Still Standing with Planned Parenthood

In those days you worried about Operation Rescue blockading your clinic. You worried about HIV education and whether or not it was possible to distribute condoms to high school and college students. You didn’t worry about whole states losing their abortion providers. You didn’t worry that the state government was abdicating sexuality and health education in public schools to anti-choice groups. 

In 1993, right out of college with my fancy, east coast, liberal arts degree, I was able to get two part time jobs: one doing manual labor at a lumber yard, the other as an administrative and medical assistant at Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Michigan. I answered the phones, scheduled appointments, took blood pressures, administered pregnancy tests and delivered their results. I filed charts, counseled women on birth control options, and once a week, on Saturday mornings, I worked in the recovery room for women terminating their pregnancies.

Working at a women’s health clinic in a small town can be awkward, particularly if it’s also where you grew up. Once I found myself looking at my best friend from kindergarten across the counter. Another time I filed my boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend’s chart. And I saw my best friend from fifth grade’s mother kneeling in the parking lot, praying over her rosary on Saturday morning along with other (mostly peaceful) protestors.

The women in surgical recovery were diverse: White, black, Asian. They ranged from married mothers in their late thirties or early forties to a twelve year old who had been raped on her way to school. A woman with whom I went to high school came in. She had a key chain with a picture of a toddler on it. There was a young single mother from upstate. Her mother came with her. They had identical bleached blond hair scraped back out of the way. The older woman looked tired, the younger woman miserable. She frantically scraped away the identifying label on the pill bottle for the post-surgery antibiotics that I gave her.

Some wept, a few vomited. I cleaned up their blood and puke, talked to them about contraception plans and scheduled their aftercare appointments. Two young couples from China came in on separate occasions. Each couple already had a child, but they were graduate students planning to go home and the government’s one child policy limited them to the child they already had. When I went to escort them out of their procedure room, one of the husbands was sitting with his head in his hands, saying over and over in Mandarin “It’s hard to bear.”

What does it mean to stand with Planned Parenthood? It means standing up for health care for poor women who need it for annual pap smears, well-woman care, birth control and HPV treatment. The social media campaign #StandWithPP raises awareness of the breadth and value of Planned Parenthood’s reproductive health work, and reminds people what we have to lose when we take our eye off the ball when it comes to women’s health.

On July 31, NPR’s daily news round up on “All Things Considered” included a brief discussion of the impact of the video misinformation campaign relating to Planned Parenthood’s fetal tissue donations. Audie Cornish asked her two regular commentators, David Brooks of the New York Times and E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post, about the negative publicity and public outcry: “does this feel at all like the mid-’90s when there was that activism around so-called partial birth abortion?” Brooks responded “I don’t think we’re going to go back to the big, big abortion fights we had in those years simply because both parties would rather talk about economics and other – less social issues…”

Dionne’s comment was similar, “I don’t think we’re going back to the ’90s. I think there is fairly stable opinion on abortion. There isn’t radical shift one way or the other. And I, too, would like to find a middle ground. And what I would focus on is what can we do to help women who want to have their children, to help poor women who have a disproportionate number of abortions, rather than make abortion illegal because it’s very clear that even people who are very uncomfortable with abortion don’t want it banned.”

These are comments of people with the privilege of not having a stake in the game. Since the first Center for Medical Progress videos appeared, Planned Parenthood has been continually on the defensive. An organization which provides basic health care to millions of women (particularly poor women) is at risk of losing funding, although multiple investigations have found no wrongdoing. Dionne and Brooks either haven’t been paying attention, or maybe don’t care. It’s tough to keep all a sense of urgency for all the things that require it. Between declining living standards, eroding working conditions, climate change, law enforcement extra-judicially executing African American citizens and decades of constant war in Iraq and Afghanistan, concern fatigue could be problem. But perhaps they should just say “I don’t know where this is going, because I haven’t focused on it” instead of saying “It’s not a problem because I haven’t been paying attention.”

I first started paying attention twenty-six years ago as a first year college student. We went to Washington to march for women’s lives. I had a T-shirt with a bloody coat hanger on it saying “Never Again”. The picture of the dead woman in Our Bodies Our Selves, bled out from a botched illegal abortion, was seared on my brain.

After college I worked at Planned Parenthood for only a few months because they didn’t have a full time position for me. I got a job as a social worker in Detroit, working with low income families and children. One of the women I worked with, Mariah (not her real name), had four or five children between the ages of eighteen and four. The youngest had fetal alcohol syndrome and cerebral palsy. The eldest, Terry (also not her real name) had a daughter of her own and was in a violent relationship with the baby’s father. Mariah was a chronic, long term drug addict, as were two of her sisters and at least two of her brothers, some of whose children were also my clients. One day Mariah told me she was pregnant. She was discouraged, knowing that she had been using and unable to imagine having another child. Sitting on her floor she said in a defeated voice, “I’ll ask Terry. She knows. She’s had so many.” I knew what she meant.

These jobs were all before I turned twenty-five. I’m forty-four now. Babies born (wanted or otherwise) in the months I was working at Planned Parenthood are old enough to drink. I still remember the names of many of my clients in Detroit and I wonder how many are dead. I remember the faces of the women in the recovery room and I remember meeting them at odd times afterwards: working behind the counter at the deli or the garden supply. There are other Mariahs and Terrys out there, the “poor women” who E.J. Dionne allegedly wants to help.

In those days you worried about Operation Rescue blockading your clinic. You worried about HIV education and whether or not it was possible to distribute condoms to high school and college students. You didn’t worry about whole states losing their abortion providers. You didn’t worry that the state government was abdicating sexuality and health education in public schools to anti-choice groups. You worried about how women on Medicaid would afford abortions, but you didn’t have Wendy Davis filibustering to keep abortion accessible in Texas. Politicians legislated abortion restrictions whenever they could, but there weren’t mandatory rapes with foreign objects (also known as medically unnecessary transvaginal ultrasounds) as a precondition for the procedure.

And here’s another little thing I think about. In 1993 and 1994, when I was young and working a couple of part time jobs, I was able to support myself and pay my student debts. Most of my friends could too. Young people could share a house or an apartment with friends and make a living delivering pizza or working at the mall. Student debts were lower and low wage work covered more of life’s expenses. It was before Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America (in which the Republican Congress essentially took out a contract on America’s safety net).

Life is harder for young people than it was twenty years ago and not just to my middle-aged eyes. Single and working mothers with unexpected pregnancies have far less margin for error. They need to be able to make the choice even more than they did before. Young women need access to reliable, high quality contraceptive and gynecological care on a sliding fee scale even more than before. And just because I don’t see my own neighbors and childhood friends making these hard choices doesn’t mean it isn’t still happening around me. I haven’t personally read the chart of the girl getting me my coffee, but I understand that she or a woman just like her could have an abusive or unreliable boyfriend and is freaked out that the condom failed her.

To hear the senior voices of the east coast media establishment tell it, a woman’s right to control her reproductive capacity is pretty much stable and really, Planned Parenthood has only itself to blame for being “callous” or “unseemly” when it was set-up by radical anti-choice activists to create a false impression that Planned Parenthood sells the remains of aborted fetuses.

For David Brooks or E.J. Dionne to suggest people don’t care about those “social issues” and “we” need to find “middle ground” because even those opposed to abortion don’t want to completely get rid of it is willfully ignorant in multiple ways. First, “social issues” like access to affordable, quality gynecological care when you work a low wage job and are trying to keep your kids fed is inextricable from “the economy.” Second, the notion that “we” can find a middle ground is bizarre given that the opponents of abortion have never compromised. George Tiller was assassinated in 2009 (well after the ‘90s). There may be a silent majority that believes abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare” as Bill Clinton once said, but Bill Clinton hasn’t been president for a long time. State legislatures in particular are coming up with more and more technical barriers to abortions.

The notion that abortion rights are secure is part of what allows its radical opponents to gain ground. Congressional Republicans are attacking health care for women. Again. Particularly reproductive health care for poor women and young women. Planned Parenthood serves profoundly vulnerable people: rape survivors, single parents, poor families. Whether it’s a generational issue or a problem with “crisis fatigue,” women are being written out of the discussion of their own health care.

The women who most need the services Planned Parenthood provides, including but not limited to abortion, are not powerful. They don’t have access to sophisticated lobbying and public relations machines to spin their stories. And their stories are often painful and private. But they are powerful. So keep standing with Planned Parenthood and stand with the women who use its services to keep themselves healthy so they can be the mothers, grandmothers, daughters and partners that they want to be.

Elleanor Chin is a writer and litigation consultant living in Portland, Oregon. Her writing appears in BlueOregon, SecondNexus.com, Feministing and other places. She blogs about culture and creativity at www.ragecreationjoy.wordpress.com. She graduated from Bryn Mawr College and the University of Michigan. When not preoccupied with the infamous work/family balance she enjoys reading biographies and baking yeast bread.
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