My first contact with Planned Parenthood was back in the late-’70s. Those were the days in which we clasped our well worn copies of Our Bodies, Ourselves in one hand and our burgeoning feminism in the other.
I don’t remember who sent me to Planned Parenthood, but God bless her. I suppose there were a lot of us who were making our way there. Poor, broke college students in need of medical care frequently take advantage of the services offered there.
My first visit was appalling and delightful, all at the same time. My doctor was professional, friendly and caring. At my exam she handed me THE MIRROR. If you don’t know about the mirror, let me take you back in history. You see, back in the day, women’s bodies were somewhat of a mystery. Or so it seemed. Sex ed in schools was hit and miss. As were the conversations at home.
While I was raised by a very open-minded mother who was not averse to any conversation raised, I was a roll your eyes kid who tended not to care. Many of us had the same attitude when it came to “those movies” in school. By the time we needed the information, it wasn’t in our brains. Condoms? The minute details of the menstrual cycle and pregnancy? Healthy breast care? Urinary tract infections. YEAST INFECTIONS?!!!
So, back to the mirror. The mirror was just one part of truly learning the female anatomy. Look, this is your clitoris. A wonderful part of YOU. For ninety-five years, Planned Parenthood has been helping women to know, understand, and care for their bodies. Whether they are poor, broke college students or professionals in high rise office buildings, women are welcome.
I’ve recently learned that men are welcome, as well. Planned Parenthood’s goal is clear: “We are a trusted health care provider, an informed educator, a passionate advocate, and a global partner helping similar organizations around the world. Planned Parenthood delivers vital reproductive health care, sex education, and information to millions of women, men, and young people worldwide.” 
Times have changed.
Remember when I mentioned that my first visit was appalling? Well, as much as I appreciated that visit, I also noticed that the speculum came directly off the floor, out of a somewhat questionable bucket of water and directly into me. ICK!
On a recent visit to our local health center, I was both amazed and impressed. The facility was beautiful, professional, and clean. The poorly funded health centers of the seventies are behind us. The equipment I saw was up-to-date, like that in the best doctor’s office. The waiting areas were comfortable, the lighting soothing and relaxing. The staff was professional, kind, and welcoming. Everything was exactly what I’d expect to find in any professional, well-run medical establishment.
What I did not expect to find was the security. When I walked through the front doors I entered a small alcove that prohibited further entry. The receptionist sits behind safety glass. The two waiting areas, one to the right, one to the left, are behind locked doors. Cameras are aimed at every possible entry point, including a side exit, where the staff members frequently take their breaks.
Why all this security? I think you can guess. Anti-abortion violence has been called “single issue terrorism” and “Christian terrorism.” Shootings, bombings, acid attacks, and anthrax threats all make Planned Parenthood employees’ stress levels rise and put their personal safety at risk. They can be attacked at work, in their homes, or in parking lots when they’re doing their grocery shopping. Their commitment to women’s health is putting their own health in question.
I was at the health center, that day, to attend a conference dealing with on-the-job stress and how it carries over into our everyday lives. While the conference was primarily for the Planned Parenthood employees, certain members of the community had been invited to participate. At the conclusion of the conference, Linda McCarthy, the executive director of my local P.P. health center took my husband and me on a tour. It was McCarthy who explained the need for the bulletproof glass, the cameras, and the constant vigilance, even when she’s in her own yard, gardening.
Myths & Misconceptions
I firmly believe that the reputation of Planned Parenthood is based more on myths and legends than it is on fact. I’ve had to “unfriend” family members on Facebook because of “discussions” that started when I posted Planned Parenthood links on my page. The subject raises people’s hackles and logic seems to flee.
So, I thought I should turn to the experts”¦
The Rev. Vincent Lachina, the Planned Parenthood Chaplain for Washington State, says, “For me, the biggest misconception I find people have about Planned Parenthood is that our health care work is limited to pushing birth control pills and terminating pregnancies. The truth is that our work is comprehensive in scope for the health care for men, women and teens.”
Stephanie Kountouros, Mt. Baker Planned Parenthood Public Policy Coordinator, has encountered two other significant misconceptions. Kountouros believes most people are unaware of the extensive services that are available in a P.P. health center. She explains that people believe, “we are only useful for people who are of reproductive age or able to reproduce. I like to say that we help anyone with a reproductive system: post-menopausal women, young men, gay men, lesbians and transgender people.”
Another misconception Kountouros runs into, she says, “is that those of us who work for Planned Parenthood are political rabble-rousers. Really, our staff just wants to take care of our patients and keep them healthy.”
Indeed, each of the women and men that I met, that day, were what anyone might consider to be normal, everyday people. Nary an army-booted, bullhorn-bearing, angry protestor in the room. (Well, there were a couple of us there, but we were incognito.)
Instead, what I encountered were people who were serious about the work they do; people who care deeply about the welfare of their patients. And, in some cases, people who are so dedicated to their jobs, that they will continue to work for Planned Parenthood, even if they must do so secretly, afraid to tell friends and family.
While Planned Parenthood is known for being front and center on the political front, fighting for much-needed funding (and most recently in the news for the pulled and then re-instated Susan G. Komen funding), many of those that we see in the news are not the people running our local health centers. Some may be, if they feel that particular calling in life. Others may be volunteers or supporters who are more politically active. (See for the good of the people, later in the article.)
So, is Planned Parenthood all about abortion? Here are a few statistics from the Planned Parenthood Annual Report for Washington State. (Lachina tells me that while the percentages would be similar in other states, even though the numbers would vary.)
Of more than 131,000 patients, P.P. health centers provided more than 408,000 services
· 35% for contraception
· 19% for STI/HV testing
· 17% for pregnancy tests
· 13% for breast cancer screenings
· 12% for annual exams
· 1% for vasectomies
· And 4% for abortion care
The Best of the Best
Health, education, and welfare – it is not merely a certain government agency that is concerned with these issues. With nearly eight hundred health centers nationwide and growing cooperation with international agencies, the public’s well being is clearly Planned Parenthood’s top priority.
Rev. Lachina says Planned Parenthood “”¦offers non-judgmental, reproductive care to all who come to our facilities. [here he pauses to remember the P.P. mantra: “You can count on PP to be there for every person, every family, every community.”]
On my tour of our local health center, with Linda McCarthy, another thing was particular striking in my memory. In addition to the beautiful, modern facilities and the heartbreaking necessity of expensive, high-tech security, was a story she told.
Some weeks before our visit, a seventeen-year-old girl had come to the health center, “accompanied” by family members. As the story unfolded for the Planned Parenthood employees, it was not the girl’s choice to be there. Her family had decided that she would come and have a certain procedure performed.
The patient was distraught. Heartbroken. This was not what she wanted for her life. And she couldn’t stop crying.
As with all patients who come for any invasive procedure, she was given extensive counseling. No one – got that, NO ONE – will be given a significant procedure at a Planned Parenthood health center without extensive, in-depth counseling. No one. Not one procedure will be done unless it is in the best interest of the patient. Physically and mentally.
In that particular instance, it was deemed to not be in the best interest of the patient. Regardless of the wishes of the family. As always, Planned Parenthood defends a woman’s right to CHOOSE.
When asked what she thinks is the most important thing she thinks Planned Parenthood does, Kountouros’s answer is powerful and thought-provoking. She says, “Keeping people alive. My best friend was 27 years old when she discovered a lump in her breast. She worked for a local restaurant and had no health care. She came to our local Planned Parenthood and they were able to identify that she had breast cancer and get her connected with the help she needed right away”
When Kountouros talks, her passion is evident. Whether she is protecting the lives of friends or strangers, this is her mission. She continues, “Mt. Baker Planned Parenthood provides rapid HIV testing, breast and cervical cancer screenings to our community and oftentimes to people who can’t get such services elsewhere. How important it is then for our community to know that we will always be here for them, their parents, friends, teenagers. It makes me really proud to have a small part of an organization that provides reliable, consistent service and that really cares about our community.”
Kountouros goes on to say, “60% of our patients have no other doctor–none. When someone comes in for birth control, we are often able to detect other health issues and refer them to get care they might not have known that they needed. We truly are a community health center–and an extremely important part of the health-care safety net in our community.”
Lachina offers another thought, “As a faith leader, the thing I think P.P. does best is offer hope and healing to men, women and teens at the moment of their need. That is for the faith community the Scriptural imperative of how we are to behave in the world. That to me is why the work P.P. does is Sacred Work.”
The work that Planned Parenthood does has long been considered sacred. From her earliest days of caring for women’s health and trying to get birth control into women’s hands, Margaret Sanger sought the support of clergy. It was not always an easy task, yet she was an extremely logical woman. She wrote,
“”¦when I am confronted with arguments against birth control, arguments that are as a rule presented by learned theologians or indefatigable statisticians, the dim far off chorus of suffering and pain begins to resound anew in my ears. How academic, how anemically intellectual and how remote from throbbing, bleeding humanity all of the prejudiced arguments sound, when one has been brought face to face with the reality of suffering!” 
The clergy responded beautifully. They responded with prayers. They responded with letters. One even responded, offering his support, asking for free literature, and ending with words of scorn for colleagues who “practice but do not preach birth control.” 
The oh, so necessary education
Lachina wants us to remember that Planned Parenthood is broad in scope. He says, “Though health care is a primary mission at P.P., we focus heavily on education and prevention.” Here in Washington state alone, P.P. provided sexual health education for more than 31,000 people. No matter what our personal opinions might be of sex ed in our churches and schools, we can’t deny the fact that 31,000 people in one single state is a rather significant number. 31,000 individuals in need of information regarding either the reproductive system, their personal health, or safety.
My local health center also sponsors a group of high schoolers who not only attend weekly meetings to expand their own knowledge, but they also work to develop their leadership skills in order to work with their peers and other members in the community. (Check your local P.P. health center to see if they sponsor ASK ““ Advocates for Sexual Health Knowledge.)
For the good of the people ““ (d@*# politics!)
Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote:
There is a striking kinship between our movement and Margaret Sanger’s early efforts. She, like we, saw the horrifying conditions of ghetto life”¦ Like we, she was a direct actionist – a non-violent resister. She was willing to accept scorn and abuse until the truth she saw was revealed to the millions.
Margaret Sanger had to commit what was then called a crime in order to enrich humanity, and today we honor her courage and vision; for without them there would have been no beginning. Our sure beginning in the struggle for equality by non-violent direct action may not have been so resolute without the tradition established by Margaret Sanger and people like her. 
Planned Parenthood is often a real force when it comes to politics. And those of us who believe that human beings are sexual beings can be grateful. From her earliest days of establishing the American Birth Control League and the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau across the street, Margaret Sanger and her followers have been shaking up the world.
Today Planned Parenthood has more than four million activists, supporters, and donors nationwide. You may be one of them. Their goal is to advocate for policies that enable Americans to access comprehensive reproductive and sexual health care, education, and information. They fight for policies that promote women’s health and allow individuals to prevent unintended pregnancies. 
Planned Parenthood often leaves a lasting memory that turns patient into advocate. Facebook user Bobbi T. writes, “When I was much younger and raising my children with very little money to spare, I’d go to Planned Parenthood for my checkups and birth control pills. I totally support them today – they provide a wonderful service to all women – no questions asked.”
And Susan M. writes, “I myself have used Planned Parenthood when I was younger and it was for women problems. They help very many people with women issues that can’t afford the price it would cost to go to a private doctor. Some people do not have insurance, so this has kept a lot of women healthy.”
In his book Sacred Work: Planned Parenthood and its Clergy Alliances, Tom Davis writes, “It is a sad truth that this country has often
not honored women’s lives. Clergy and other people of faith hear from their own congregants – or know from their own experience – the stories of teens cast out by their families, or women abandoned by their boyfriends, who found little or no support through public agencies and sometimes not even from religious agencies, but who were helped by Planned Parenthood. From the desperate immigrant women Margaret Sanger helped down to the lost teens and battered women of modern America, this imperfect “˜cursed’ human organization has carried out sacred work to the people that scripture calls “˜widows, orphans, and the stranger in your midst.’ (Exodus 22:21-22)” 
Thank you, Margaret Sanger. Thank you to all of the men and women who have carried out her work. May God bless each of you. And may the rest of us support you in all that you do.
 Margaret Sanger, Motherhood in Bondage, 1928
 Papers of Margaret Sanger, Library of Congress
 The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Family Planning: A special and Urgent Concern,” remarks prepared for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, May 5, 1966
 Tom Davis, Sacred Work: Planned Parenthood and its Clergy Alliances, 2005