Getting the cold shoulder

Sarah Palin Speaks At Celebration Of Life Breakfast In Washington

The Washington Post is known for puffy Style-section profiles of movers and shakers in the Washington area. A few years ago, we looked at the puffiest Washington Post Style profile I can recall. It was about Kate Michelman, the former head of NARAL Pro-Choice America. We learned from that piece that she organized sales to benefit Mexican farm workers as a teenager, makes food from scratch, reads a lot (“every word in every paragraph”), and loves to wash dishes. Here was a sample from that hagiography:

Kate Michelman is the face of reproductive rights. It’s a thin face with high cheekbones, dark eyes that can light up and a mouth with a corner that upturns at comic moments.

Or there was the much more informative, if no less puffy, treatment of Cecile Richards, the head of Planned Parenthood. It began and ended with references to her vocation as mother and included nothing but positive information about a woman who oversees the largest provider of abortions in the country. Instead, it’s just nice:

To get the job done, she has been traveling and seeking advice. Thursday she was back in Washington, where she lives with her husband and 15-year-old twins, until they all move to New York this summer. She met with George Washington University students, then with a group of teens at a health clinic in Northeast. She had lunch with a small group of professional women and stay-at-home moms in their thirties and forties. As she rode from place to place, she asked her driver, Ron Evans, for an update on the NCAA tournament so she could talk brackets with her husband.

At the end of the story, she’s actually playing Foosball with kids from the projects. More recently, there was this story about Emily’s List — a PAC that supports candidates who support abortion rights — that read like a press release.

Compared to these puff pieces, last week’s story about Marjorie Dannenfelser, who heads the pro-life Susan B. Anthony list, is just odd. (It might have run because Sarah Palin, pictured, spoke at an SBA List function last week.) The best thing I can say about it is that, unlike all of the other profile pieces you read day-in and day-out in the Washington Post style section, this one is not puffy. But it’s also rather distant . . . and cold. I don’t know Dannenfelser and I didn’t really feel like I knew her any better after reading this piece. It’s not that it has many errors, or completely fails to discuss Dannenfelser’s religious views, it’s just written as if the reporter and the subject inhabit different planets.

We learn a bit about the group’s political strategy, an interesting topic these days when those who oppose abortion have been dealt some tremendous defeats at the federal level. But it certainly seems as if the issue is personal for reporter Jason Horowitz. Note this paragraph:

Dannenfelser, wearing a striped beige jacket and a necklace of silver spheres, came out of her small office, where books about the importance of women in the life of Pope John Paul II (“Wojtyla’s Women”) and an anti-Democratic screed (“The Party of Death”) sat in a short bookcase. She spoke in a warm Southern accent, and as she fiddled with a pink packet of Post-it Notes, declared that the abortion issue is back on the nation’s radar.

I’ve read “Party of Death.” I’m pretty sure that Mr. Horowitz hasn’t. It’s the opposite of a screed. It has an aggressive title — one that refers not to a political party but to a movement that, Ponnuru argues, has overtaken the Democratic Party, the media, many courts and other institutions — but the book itself is very calm and reasoned. The author, who I know and who is actually a Post contributor, is unique. He lays out his case without personal invective, something that’s almost unheard of in modern political writing. Ponnuru’s book, which is about many aspects of modern bioethics and political history is just not a screed. Ponnuru is a tough opponent. His book certainly angered pro-choicers as much as it delighted pro-lifers. But no matter what your personal view of abortion politics, screed is just not an appropriate word to use about an important book like “Party of Death” in a profile piece about a pro-life activist.

Of course, whether Horowitz is writing on the front page of the Post or in his normal Style section digs, I think he lets too much of his own politics into his writing.

Anyway, back to the profile. Here’s a sample:

Dannenfelser, a native of Greenville, N.C., and former debutante, grew up as Marjorie Jones, an Episcopalian and defender of a woman’s right to choose. One summer spent in a Georgetown house for Republican interns changed that, when a bitter schism erupted between social conservatives and libertarians over a pornographic video. That domestic dispute began the gradual transformation that led Dannenfelser to her current antiabortion crusade, her conversion to Catholicism and the founding of a society named after the suffragist who, according to historians, hardly made abortion a signature issue.

OK, the last line is also interesting to me.

I remarked last week how funny it is that the media never ever discuss that the founder of Planned Parenthood — one Margaret Sanger — was a major league eugenicist. Sometimes when I’ve criticized that absence of information, a reader will say “Come on! Everyone knows she was a eugenicist.” I’ve come to wonder how everyone “knows” something that is never mentioned by the mainstream media.

You will note that in that long, puffy profile of Cecile Richards, current head of Planned Parenthood, no one mentioned that the organization’s founder had some (in my view, at least) pretty disgusting things to say about some people. Nope, not even in a profile of the current head of Planned Parenthood.

But this article includes several paragraphs complaining that the suffragist Susan B. Anthony didn’t make abortion her “signature issue.” I think — I hope — we all know what Susan B. Anthony’s signature issue was. It’s also undeniable that she was an outspoken critic of abortion. All suffragists of that era were against the practice of abortion, of course.

Abortion as a political issue is a modern invention but abortion as a signature political issue is of even more recent vintage. Pro-choicers have been complaining about pro-life feminists using the anti-abortion writings of the suffragists for years — they concede Anthony was morally opposed to abortion but say it’s unclear whether she would have supported the right to commit what she called “child murder.” Fair enough — it’s a legitimate issue to highlight, I guess. But I just find it fascinating that so much space is devoted to examining Ms. Anthony’s views (and, implicitly, the motivation of this particular pro-life activist group) when the more recent views of Margaret Sanger never seem worthy of being explored or analyzed.

Anyway, perhaps this tepid profile of Ms. Dannenfelser is an indication that the Post‘s Style section is going to drop it’s slobbery puff pieces. Somehow I don’t think so, however.

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  • Ray Ingles

    Mollie – You’re right that this particular piece is rather slanted, and the discussion of Susan B. Anthony’s positions is at least out of proportion.

    But the side issue of Sanger’s eugenics is interesting. Does Planned Parenthood today have anything to do with eugenics? When is it newsworthy to bring that up?

    For example, when speaking of the Lutheran church today, is there reason to bring up Martin Luther’s antisemitism? While interesting from a historical perspective, and relevant to some stories (e.g. the Holocaust) I don’t see any signs that the Lutheran church today has any more problem with antisemitism than anyone else.

    What principles do you use to balance that out?

  • Jeffrey

    And to describe Sanger as supporting Eugenics requires a lot more context. She supported Eugenics, but not in a racist context, but instead in the context of the profoundly disabled. She was outspoken in in opposing race-based Eugenics. Not that the current attempt to smear Planned Parenthood with her views–that she shared with W.E.B DuBois and other civil rights intellectuals–aren’t potent if dishonest.

  • Dave

    I would suggest the basic reason the MSM never mentions Sanger’s eugenics is that eugenics is a politically dead issue. Nobody carries a brief for it since the Third Reich. It’s nowhere relevant to the current conversation.

    Of course, what genetic counselors do for their clients is a form of eugenics on a very small, personal, libertarian, democratic basis. But nobody will ever call it that; the name stinks to high heaven.

  • michael

    Perhaps the reason you don’t see “any signs that the Lutheran church today has any more problem with antisemitism than anyone else”–and the reason this reasoning fails–is that insofar as Lutheranism is or was antisemitic, it was antisemitic per accidens. This of course does not excuse Lutherans (or any other Christians) of crimes committed against Jews; it is only to say that Lutheranism does not exist for the sake of persecuting Jews. You can subtract antisemitism from Lutheranism and still have Lutheranism left over. Lutheranism is not essentially antisemitic.

    Planned Parenthood, by contrast, is eugenical per se. Its very reason for being is to promote ‘good birth’ (eu-genics). This, after all, would seem to be what the very phrase planned parenthood means. It does this either ‘positively’ through the prevention of pregnancy or ‘negatively’ through the elimination of the ‘unwanted’ or the ‘unfit’ who have already been conceived, though of course there are euphemisms for these things. These activities are essentially eugenical. And I fail to see how you can subtract these activities and have Planned Parenthood left over. Simply put: what Planned Parenthood does is what eugenics is.

    It seems to me that denying this latter point requires you to adopt a highly restrictive definition of eugenics, to the effect that eugenics is only eugenics when the definitions of ‘unwanted’ or ‘unfit’ are determined by the state, perhaps in the name of Victorian class prejudices or some crude National Socialist fantasy of a ‘master race’, and when such programs are administered on unwilling participants. On such a definition, eugenics could never be internalized or ‘voluntary’ (never mind that the early eugenicists and their Malthusian forebears longed for such ‘responsibility’ and ‘restraint’ from the lower classes), so there could never be a bourgeois eugenics of consumer choice. And there could never be any serious analysis of how choice itself constricts freedom, how the possibility of choice often carries with it responsibility to exercise a certain choice in the face of, say, social ostracism or economic necessity. So we would never get a critical evaluation of what constitutes a ‘willing participant’. Nor would it be possible to concieve how eugenics might serve more ostensibly rational, social ideals such as economic viability, environmental sustainability, or genetic fitness or how notions of a master race might give way to less cartoonish ideal types judged by society to be worthy of children, e.g., high achieving professionals such as Cecile Richards. This means that the new eugenics–which descends historically from the old eugenics in more than one way–could never appear to view, which of course it doesn’t in the treatment of these matters by mainstream journalism.

    This new eugenics is a good bit more subtle than the old, though it arguably already enjoys a much broader (and expanding) scope, and it remains to be seen whether the effect is significantly different. I don’t have the data in front of me, so someone may correct me, but I am under the impression that abortion hits poor and minority communities–and girls–disproportionately hard. And this is before you come to the systematic, near-elimination of children with certain birth defects.

    Of course none of this requires journalists to invoke the name of Margaret Sanger at every turn, and I believe Mollie was only pleading for balance. But then again, if the goal of journalism is not hagiography or propaganda but understanding (a big ‘if’, I grant), then a little more critical historical analysis might be in order.

  • SP Gerety

    Ray – I think Mollie’s point is that the WP needs to be consistent in its treatment of the individuals it profiles. If Margaret Sanger is off-limits, then Susan B. Anthony should be too. If S.B. Anthony isn’t off-limits, then neither should M. Sanger be.

    Jeffrey – It seems almost like you’re saying eugenics is fine as long as it’s directed against the ‘profoundly disabled’ and not based on race. Is that actually what you believe? Please clarify.

  • Ray Ingles

    So, uh, tmatt et al. Should I respond to michael? Or are we keeping things to journalism?

  • Mollie

    Everyone feel free to discuss — just keep the focus on the journalism and not the underlying issues of abortion, eugenics, etc.

    But how the media should discuss PP founder Sanger’s support of eugenics is something that is on topic.

  • Jeffrey

    These activities are essentially eugenical. And I fail to see how you can subtract these activities and have Planned Parenthood left over. Simply put: what Planned Parenthood does is what eugenics is.

    So too, then, is any program that encourages people to have more children. Anyone who suggests whites aren’t having enough children and therefore need to increase their fertility rates is practicing eugenics, based on this definition. A pro-natalist like Mollie, therefore, could be considered advocating positive eugenical activities.

  • Mollie


    Your comment has precisely nothing to do with journalism.

    Please try again, with a focus on journalism.

  • Jeffrey

    If reporters are going to follow-up on the Sanger-is-a-Eugenicist and therefor Planned Parenthood is suspect, it is important to understand what eugenics is, not just what they think it is. Recognizing that the pro-life movement is using this argument as a fairly intentional PR move (especially when dealing with African Americans), it is important for journalists to dissect where this argument is coming from, whether it is historically and intellectually accurate, and understand that–as Michael says–eugenics can include pro-natalists or even religious believers who think that you should have more children so the faith can expand.

  • michael

    We’ll see how long that lasts. It’s pretty hard to discuss the journalism about this issue in abstraction from a substantive treatment of what the issue in fact is, since the disagreement is over how to characterize the given situation. Ray, and most of the coverage, seems to begin from the assumption that Planned Parenthood, in itself, is ‘eugenics neutral’. That is not an assumption I’m willing to concede. It’s a substantial rather than a journalistic matter, but it has everything to do with how Planned Parenthood is portrayed by journalism.

    In self defense I will say that I was provoked to this little excursus on eugenics by Ray’s false analogy between Lutheranism and Planned Parenthood. The analogy makes it appear as if the criterion for quoting the odious statements of their respective founders is one of journalistic balance, when in fact it has to do with the material differences between them. Again, this is not irrelevant to journalism.

    Now how and whether the media should discuss Sanger’s eugenical ambitions in connection with the continuing existence of PP is another matter, somewhat besides Mollie’s point and certainly beside mine. But however you resolve that in any given situation, it presupposes some understanding of what eugenics is. And my point is that the default position ostensibly shared by most journalists (and by Ray), which appears to confine the essence of eugenics to state control and some sort of ‘master race theory’ is already a substantive position which is destined to affect the journalistic framing of PP. Again, there is no neutral starting point on this, and there is no separating journalism and substance.

  • michael


    I’d be interested to hear more about these ‘programs’.

    Your point is logically fragile, mostly a caricature, and it glosses over a thousand historical and conceptual distinctions. But you’ve hit on something nevertheless. Nineteenth and early twentieth century eugenicists were quite anxious not only that the ‘wrong kind of people’ were too prolific but that the ‘right kind of people’ weren’t prolific enough. I’ve always been a bit squeamish about ‘demographic winter’ arguments for that very reason, but then again, I take children of all sorts to be a good thing; I don’t regard having children and aborting them as equivalent, I don’t know anyone who has had children ‘in order to expand the faith,’ and these arguments about population ‘replacement rates’ and whatnot do not occur in a vaccuum. They are a response to an already eugenical situation.

    You mistake my point if you take me to be saying “Sanger is a eugenicist and therefore Planned Parenthood is suspect,” as if it were Sanger’s past that were the problem. This would be a journalistic red herring that deflects attention from the real issue, which is that the services offered by Planned Parenthood now are inherently eugenical: they eliminate the socially and genetically ‘unfit’ in the light of certain societal ideals about who should have children and who should be allowed to be born. It matters little whether there is explicit government sanction for this when there is a general cultural consensus about who the unfit are and all sorts of subtle mechanisms of coercion to ‘enforce’ that consensus, not the least of which is ‘choice’ itself. Otherwise, though, we are in agreement. I would welcome more journalistic consideration of what eugenics is. PP’s historical origins would no doubt be illuminating here, since they undermine the dubious narrative of liberation that PP has yoked itself to, but I am more concerned with its present than with its past.

  • Jerry

    But how the media should discuss PP founder Sanger’s support of eugenics is something that is on topic.

    I consider that equivalent to But how the media should discuss President Lincoln’s support of slavery that is on topic. with one very serious caveat. If there is a demonstrable link between her support of eugenics and current policy; specifically if the motives of current Planned Parenthood employees and volunteers stems from a support for eugenics, then the discussion is relevant.

    Otherwise, we open up the universe to unending deconstruction of historical figures for support of all sort of things we currently consider abhorrent.

  • Dave

    Michael @13, your argument goes off the tracks when it identifies choice as one of a set of coercive mechanisms. For the media to adopt that in any anlysis of what Planned Parenthood does would be to adopt an explicitly pro-life slant. That is not only culturally impossible at this point but would be just as objectionable as the implicit pro-choice bias that can reasonably be attributed to the MSM as it now exists.

    In dealing with two important words now, “eugenics” and “choice,” you put yourself in the position of trying to dictate what they mean. That can never be justly adopted by the media because journalism is, at the end of the day, constructed of words.

  • David

    Sanger is very relevant to today’s Planned Parenthood.

    The highest award that Planned Parenthood gives our each year is their Margaret Sanger award. They also have named multiple clinics after Sanger.

    If Planned Parenthood of today diverges from Sanger, they have done nothing to distance themselves from her statement or her. Instead the record looks like they continue to embrace her.

  • Mollie

    It’s looking like we’re not having a very productive conversation about journalism. If folks want to discuss these other topics, feel free to take it offline.

  • Ray Ingles

    Michael, you can email me if you want to discuss this further – just click on my name – but as others have noted, your definition of eugenics seems… overbroad. I can’t see how the millions of Catholics practicing “Natural Family Planning” wouldn’t count as eugenicists.

    I think Jerry makes the point well – if a famous historical figure’s positions affect present policy – or are claimed to do so – then it would seem called for journalistically to cover those positions. Anthony’s opposition to abortion isn’t in question, though…

  • Crimson Wife

    My great-grandmother was a minister’s daughter and would be considered part of the Religious Right if she lived today. She was also an ardent suffragette after she met Elizabeth Cady Stanton on a train as a child. My great-grandma and many of the suffragettes wanted women to have the right to vote primarily so it would be easier for the government to legislate morality, such as by passing temperance laws.

    She would be appalled at many of the items on the 2nd wave feminists’ agenda such as legalized abortion on demand.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Planned Parenthood has been shown to be willing to accept a donation specifically intended to help lessen the number of black people.

    Beyond this, Eugenics was central to why Sanger formed Planned Parenthood, anti-Semitism had nothing to do with why Lutheranism was founded.

  • John Pack Lambert

    In most people’s minds “eugenics” is not about race, but about eliminating those you chose to call the “profoundly disabled”. In defending a forced sterilization law Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote for the court “three generations of imbicles is enough”.

    Nazi eugenic projects were not racist. They did not force sterilize Jews and the children of mixed race marriages between Senegalese soldiers in the French army and residents of the Ruhr Industrial district. Those people were killed outright.

    The Nazis forced sterilized those with limited mental or physical capacities, those who you call “profoundly disabled”. In doing so they lauded American sterilization laws as having shown them the way, laws pushed for by Margaret Sanger and her allies.

    Planned Parenthood is inherently eugenicist. They set up clinics in minority areas to seek to make it so there are fewer black children. Whatever else our current president is, he is not the son of a black mother, and so unlike J. C. Watts or Clarence Thomas, would never have been in danger from the planned parenthood war on the unborn children of black mothers.