Planned Parenthood's Van Ostern Endorsement Sparks Debate

Aug 16, 2016

The political arm of Planned Parenthood of Northern New England waded into the Democratic gubernatorial primary Tuesday morning when it endorsed Executive Councilor Colin Van Ostern. The move has exposed a disagreement among abortion rights activists over the role they should play in this election.

It was a fairly typical election season scene that played out Tuesday morning outside the Planned Parenthood offices in Manchester. A pro-choice candidate, Colin Van Ostern, accepted the endorsement of Planned Parenthood New Hampshire Action Fund PAC.

“I’m proud to have Planned Parenthood New Hampshire Action Fund’s endorsement and have them with us in our campaign to keep New Hampshire moving forward.”

The endorsement is a big win for Van Ostern on an issue that has been at the center of his campaign and his political career. He often tells voters that the Executive Council decision in 2011 to stop Planned Parenthood funding was a major reason he decided to run for office in the first place.

But what makes this otherwise straightforward endorsement somewhat unusual is its timing – it comes during a Democratic primary in which all three candidates are pro-choice and support funding for Planned Parenthood. It’s the first time a PAC affiliated with Planned Parenthood of Northern New England has endorsed during a Democratic gubernatorial primary.

Jennifer Frizzell is chair of the Planned Parenthood New Hampshire Action Fund. She says the decision came after interviews with all three Democratic gubernatorial candidates: Mark Connolly, Steve Marchand, and Colin Van Ostern. What separated Van Ostern, she says, was his aggressive support for Planned Parenthood’s priorities.

“We were looking for the kind of leader who was instinctively our ally and did not necessarily always wait for us to have to ask for his help."

Van Ostern added, "the reason we expanded Medicaid healthcare coverage to now 50,000 people is not because Maggie Hassan was on the right place on the issue. It’s because she was an extraordinary leader on the issue.”

But not everyone at Planned Parenthood of Northern New England agreed with the decision. Speaking on a conference call organized by the Mark Connolly campaign, minutes after Van Ostern accepted the endorsement, Planned Parenthood of Northern New England board member Mary Rauh expressed concern.

“I think this was totally inappropriate. We’ve got three pro-choice candidates competing in primary. I think we should wait until the general and then endorse.”

Whether appropriate or not, the shift in the last few years towards a more politically forceful Planned Parenthood has turned a few heads. Earlier this year, the organization made news when it issued its first-ever endorsement in a presidential primary, choosing Hillary Clinton. And just last week, the Planned Parenthood New Hampshire Action Fund hired a communications manager for the 2016 election cycle.

“I think that’s probably a reaction to the way they’ve become a political hot button in the last few years.”

Chris Galdieri teaches political science at Saint Anselm College. He says the recent efforts by Republicans to defund Planned Parenthood – both at state and national levels -- have raised the stakes for the organization, and they’ve responded by getting more deeply involved in Democratic politics.

And while this move may help the organization win those funding battles in the short term, Galdieri says it could backfire over the long term.

“The big drawback is the possibility that they come to be viewed purely as a partisan organization. And when that day of a Republican governor comes, I think they will find that they suddenly don’t have access anymore.”

For now at least, Planned Parenthood will be working to make sure that doesn’t happen any time soon.

This story was amended to note that the endorsement came from Planned Parenthood New Hampshire Action Fund PAC, the lobbying arm of Planned Parenthood of Northern New England.