Opinion: Thank you Planned Parenthood

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.”

Birth control fights return to campaigns, with Jews in key posts

Birth control is rapidly gaining steam as an election-year wedge issue, with Jewish advocates lobbying out front and behind the scenes in what is shaping up as a clash between calls for individual freedom and religious liberty.

Several Jewish groups and lawmakers played a behind-the-scenes role in the latest flashpoint: Last month’s order by the Obama administration requiring most religious institutions — other than houses of worship — to include contraceptives in health care coverage. The order has been strongly criticized by the Republican presidential front-runners, who portray it as proof that the Obama administration is hostile to religious communities.

Even before the U.S. Health Department issued its ruling, the Republican presidential primary battle had helped put the contraception debate back on the campaign agenda. Taking the fight in the other direction, the GOP candidates argued in effect that states should have the right to ban birth control.

During one debate, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum argued that the U.S. Supreme Court wrongly decided the landmark 1963 Griswold v. Connecticut case that blocked states from criminalizing the use of birth control by a married couple and cemented the constitutional right to privacy. Romney, Santorum and Newt Gingrich all have voiced support for the so-called Personhood Amendment, a measure that defines a fertilized egg as a human being and, advocates on both sides say, could be interpreted to ban some forms of birth control.

While recent events have thrust the issue back into the national limelight, Jewish groups on both sides say the issue never went away.

It’s not just that the role of government in making birth control available is inextricably wrapped into abortion, its better-publicized sister when it comes to reproductive controversies, the issue also goes to the core of an American argument that has endured for decades over which entity in a democracy is more entitled to religious freedoms, the individual or the health care provider.

The division over who is pre-eminent under the law, a community and its institutions or the individual, splits the Jewish community. Orthodox and more liberal groups took opposite sides on last month’s Health Department order requiring all religious institutions except for houses of worship to include contraceptives in health care coverage.

“The larger issue here is the issue of the relationship between religious employers and employees and religious providers and patients, and the rights of each,” said Abba Cohen, the Washington director of Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox umbrella group.

If the issue is playing out more prominently in the public eye, it is because the actors in the church-state separation controversy are seizing the political moment of an election season defined increasingly by cultural divisions between left and right, said Sammie Moshenberg, the director of the National Council for Jewish Women’s (NCJW) Washington office.

“The people fighting this fight to make women’s health care less accessible have been emboldened by things on the political scene, most notably the anti-choice majority in the House of Representatives.”

The most recent evidence of the division is related to the rule under the Affordable Care Act requiring employer-provided health insurance plans to include contraception and related “preventive” services for employees.

Catholic Church leaders had urged that an exemption for religious institutions be broadened from houses of worship to include a range of religiously affiliated institutions, such as hospitals. Top Catholic officials have made their case in private meetings with President Obama.

A number of Jewish groups and lawmakers pushed back from the other side. NCJW organized a meeting with senior administration officials as well as representatives of Jewish Women International and a number of liberal Christian umbrella groups. Two eminent Jewish congresswomen, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), the latter one of Obama’s earliest backers in his bid for the presidency, became involved.

On Jan. 20, Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of Health and Human Services, said in a statement that the exemption would stay as is: confined to houses of worship.

Schakowsky praised the decision. “No employer should decide for a woman whether she can access the health care services that she and her doctor decide are necessary,” she said.

Orthodox groups said the decision was a disappointment.

“To say the government will afford religious liberty only to the most insular of religious institutions but not to those that serve, or employ, people of other faiths is a troubling view of faith and what role it should play in America,” Nathan Diament, the director of the Washington office of the Orthodox Union, wrote in a letter published Feb. 5 in The New York Times.

Cohen of Agudath said the issue was one of keeping government out of religious determinations.

Rabbi David Saperstein, the director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, said the decision is vexing because the language it uses to distinguish between strictly religious institutions, which would be exempt, and those that are less so is vague. To be exempt, according to the order, an institution must “primarily” serve and employ those of its faith.

“ ‘Primarily’ is a terribly vague term that will lead to lawsuits that will not help the cause of contraception or the cause of religious freedom,” Saperstein said in an interview.

Komen reverses course on Planned Parenthood, but supporters still hurting

It took just hours for the protests against Susan G. Komen for the Cure to begin, and they quickly took on the fury and form of a full-blown movement.

Online petitions were started. Calls poured forth like an avalanche to withhold donations from the organization for its de-funding of Planned Parenthood, and money was pledged to Parenthood to make up for it. And on Facebook, Twitter and even YouTube, the shock and anger was palpable.

And then, in barely three days, it was over.

Komen, which supports advocacy and research to find a cure for breast cancer, announced Friday that it was reversing its decision Tuesday to suspend funding for Planned Parenthood. The organization gets money from Komen for breast cancer screening and other breast-health services for low-income, uninsured and under-insured women. But Planned Parenthood also provides birth control and abortion services, which has made it a target of attacks from Republicans in Congress.

“We will continue to fund existing grants, including those of Planned Parenthood, and preserve their eligibility to apply for future grants, while maintaining the ability of our affiliates to make funding decisions that meet the needs of their communities,” Komen for the Cure’s founder and chief executive, Nancy Brinker, said in a statement Friday morning. The foundation is named for Brinker’s sister, a Jewish woman who died of breast cancer in 1980.

The widespread outrage that Komen’s initial move sparked in the Jewish world and beyond is a sign not just of the intensity of the passions surrounding breast cancer advocacy, but also of the perils of allowing political considerations to influence public health policies.

With its popular Race for the Cure events and ubiquitous pink ribbons, Komen has established breast cancer awareness as a cultural touchstone, in the process become one of the Jewish world’s favorite charities. Since its founding in 1982, it has raised more than $1 billion to fight the disease, a cause that has endeared the organization to countless Jewish women. Ashkenazi women are 10 times more likely than Americans generally to carry a genetic mutation that makes them susceptible to breast cancer. In Israel, breast cancer is the leading disease among women.

Komen has been a nonpartisan cause, and its move on Tuesday to drop Planned Parenthood, which is under congressional investigation for allegedly using government money to fund abortions, was seen as an effort to avoid problems with donors.

But the blowback to that move ended up being even more of a problem for Komen.

The National Council for Jewish Women accused Komen of putting “politics before women’s health.” The Reform Religious Action Center said the decision was “directly and unfairly threatening the health and safety of women.” The Joint Action Committee for Political Affairs said Komen appeared to be “caving in to political pressure.” And Hadassah, which partnered with Komen to organize the first Race for the Cure event in Israel in 2010, said it was “disappointed” that the controversy was distracting from the objective of promoting women’s health.

On Friday, after Komen reversed itself, the president of Hadassah, Marcie Natan, said, “Komen should never again allow this type of controversy to erode the integrity of its well-known and much-admired name in fundraising for breast cancer treatment research and awareness.”

Many of groups that had criticized Komen earlier in the week praised it on Friday for doing the right thing even as they warned that the fallout from the controversy may have some lingering effect.

“I think people are just going to be very wary going forward,” said Nancy Kaufman, the NCJW’s CEO. “People will be watching. I think they will still organize Race for the Cure, maybe a little less enthusiastically.”

Komen’s initial decision to break with Planned Parenthood was made, the organization said, as a result of a policy that prohibited it from supporting groups under federal investigation. But critics claimed that the group had instituted the rule specifically to exclude Planned Parenthood.

Komen vehemently denied the charge, but several news reports suggested that the move was driven by Komen’s new senior vice president for public policy, Karen Handel, a vehemently pro-life former Georgia gubernatorial candidate who has said she opposes the mission of Planned Parenthood. Komen’s top public health official resigned in protest over the decision.

Brinker, Komen’s founder and a Texas Republican and former Republican Jewish Coalition leader who had been honored in December by the Reform movement for her breast cancer work, labored to contain the fallout.

In a YouTube video posted Thursday, she first defended the decision as part of a wider overhaul of granting guidelines. By Friday morning, she had reversed course entirely, apologizing for the decision and promising that Planned Parenthood would remain eligible to apply for future grants.

“We have been distressed at the presumption that the changes made to our funding criteria were done for political reasons or to specifically penalize Planned Parenthood,” Brinker said. “They were not. Our original desire was to fulfill our fiduciary duty to our donors by not funding grant applications made by organizations under investigation. We will amend the criteria to make clear that disqualifying investigations must be criminal and conclusive in nature and not political. That is what is right and fair.”

Brinkner ended her statement with a plea to “help us move past this issue.”

But even for some of the group’s longtime supporters, that may prove difficult.

“I think that they really damaged their credibility, and I hope that they can clean themselves up,” said Rani Garfinkle, a longtime Jewish community activist who participated in several Race for the Cure events, including the inaugural Jerusalem race.

“I’m not sure I won’t seriously reconsider how I give my money,” Garfinkle said. “But it remains to be seen.”

Komen foundation cuts funding to Planned Parenthood

The Susan B. Komen for the Cure foundation cut funding for Planned Parenthood breast cancer testing.

The foundation said the decision, which was announced Tuesday, was prompted by its ban on dealing with groups under investigation in Congress.

Planned Parenthood’s defenders say the congressional investigation is based on debunked allegations that it misuses federal funds.

Planned Parenthood had joined with Komen in providing preventative breast exams for low-income women.

The National Council of Jewish Women on Wednesday accused Komen of caving into pressure from right-wing groups, noting that such groups oppose Planned Parenthood for the abortion services it provides.

“Komen’s action puts politics before women’s health, placing the foundation in the same company as those who seek to defund Planned Parenthood altogether as part of anti-choice agenda and in complete disregard for women’s welfare,” NCJW said.

U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) also said that because of the decision, she would no longer support the Komen foundation.

Komen was founded by Nancy Brinker, a prominent Texas Jewish Republican activist, in her sister’s memory.