Planned Parenthood Gets Freaky!

For a long time, the pro-life movement has had a keen sense of how people respond to incentives. Protesters outside of clinics proved to be a very effective strategy for raising the social and moral costs of seeking an abortion.

Now a Planned Parenthood clinic in Philadelphia has come up with a very clever strategy for fighting back, called “Pledge-a-Picket:”

Every time protesters gather outside of our Locust Street health center, our patients face verbal attacks from them. They see graphic signs meant to confuse and intimidate. They are sometimes blocked from entering the building and occasionally they are videotaped. They are offered anti-choice propaganda and free rides to the closest “crisis pregnancy center.”

Staff and volunteers are also seen as targets. We are all called murderers, are lectured to about committing sins, and are told we will pay the “ultimate price” for our actions.

Here’s how it works: You decide on the amount you would like to pledge for each protester (minimum 10 cents). When protesters show up on our sidewalks, Planned Parenthood Southeastern Pennsylvania will count and record their number each day from October 1 through November 30, 2005. We will place a sign outside the health center that tracks pledges and makes protesters fully aware that their actions are benefiting PPSP. At the end of the two-month campaign, we will send you an update on protest activities and a pledge reminder.

My prediction: abortion clinics around the country will soon be adopting this approach.

(Thanks to Gordon Morrison for forwarding me this link.)

Freakonomics Trivia Question: Which of the Freakonomics authors, as a child, drew “abortion is murder” posters to aid his mother’s fight against legalized abortion?


I believe Patagonia, the clothing company, has been doing this for a while.

Tim of Angle

Until one of them gets firebombed, which will make the amount of pledges rather inadequate. It is obvious they don't realize who they are dealing with.


Here is an article about that strategy, from 2001.


Abortion is murder

Travis Johnson

Isn't PPSP substituting a financial incentive for a moral incentive? At the least isn't PPSP muddying the waters when it comes to its appeal?

The pro-lifers are acting based on morality which according to Levitt is at many points opposed to economics. So, how is it that pro-abortionists could hope to compete financially with a group that appeals on an emotional and moral level first and to multiple target audiences (prospective patients, donors, communities, and volunteer bases)?

Wouldn't that be a throw back to the childcare $3 per child per instance late fee?? Based on that premise, wouldn't picketing at those particular clinics only go up and in the end incite more giving and involvement of the pro-lifers?!?!

Travis Johnson


I guess Dubner as the childhood picket sign scribe.


the problem isn't the number of protesters, it is how they behave. If it were my clinic, I'd use the money raised this way to take the protesters to lunch, to get to know them in small meetings. To find out what they think and why they think it. After many lunches, I'd try to get everyone else who works at the clinic to do the same thing. And then, finally, I'd try to get our clients to attend these lunches with us. I would encourage them to attend by telling them that to do so would be courageous, tolerant, and an example of giving back -- that by attending they would be making it easier for others in their situation to get help.


Trivia question answer: Dubner.

Perhaps it was the tenacity and moral conviction he learned from his mother that gave him the right stuff to make this recent post, albeit from the opposite side of the debate.


if by "recent post" 3612 means my recent post ("the problem isn't the number of protesters"), then thanks. But let me correct a misunderstanding: I'm pro-abortion and pro-abortion-clinic. Very much. I think all those lunches would produce better behavior on both sides.


I doubt this would provide much of a disincentive to the protesters. Put yourself in the shoes of the protesters--are those who pledge to give based on protester counts people who support Planned Parenthood and would be likely to give anyway? Yes. If protesters stopped and the pledge revenue stopped, would Planned Parenthood be able to raise the money with some other form of fundraising? Probably, yes. Is this marginal revenue critical to Planned Parenthood? No. Is this really about money? From the protester's perspective -- not at all.

Recall the daycare late policy in Freakonomics -- financial incentives are sometimes quite weak in relation to other social incentives.

Steven D. Levitt

To slocum and others above:

What I think is so clever about this approach is the way it transforms the outrage, anger, and helplessness that ardent pro-choice folks feel towards the protesters into a financial incentive that works on behalf of the pro-choice people and against the protestors. On the margin, I think that donations will be higher because potential donors can then derive pleasure from the presence of the protestors, or at least less pain. It is empowering. On the other hand, if I am a protestor, I will hate the idea that what I am doing may be making Planned Parenthood stronger, decreasing the utility of the protest.


Steve L., I am a bit disappointed in you. Suppose I am a protester. I know that regardless of how much money is actually pledged, Planned Parenthood has incentive to lie and tell me via their posters that they are getting lots of additional donations as a result of my presence. So why should I believe the signs that they put up? Seems like this wouldn't be much of a deterrent at all....


One upping goes both ways. What if the protesters secure donors to double the PP incentive. We now have an incentive to increase presence. Taken to the extreme we can quickly have a situation where the entire global economy is riding on this issue.


My mistake--- I thought Stephen Dubner was the author of the "Planned Parenthood Gets Freaky" post, but I see it was Steven Levitt.
/// to anon. of 7:52 above: I agree wholeheartedly to the lunch scenario you suggest. There's no great testing of tolerance if you only hang out with those who agree with you.


Yes, this is a good way for PP to make money.

No, this does not serve as a disincentive to protest.


Hey - You have to give it to Planned Parenthood: They make money from killing the babies and also by having protestors show up to protest their killing of babies.


Since no one else will, I'll say that Steven is the boy who helped draw anti-abortion posters. I'll also say that as a child, I stood in more than one (non-confrontational, nowhere near a clinic) anti-abortion demonstration.

I agree that the incentives aren't likely to do much, but it reminds me of the similar anti-vegetarian spoof website where people can pledge to eat two steak dinners for every one meal they eat with a vegetarian. Can't find the site anymore, sadly.


what I dislike about this approach is the us-vs.-them attitude it takes, at least if the money gathered is not used to make peace. Both sides are going to be around for a long time. Better to find ways to peacefully coexist. Thus my many-lunches suggestion.

Travis Johnson

Are there incentives being introduced by PPSP? Yes. Do those incentives have counter-acting repurcussions? Absolutely.

It's the case of the $3 penalty. By the way, who is the group picketing against PPSP?

Travis Johnson


Steven D. Levitt: On the other hand, if I am a protestor, I will hate the idea that what I am doing may be making Planned Parenthood stronger, decreasing the utility of the protest.

I'm skeptical. I don't believe the protesters intend for their protests to deprive Planned Parenthood of money--I believe the intent of the protests is to deprive Planned Parenthood of normalcy and respectability. They're trying to convince passersby and, especially, pregnant women seeking abortions that this is not a run-of-the-mill medical clinic but rather an Auschwitz for fetuses (or something like that). Given that motivation and strategy, I suspect they'll not be much bothered or swayed by the money. It may, indeed, make PP and the donors feel better, but I doubt the effect on the protesters.