the United States.

A Planned Parenthood clinic in Delaware, for example, is facing charges of unsafe and unsanitary conditions. Five of its employees, including one doctor and four nurses, recently quit their jobs, allegedly due to the serious health risks that the patients were routinely exposed to. In Delaware, the responsibility for ensuring that the clinic follows suitable health care codes falls on the shoulders of Planned Parenthood, as the Department of Health and Human Services says that it does not have the capacity to carry out inspections. The clinic essentially went unregulated for years, by an organization that claims to be the official advocate for women’s rights in our country.

The Gosnell trial is also revealing a lack of regulation in private clinics. The Pennsylvania Department of Health halted its inspection of abortion clinics in the mid-1990s, even when they were sent complaints from Children’s Hospital in Pennsylvania about Gosnell.

Moreover, the Department of State in Pennsylvania, which is responsible for overseeing individual physicians, failed to report any of the violations taking place. The investigator assigned to oversee Gosnell and authorize his medical license never inspected the clinic after meeting with him.

Live Action began its campaign against late-term abortion this week, bringing to light the blurred line between abortion and infanticide, and raising questions about regulation and the line between medicine and murder.

The New York Post covered some of their investigations, particularly at a late-term abortion clinic in New York, where an employee advised a “client” who was curious about what would happen if her fetus was born alive. The employee’s responses repeatedly indicated that infanticide would likely follow. These proposed practices are direct violations of the Born-Alive Infant Protection Act, and in no way could be characterized as “quality health care” for the woman or her child.

Establishing regulations and penalizing those who do not follow them or meet them seems to be a standard for medical care that our nation upholds for other medical facilities. It is difficult to understand why there is a lack of oversight for abortion providers. It seems counter-intuitive for advocates of quality health care for women to be infuriated when states like Virginia require their abortion clinics to meet the same standards as their hospitals.

Abortion procedures involve chemical, surgical, and suctioning techniques performed by a licensed physician. If abortion-rights activists want women to be provided the best possible care, how can they argue against meeting top-notch medical standards?

Beyond Obama’s characterization of quality health care, one should also question his suggestion that to support any type of restriction on abortion access is a sign of moral ignorance. If there has been an evolution or awakening of people’s consciences about abortion, as he indicated in his reference to “checking the calendar,” it is in the opposite direction.

Abortion-rights activists assumed in 1973 that their victory in the courts was the final, irreversible, and infallible judgment on the issue. Yet they have repeatedly been flummoxed by the forty-year culture war that has ensued.

The results of a 2009 Gallup poll demonstrated that for the first time in decades, the majority of American people identify as “pro-life.” Statistics show that more people believe abortion should be illegal than believe there should be no legal restrictions on it. Presumably there are people who would consider restrictions based on fetal development, the health of the woman, and other factors—like genetic conditions or gender preference—to be reasonable as well.

Genetic science, better studies of fetal development, and more advanced sonogram technology and neonatal care have contributed to the cultural shift in the abortion debate. The scientific community has demonstrated with certainty that the embryo is an individual member of the human species with self-directed epigenetic development.

There is no ignoring the fact that Americans are uncomfortable with a woman’s unrestricted autonomy since her choice involves another member of the human family. Sweeping statements about how restricting a woman’s access to abortion will send us back to the dark ages fail to account for the moral awakening of the majority of the nation’s citizens.

Lastly, the president risks alienating a growing population of feminists who do not support unrestricted access to abortion or contraception. Groups like Women Speak for Themselves and Feminists for Life represent advocates for women’s reproductive health and equal standing in the social and economic sphere without provisions for abortion on demand. The number of their supporters is not negligible. Women Speak for Themselves circulated a petition against the HHS mandate boasting over forty thousand signatures of women around the country, and the letter is still gaining momentum.

Feminists for Life educate women of all ages on the principle that no woman should have to choose between her own future and the life of her child. They also point out that early feminists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Alice Paul, and Susan B. Anthony staunchly opposed their contemporaries like Margaret Sanger when it came to the question of whether or not women’s equality necessitated abortion and contraception. This idea that there is a one-size-fits-all character to feminism is historically and culturally inaccurate.

The distortions in the president’s speech at Planned Parenthood’s National Conference are clear. What needs to become clear moving forward, if we as a nation are committed to the welfare of women, is how to define and ensure quality health care for them, particularly in the area of reproductive health.

A natural starting point for this discussion necessarily involves the population of Americans who do not think, because of scientific developments and a fresh moral perspective, that unlimited access to abortion actually benefits women. If there is a war on women, it is a civil one, and its resolution rests in an honest look at what we are offering them under the guise of equality.