05.08.09

The Judy Blume Abortion War

The godmother of tween literature set off a pre-Mother's Day battle between Planned Parenthood and right-to-life groups, with tactics borrowed from the 2008 campaign. Rebecca Knight goes to the front line of a fight about abortion—and money.

Judy Blume, the pioneer of pubescent ‘tween lit, is used to controversy. This week, however, she also got death threats. Famous for her angst-y young adult novels like Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, Blubber, and Forever, Blume now finds herself smack in the middle of an online battle royale with Planned Parenthood on one side, and right-to-life groups on the other.

For the under-the-radar fight, which has raged over the past 48 hours, these two camps have adopted the tactics of modern political campaigns—both their fast-paced Internet pattern of thrust and parry, and their ability to turn every perceived slight into an urgent fundraising opportunity.

“We live in an ‘us against them’ world and these ‘crisis circumstances’ are a perfect way to raise money.”

It started innocuously enough. On Wednesday, Blume, a longtime public supporter of Planned Parenthood, sent an email to supporters on behalf of the group’s advocacy arm, soliciting donations to the organization in honor of Mother’s Day. The email, which went out with personalized subject lines—“Are You There, [Recipient's Name], It’s Me, Judy” —tells supporters that a charitable contribution to Planned Parenthood “is a gift any mother will appreciate.”

“No organization that I know of supports motherhood and all that it means more than Planned Parenthood,” the email reads. “Say thanks this Mother’s Day with a gift that honors her courage by making a donation to the Planned Parenthood Action Fund in her name.”

The link between that most sacred of Hallmark holidays and an organization best known for "child prevention," including, at some clinics, abortion services and morning-after pills, proved powerful fodder for right-to-life groups, who quickly seized on the email. “Quite honestly it turns my stomach to think about celebrating Mother’s Day by giving to an organization that kills babies,” says Christine Schult, who wrote about Blume's email at Catholic Media Review, an online publication.“I think that someone who writes children’s books should not be promoting abortion.”

In an article posted on Lifenews.com, Steven Ertelt, the editor of the publication, went further, urging readers to complain to Blume via mail or her Web site. Apparently, his readers did so in droves. Blume has been "inundated" with hate mail, harassing phone calls,—and even death threats—from "anti-choice extremists,” according to Planned Parenthood.

Ertelt, for his part, says he skeptical about the death threats. “Making up supposed death threats and harassing calls is a common tactic from Planned Parenthood, who gets upset when they are deluged with complaints about what they do,” he says.

Not one to let a good controversy go to waste, Planned Parenthood doubled down on Thursday, sending out an email from the organization's president, Cecile Richards, using the attacks as another solicitation for donations. “Nothing—NOTHING—would make Judy happier than to know that the backlash has resulted in more support for Planned Parenthood and the women they serve." She adds: "We rarely respond to these outrageous attacks, but when it comes to Judy Blume, well, I can’t stand by and do nothing. I just can't."

Clearly, the lessons from President Obama's groundbreaking 2008 online fundraising machine have reached the advocacy world. Any perceived attack on Obama was met with a call for retribution in the form of donations from supporters. Richards' Planned Parenthood plea hit a patented key. “On the Internet, you can shout fire in a crowded theater,” says Stephen Goldstein, a fundraising and marketing consultant who works with nonprofits. “It’s, ‘We’re under assault, please help us’. The best way to milk [a donor list] is to have an immediate issue that will rally the troops, and provide an obvious way for them to show their support. It’s who gets there first, and who gets there smarter.”

“We live in an ‘us against them’ world," he adds, "and these ‘crisis circumstances’ are a perfect way to raise money.”

Planned Parenthood declined to specify how much money it has raised since Richards’ email, but Goldstein predicts that it's a lot. (While online fundraising still represents less than 10 percent of the total amount charities take in, it is growing at a rapid clip.)

And right-to-life groups will also see a spike. “LifeNews.com has faithful donors,” says Ertfelt. “Letting people know that a children's author is stumping for donations for a business that kills children is part of our mission and it appreciated by the majority of Americans who are pro-life on abortion.”

In other words, money was Judy Blume's Mother's Day gift to both sides in this battle.

Rebecca Knight is a journalist in Boston who has written for The New York Times, Financial Times, and USA Today among other publications.