When Frank and Lillie Gilbreth were asked by a visiting matron to head a new local chapter of Planned Parenthood in Montclair, New Jersey, Frank responded with a whistle. When a flock of the Gilbreths' twelve children appeared in the parlor within nine seconds, setting a family record, the lady from Planned Parenthood, one Mrs. Mebane, nearly fainted. "Shame on you!" she shouted. "And within 18 miles of national headquarters."
That memorable scene from Cheaper by the Dozen radiates the charm of another era. Today in 2003, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) and its global partner, the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), are scarcely 18 miles from any womb on the planet. The besieged and politically radical movement that planted its first clinic in a New York City brownstone in 1916 is now one of the largest nonprofit organizations in the world, with more than 60,000 distribution sites, an annual combined budget of more than $750 million, and an aura of establishment respectability that sometimes belies the group's brute political power and relentless public-relations machinery.
The most recent report by the Chronicle of Philanthropy ranks PPFA the 54th largest charity in the United States, which puts it in the company of Princeton University and Notre Dame in private annual receipts. Confirming her agency's status as a most unusual guardian of public health, PPFA president Gloria Feldt was quoted on April 13 in the Washington Post to the effect that her group would now enter U.S. presidential politics and "be a presence in Iowa and New Hampshire. It's time for us to be involved at that level," she said. Such is the media touch of PPFA that this statement was accepted uncritically by the Post, for PPFA was heavily involved in the 2000 presidential race. Its political wing, the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, financed 500,000 recorded-message phone calls from Barbra Streisand to targeted female voters urging votes for Al Gore. Another 500,000 e-mail messages from Whoopi Goldberg and other Hollywood stars were sent to prospective voters.
PPFA has long been an adept player at national politics. The Action Fund, through its Responsible Choices Action Network project, pursues the goal of converting clinic clientele into legislative and political activists for the organization, its government-funding streams, and its policy goals, particularly the maintenance and support of legal abortion. The Action Fund, like some of its pro-life counterparts, including the National Right to Life Committee, is recognized by the Internal Revenue Service as a 501(c)(4) organization. This tax designation means that the organization is a nonprofit and generates little or no taxable revenue but that contributions to it are not tax deductible, as they are for 501(c)(3) charities. These 501(c)(4) groups are free to develop separate section 527 funds for political purposes, such as voter identification and get-out-the-vote drives, and membership political action committees (PACs) that give money directly to candidates or engage in independent spending on behalf of particular politicians.
The McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law that took effect the day after Election 2002 essentially banned large "soft-money" contributions to political parties. While it imposed time limitations on "issue advocacy" advertising by 501(c)(4) groups, limits that now face constitutional challenge, it left intact their ability to solicit unlimited contributions from individuals to support such advertising and other voter-motivating activity. The result: mammoth "soft-money" contributions to section 527 groups like ProChoice Vote, the beneficiary of a onetime gift of $11.7 million from actress Jane Fonda. In fact, three of the top four and six of the top 25 section 527 groups in the United States, measured in terms of gross receipts from January 2000 to March 2002, were singularly focused on the abortion issue. …