When Margaret Sanger was a young nurse working in New York tenement houses early in the 20th century she was called to assist a 28-year old woman who had attempted to terminate her fourth pregnancy. Recovering from the infection that nearly killed her, the woman asked Sanger how to stop having children. "What did the doctor say?" Sanger asked. "He said "Tell Jake to sleep on the roof,'" the beleaguered mother replied. Promising to learn more about birth control and return with answers, Sanger's research began. Several months later she was called to the same house where the woman she'd promised to help had tried to end another pregnancy. This time the young mother died, leaving behind three small children. Sanger redoubled her efforts to educate women about "family planning." Her lifelong work began culminating in the organization now known as Planned Parenthood.
The bad rap that Planned Parenthood and other women's full service health clinics get because of the abortion debate in the country is unfortunate and dangerous. Women's health clinics provide a wide range of services including cancer screenings, pre- and post-natal coverage, care for some chronic illnesses, and well-woman visits. They are not "abortion clinics," although many do provide that constitutionally protected service. Most of them serve women ranging in age from early teens to end-stages of life. An estimated three million women and men use Planned Parenthood affiliate health centers annually; more than 70 percent of them receive help to prevent unintended pregnancies. Over half a million women get Pap smears and breast-cancer screenings. Only three percent of all Planned Parenthood health services are abortions. In short, the organization is about quality comprehensive health care within the context of privacy and personal rights.
Republican legislators in states like North Dakota, Arkansas, Virginia, and Texas still don't get it. Their ignorance and political agenda put innumerable women at risk because the regulations they want to impose on clinics providing abortions among a cafeteria of services will require many of them to close. Where will women, especially those in rural areas or lacking health insurance, go when they are hemorrhaging or suspect a breast lump or need birth control pills? In Texas alone in 2011 fifty-six health centers were closed, thanks to Gov. Rick Perry and his ilk. More than 130,000 women lost their access to health care.
This year Perry and his pals proposed a law that would ban abortions after the twentieth week of pregnancy and close thirty-six of forty-two Texas clinics that provide abortions among other services. Nevermind that the 20-week abortion ban gaining traction relies on a false measure of pregnancy only politicians use. Medical professionals know that the accepted term "20 weeks pregnant" indicates time since last menstrual period, not 20 weeks "post-fertilization." (A pregnancy does not start at fertilization, but at uterine implantation.) As Cecile Richards, head of Planned Parenthood says, "When it comes to a woman's health, no politician should be able to decide what's best for you."
President Obama agrees, noting that "Planned Parenthood is a vital partner" to his administration in "protecting women's health." Unlike him, those arguing as Texas legislators do, that demanding abortion providers have hospital privileges and abortion facilities meet ambulatory surgical-center standards "in the interest of protecting women's health" are doing nothing more than demonstrating "the last refuge of scoundrels," as one noted scientist and women's health advocate remarked.
In my novel Hester's Daughters, a contemporary, feminist re-visioning of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, there is a scene in which an illegal abortion takes place. There is also one involving a woman having to run the gamut at a Planned Parenthood clinic. Both of these are imagined narratives: Thankfully, I've never had to seek an illegal abortion, nor have I been confronted with vengeful protesters at a women's health clinic. But I have known women who lived both experiences. In the days before Roe v. Wade I "covered" for a 19-year old friend who flew to Puerto Rico for an abortion. (Luckily the man with whom she conceived had funds to cover costs.) I have counseled married friends on where to obtain a safe abortion, and I've used women's clinics for my own health needs. I know firsthand from working in women's health for thirty years how vital these clinics are for providing women access to safe, accessible, affordable health care, whether preventive, diagnostic or service-oriented. There is so much more to Planned Parenthood and women's health clinics than people realize.
In my novel, for instance, one woman is forced to abort a pregnancy she wishes to complete. The other seeks help at a Planned Parenthood clinic, not for an abortion but for infertility treatment. These two narratives are not unrelated; they both offer a glimpse of women's health needs, physical and psychological.
Margaret Sanger understood their connection. In this important juncture in women's lives, when politicians have no business in our bedrooms or doctors' offices, so must we all.