Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Planned Parenthood and Me

Since the Susan G. Komen Foundation lost its reputation for being "apolitical" when its decision to de-fund Planned Parenthood's breast cancer screening program for low-income women came to light last week, I've spent time recalling, with gratitude, my own long-ago personal acquaintance with Planned Parenthood. It began in 1971, during the months that I received food stamps. I was working then as a cleaning woman, and Tom (who had started back to graduate school) and I were living on my earnings cleaning houses and a small student loan that with all the scrimping in the world couldn't be made to cover our living expenses. (We just made it with the food stamps, $54 a month, as I recall.) Since I had dropped out of school, I had no access to the university's student health center. I had never heard of Planned Parenthood until a friend, learning that I couldn't afford to see a gynecologist to get a prescription for oral contraceptives, told me about their clinic-- and that they had a sliding scale.

I remember bicycling to the clinic, in Urbana. It was in the basement of a building and distinctly makeshift-- the person doing reception sat at a card table (and indeed, all the "desks" were folding tables of one sort or another), the examination cubicles had curtains rather than doors, and the amenities were nothing like any doctor's office I had ever been in. But the doctor, a woman with a heavy German accent, astounded me with her deftness and gentleness with the speculuum. (I'd had only a few experiences with pelvic exams before that one, and they had all been painful.) Most astonishing, though, was that she did something that has now become standard practice, but certainly wasn't back then: she told me everything she was going to do before she did it, and what she was doing as she did it. And she explained why. She made me--all of me-- part of the process (unlike the male doctors I'd previously had who talked about the weather or a skiiing trip they'd recently taken or else just breathed hard or grunted as they poked around inside my body). I hadn't yet encountered Our Bodies, Ourselves, but when I later did finally see it in the bookstore and buy it, I recognized the attitude and approach to women's health care. It is an approach that puts the woman herself at the center of the process, and seeks to increase her sense of agency. My experiences in that clinic gave me a different idea of what gynecological examinations could be like. When two years later I resumed my undergraduate course work and had the option of getting my health care from the university's student health center, I never gave doing that a thought. And that's probably a good thing, since it was through my annual exams at Planned Parenthood that I learned that estrogen was raising my blood pressure.  When lowering the dosage, which was the first response to the problem, wasn't sufficient to lower my blood pressure, the doctor discussed other options with me, and then introduced me to my first diaphragm. She did this in a way that countered my dismay and sense of helplessnes at learning that oral contraceptives would be deleterious to my health. The people at the clinic also, of course, taught me self-breast examinations. Back in the 1970s, this was unusual. Certainly it wasn't something that was ever done in an ordinary gynecologist's office. I only stopped going to Planned Parenthood when I moved to another city.

My gratitude for the good care of me taken by the people at that clinic is only part of the reason I've been a long-time monthly supporter of Planned Parenthood. As the attack on women and women's agency has escalated over the last few years, Planned Parenthood has been a primary target. The attitude of those attacking the organization is: How dare they give women options? How dare they educate and care for low-income women? At a time of escalating costs of health care and an ongoing campaign of dis- and misinformation about women's contraception, abortion, and women's health issues generally, Planned Parenthood is a bulwark we cannot afford to lose.

The Komen Foundation has (temporarily at least) restored the funding it had been providing for the breast cancer-screening program at Planned Parenthood. But Planned Parenthood is under attack on other fronts. If you can afford to make a contribution to them, please do. This is no time for Planned Parenthood to be forced to cut back its services. I am fortunate that they were there for me when I needed them.

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