Amid all the hubris and rancor flying around the subject of women’s reproductive rights these days, I suggest we stop for a moment and send a word of thanks to Planned Parenthood for its 100 years of caring for both women and men with nowhere else to turn — almost 50 of those years in Los Angeles.
This venerable organization is well known for offering every kind of gynecological care, including birth control and, in a small percentage of cases, when requested, terminating unwanted pregnancies. But it also performs vasectomies for men, and sex education for middle- and high-school students — including peer-advocate programs — as well as parent and adult education.
At Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights, for example, Planned Parenthood set up a clinic inside the school. In a single semester before the clinic, there were 34 positive pregnancy tests among students. In the semester after Planned Parenthood arrived, just three students became pregnant. And those benefits are both short- and long-term: Think of the teens whose futures were saved, who did not have to face the choice of having an abortion or aborting their own childhood. Think also of the public money saved on medical care for the teen mom and public programs for the unintended child. Roosevelt is living evidence that even a single office can have dramatic results, while the absence of intervention is extremely costly, both financially and emotionally.
And yet, Planned Parenthood has become the new curse word for some on the campaign trail, as well as among Catholic bishops and on the pulpits of some churches. Mystifying as it might seem, the question of women’s reproductive rights — birth control — is coming under fire. And it’s not just the “old dudes” who are fussing, as Jon Stewart so aptly suggested Monday night in a segment brilliantly titled “The Vagina Ideologues.” Women, including Sarah Palin, have jumped on board, too. (It is worth noting, however, that while still governor, in 2009, Palin reportedly appointed a Planned Parenthood board member to the Alaska Supreme Court. Go figure).
So, in light of all this, I made a visit last week to Planned Parenthood’s Los Angeles headquarters, realizing I had no idea what it’s like to go there. The headquarters are located in a bright-blue building on 30th Street, just south of downtown, not far from the USC campus. They’ve recently renovated an industrial structure, and while I sat waiting in the lobby for my guide, I was struck by how pleasant it was to be there — everyone coming into the offices that morning greeted one another with big smiles. Perhaps it’s the leadership, or maybe the sense of purpose in the workplace.
I toured the clinic, one of 18 Planned Parenthood health care centers in Los Angeles. It is well appointed and well thought-through: Recovery rooms, for example, allow for lots of sun, because light can help in healing. There were also plenty of private consultation rooms for doctors, conference rooms for classes, a library for resource materials, and, most interesting, the call room, where the initial contact with clients for all the centers is made.
Rocio Ayala, the customer service center manager, heads the couple of dozen phone screeners, who collectively take between 2,000 and 2,400 calls each day. That’s about 100 calls per screener per day, each call lasting about two minutes, Ayala said — and those minutes can change lives. All the operators are required to be fluent in both English and Spanish, and they have easy access to interpreters for every other possible language clients might use. Ayala, who is Latino, told me that many of the callers are seeking health care for the first time in their lives: “We’re the place that people can turn to when nobody else can help them.” Planned Parenthood takes health insurance, but it also offers services and birth control for little or for free, depending upon need. For the uninsured, out-of-pocket birth control can average around $50 per month, not affordable for those on the poverty line, said Serena Josel, deputy director of the L.A. offices. “For 60 percent of our patients,” she said, “we are their primary care provider.”
Sue Dunlap, CEO and president of Planned Parenthood, Los Angeles, has been with the organization for 13 years. She said the current controversy doesn’t surprise her, though she did sound a bit weary of the attacks on the organization’s mission. After all, she pointed out, studies have found that 99 percent of sexually active women in the United States use some form of birth control at some point. And one in five women in the United States will utilize the resources of Planned Parenthood in their lifetime. I can say anecdotally I know this to be true, based on my own women friends, Jewish friends included, who’ve gone there at one point or another in their lives — while short on cash for a doctor or just not knowing where to turn.
(For the record, Jewish law permits abortion in some circumstances, even requires it when the mother’s life is in danger, and birth control is permitted for married couples as long as the mitzvah of having children is also part of the plan. Some forms of birth control, such as the pill, are preferred over others, because they do not block or destroy the seed.)
The Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing reproductive health worldwide, reports that 1.6 billion women worldwide are of childbearing age, 62 million of them in the United States, and that the average age that Americans have sex for the first time is 17. Given all that, the issue of containing unwanted pregnancies must be a burning concern for us all. More and more people are seeking help from Planned Parenthood in recent years, Dunlap said, and that’s because the economy has made them more “deliberate about having access to contraception.”
So why are we even talking about Planned Parenthood except in glowing terms?
“I wish I still found it surprising,” Dunlap said. “I do find it shocking. I hope there will come a time when we say, ‘Enough is enough.’ ” She is especially concerned for the younger generation, who don’t realize that they “can’t take access to birth control for granted,” she said.
“This is access to basic care.”
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