Planned Parenthood Federation of America was founded on October 16, 1916, when Margaret Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in the U.S. in Brooklyn, New York, with her sister Ethel Byrne and Fania Mindell. All three women were quickly arrested (and were then arrested another six times), but that was just the beginning of their fight to provide access to reproductive healthcare to American women.
Today the non-profit organization is still under attack: for example, President Trump is actively trying to defund Planned Parenthood by block Medicaid reimbursements, which would impact millions of Americans, and the administration is rolling back the Obama-era stipulation that employer-provided health insurance policies include female contraceptive coverage.
On the 101st anniversary of Planned Parenthood, the trailblazing Faye Wattleton, who was president of the organization from 1978 to 1992, looks back at how she became an activist, and why she's not surprised that we're still fighting for access to reproductive healthcare today.
How did you become the president of Planned Parenthood?
Well, my mother was a minister, and so as a child, I grew up attending tent revivals. So perhaps my courage was derived from the role model of a very strong, articulate orator, who preached with conviction and in her beliefs. My background also is in health care. I have two degrees in nursing. I was trained at Ohio State, and I earned a master's in midwifery at Columbia University. At that time, abortion was illegal, and so I saw the benefit and the dangers and the results of illegal abortion. My clinical training was at a large urban hospital, and so poor women came in, injured, bleeding, and in one or two cases, I actually saw and witnessed the death of a woman that I cared for. So it didn't take a great deal of courage to speak on behalf of what I had seen, not what I thought about or theorized about, but rather, what I had seen that goes on in women's lives.
Before coming to the national organization, I ran a local Planned Parenthood chapter. At that time, it did not provide abortion services, and still, it was under attack, because we provided services to minors without parental consent, so the local Catholic priest attacked us regularly from his pulpit. The opposition to what we did very often resulted in pickets around our clinics, and so it didn't take a great deal of courage for me to say that, "This is wrong. It's wrong for America. It is wrong for women. It simply is not the progression that we should expect in this country." I felt that I could now give voice in a broader and to a broader audience, on a broader platform for real issues that are a part of real women's lives, not the theory of women's lives or the judgment about women's lives, but in reality, what their needs are and what we could offer them in the services provided at Planned Parenthood clinics.
Where are you from?
I'm from St. Louis, Missouri, but I came here to New York in the late '70s to become president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. When I came to New York, it was a time of great difficulty for the city. There had been an enormous financial crisis in the city. There was the emerging crack epidemic throughout the country, the issues of health care, reproductive health care, teenage pregnancy, a number of issues that were carryovers from the struggles of the country in the '70s were very much a part of life in New York City.
I loved New York immediately, but I was here in graduate school in the late '60s, so it was a better time. There were still a number of problems within the city that the leaders of the city were grappling with, but instead of turning away from it and shying away from the difficulties, I saw that really as reflective of a lot of what was going on in the country at large. And my position as Planned Parenthood president allowed me to be a spokesperson for women in the midst of these great changes that were taking place and the turmoil that occurred as a result of the changes.
Planned Parenthood has always been a controversial organization. Did you feel there was a lot of opposition to what you were trying to do?
Well, let's do a little historic lesson here. The woman who founded Planned Parenthood went to jail seven times. The progression of this organization in advancing women's possibilities has always been under attack. To be jailed for passing out literature was really the founding roots of Planned Parenthood.
So it was not unreasonable to expect that I would come to the national organization and encounter the same types of opposition, but mid-to-late 20th century opposition… it was a very violent time. Our affiliates were being bombed. They were being picketed daily. The doors were locked with glue, with epoxy.
Planned Parenthood is a network of organizations around the country. At the time that I became Planned Parenthood, there were over 200 family planning clinics in most states in the country, and so the opposition, having lost dramatically as a result of Supreme Court decisions and as a result of the progression of national federal policy funding reproductive services, had expanded significantly the services that women, that poor women, that young women, that minority women could receive.
Those services were in direct opposition to the people who want women to continue to fulfill reproductive obligations, without having the benefit of controlling their bodies in that regard. So what happened was that not being able to control the national progression for women, the strategy was to do what was necessary to block the efforts of people serving women in their communities, and that became the focus and remains largely the focus of the opposition, the continuing opposition, almost 40 years later, of the people who want to roll back the clock.
Did I feel that it was a very difficult position to be in? No. I felt very privileged to have been selected to be the voice and the leader. I was the chief executive officer of the national organization, the oldest nonprofit reproductive health care organization in the country. We were in the midst of a very, very severe backlash. Now, when I say we, I mean women, not Planned Parenthood. Planned Parenthood simply served women, but we had seen a progression of lawsuits that legalized contraceptive use, that legalized abortion, that made reproductive health services more broadly available through federal allocations.
It was a time when women really made tremendous progress toward being really totally in control of their lives and their bodies. So of course, there was going to be an opposition to these dramatic changes, because it really meant a fundamental change for women in our society. And that was very much the case when I joined the national organization to try to lead the organization to address these issues on behalf of women, not on behalf of Planned Parenthood, but on behalf of women, because we were the ones that stood at stake to lose the most.
Are you surprised now that there's still so much push back today, even though times have really changed?
I recently attended a meeting of Planned Parenthood, where it was announced that one out of every three women in this country have benefited from a Planned Parenthood service. That's a lot of women. That's a lot of lives who have been touched, who have been changed. Even though I left the organization a number of years ago, after almost a quarter of a century of service there, I still meet women who say that, "Without Planned Parenthood, I would not have had a life. I would not have been able to achieve what I've been able to achieve," and subsequently have become mothers and successful in their own lives.
So I guess I'm not surprised, because I know that the opponents of this progression, and those who want to roll back the clock for women, are not willing to give up, because they believe themselves to be divinely anointed to do so. They believe that their values should be imposed through government on every woman. They believe that somehow, their view of their world is the view that every woman should accept, and I would like to believe that we are a country that holds to the basic, fundamental beliefs that people should be able to determine their own destiny, without the government attempting to restrict or dictate their circumstances, when those circumstances are often very complicated and are not susceptible to regulatory or legislative authority.
Being a mother myself, I know the experience of pregnancy is a very challenging one. Being a mother and not only having actually given birth to a daughter and raised her and tried to give her the very best possible circumstances, parenthood is a very challenging one. Interestingly, Planned Parenthood was started by a woman who wasn't so concerned about parenthood as she was about women's sexual and reproductive liberation. Her view was that women should be able to enjoy their sexuality as a normal part of being human, and that they should not be susceptible to unintended pregnancy as a result of not having the means to control that fertility. So I would like to think that where we have tried to lead is that we've tried to say that this is about liberation for women, but also, it's really about a world in which we can make our personal choices without other people dictating those choices. I mentioned earlier that my mother was a minister. She didn't believe in government intervention in your personal lives.
She believed very much in the power of persuasion, and I was often characterized as being godless and having no religious values, and I think that my work really informed my values quite deeply in a religious grounding, in the view that we must extend compassion, but also, that we have to understand that everyone doesn't have the same life, and that the government should not dictate it. That's, of course, what she did throughout her life and throughout her ministry. When I was a child, I used to go to the altar all the time to get saved. I didn't stay saved, but her persuasion was quite powerful and was very powerful in changing the lives of many whom she touched. But she did not at any point dictate or advance the notion that the government should carry out her message that she derived from the Bible and from the teachings of the Old and New Testaments. She did not believe that that should be enshrined in laws, to impose and enforce them on others against their will.
But let me tell you, people are familiar with it one way or another, whether they're an activist or not, because it's human. It's about human nature. It's about the human condition. Sexuality is a part of who we are as creatures, from infancy, even during gestation. Sexual development takes place in the development of the fetus, and so it is a matter of whether we will stand against those who wish to control and regulate or whether we will continue to speak out and advance the notion that, just as other aspects of our health and the wellbeing of our lives is better advanced by being informed, by being educated, by understanding the progression that has been made in understanding how the body functions and how we relate psychologically to one another, it should be a part of that natural aspect of who we are. And, you know, frankly, when people are so consumed with other people's sexuality, I kind of find it kind of perverse, but I can tell you this: We're all sexual, and the only question is whether we will be able to express our sexuality by an informed process and with the choices to be able to exercise our choices responsibly, or whether we will be circumscribed to another person's value system and views as to how we should conduct our lives. And I'd like to think that the work that I was able to do during the almost a quarter of a century of Planned Parenthood is that I preserved a country in which people who really want to have children and who believe that abortion is wrong and that they should not be forced to terminate a pregnancy against their will will also have that right. So it's really about fundamentally, what do we mean when we say that we live in a free and liberated country? And so I really felt that the context of that work is really about preserving the fundamental principles of our country and our society.
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