May 3, 2011
Living the Life
Meyers vividly recalls when her father came to her junior high school dance and said: “You need to come home! Mom had the baby. Mom’s really sick. She’s unconscious. The baby is really sick. We have to baptize the baby right away.” Her mother and sister survived. Yet, Meyers confides that this past January, doctors had to amputate her mother’s leg because of the disease. She has learned a lot from her mother’s lack of access to abortion services and her bleak “life experience.” “I learned a really powerful lesson: what it meant, the risks of pregnancy, planning your family while not being able to plan your family.”
— Laura Meyers, President and CEO of Planned Parenthood Metropolitan Washington
Laura Meyers, President and CEO of Planned Parenthood Metropolitan Washington (PPMW), will never forget August, 1964. It was in August when her mother, while giving birth to a fifth baby, slipped into a coma. Just nine years old, Meyers was the eldest amongst her siblings. At the time, the family was grieving the loss of a previous child.
Meyers explains: “My brother died of a congenital heart defect. Now, you’d look back over those four pregnancies and realize that my mother had undiagnosed gestational diabetes, because of the jump in birth weight of each successive live birth.” Meyers’ brother died of a heart defect directly associated with gestational diabetes, which appears when a woman has high blood glucose levels during pregnancy.
Luckily, her mother woke up, but to this day, she struggles with diabetes – a preventable illness. Meyers recalls: “She came home radically different. She was very ill, had to take four insulin shots a day. Her blood sugar was wildly out of control, so her behavior was often erratic. We had scary times where my mother would go into shock. She was advised never to have anymore children and had a sixth pregnancy.”
Meyers vividly recalls when her father came to her junior high school dance and said: “You need to come home! Mom had the baby. Mom’s really sick. She’s unconscious. The baby is really sick. We have to baptize the baby right away.”
Her mother and sister survived. Yet, Meyers confides that this past January, doctors had to amputate her mother’s leg because of the disease. She has learned a lot from her mother’s lack of access to abortion services and her bleak “life experience.” “I learned a really powerful lesson: what it meant, the risks of pregnancy, planning your family while not being able to plan your family.”
Another pivotal figure in Meyers’ life is her grandmother who often stepped in to take care of her and her siblings. Originally from Rhode Island, Meyers served as the CEO of Planned Parenthood of Western New York for five years before moving to Washington D.C. Shortly after becoming the CEO of PPMW, she discovered that her grandmother had two illegal abortions during the Great Depression.
“My grandmother, although she grew up in an orphanage — the New York Home for Jewish Children — was extremely devoted to her family. We wondered why there was a big age difference between my father, his brother, and sister. The reason is the Great Depression. My grandfather was out of work. My grandmother, whose own family had dissolved under the weight of poverty and repeated pregnancies, put her life on the line at a time when abortion was illegal and had two abortions, so that in her mind she could keep her family intact. My grandmother converted to Catholicism for my grandfather. Yet, she knew she had to make a difficult decision to save her own family at a time when her family couldn’t afford to feed another child. I think about the vitriolic abortion debate – I think about my grandmother.”
When walking towards the offices of Planned Parenthood Metropolitan Washington, most noticeable is the group of ‘serial protestors’ out front. The protestors appear to be employees out for a cigarette break, but closer assessment reveals their rosaries. At the door, the receptionist speaks behind a guarded thick plate of glass and cautiously buzzes in visitors. Visitors sign in, noting whether they are seeing a physician or an administrative office employee. A video camera from above zooms in on visiting faces. Perhaps these are extreme security measures, but Planned Parenthood has an added duty to protect the people it serves. This process has become more stringent in light of recent clashes between Democrats and Republicans. During the month of April, the mere topic of abortion had the potential to shut down the U.S. government, and abortion providers such as Planned Parenthood faced defunding and possible public backlash.
Unscathed by the targeting of the organization, Meyers asserts: “When you’re talking about defunding Planned Parenthood from receiving federal dollars, you are not ever talking about abortion, because no federal dollars can ever go for abortion.” She explains: “This is a settled principle. It’s been settled for thirty years with the Hyde Amendment. Extremist in congress are really targeting women’s health, basic preventive healthcare. This is not about abortion, and it has nothing to do with saving the American taxpayer money. When we talk about cutting funding for family planning and preventative healthcare, which is cost-effective care, we are not saving a dime. If you do not detect cancer at its earliest moment, that subsequent healthcare that someone needs, in terms of treating later stages of cancer, is much more expensive than preventing or detecting cancer at its earliest possible moment.”
A recent Washington Post article written by Clare Coleman, the president of the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association, affirmed that 3 million people visit the 800 Planned Parenthood centers across the country. Coleman also noted that three percent of the organization’s services went to abortion care in 2009 — “332,000 terminations out of a total of 11.4 million services.”
Stephanie Clemons, a local resident who utilized Planned Parenthood’s services, has a sixteen-year-old daughter. She admits: “Planned Parenthood had a profound effect on my life. We need people who are willing to step up to the plate to help these young girls with alternative solutions if they’re having sex.”
“Jane”, a manager at a local non-profit, says that in many areas Planned Parenthood is the only sexual health provider. She says, “I used Planned Parenthood in New York. My friends would go downtown to the Planned Parenthood to get access to condoms and birth control. We would get our annual exams.” Jane remembers that medications were placed in brown paper bags to protect patient privacy. “We would walk around and say ‘Oh, you went to Planned Parenthood too.’ We could talk about the doctors we’d seen, the educational materials.”
A positive aspect of the abortion debate has been the attention it’s attracted to Planned Parenthood’s services. Meyers stresses that “90% of what Planned Parenthood does is preventative: breast exams; pap smears; detecting breast and cervical cancer; sexually transmitted infection testing; basic gynecological care; HIV outreach, testing, and referral for treatment.” She draws attention to PPMW’s DC Teen Clinic at the Ophelia Egypt Program Center in North West, and its efforts to inform youth about teen pregnancy prevention and sexually transmitted diseases. “It is a safe space in a neighborhood that has a great deal of violence, in a ward where there are very high incidences of HIV transmission and teen pregnancy,” she says.
Federally funded, HIV Prevention Outreach is a priority to the organization, especially given the fact that the District has the highest HIV infection rate in the entire country. “This is work we’re doing so that we can halt the tragically high incidence of HIV transmission here, the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic.”
The public might be surprised to know that PPMW receives funding for infertility prevention. “We’re actually looking for Chlamydia, a sexually transmitted infection,” says Meyers. “If left unwatched, it can lead to scarring on the fallopian tubes and prevent a woman from becoming pregnant.”
If Planned Parenthood was de-funded many of its services would suffer. Meyer’s explains that “women would not be able to use Medicaid for family planning and basic preventive healthcare.” The organization would also lose Title X dollars. “Title X is America’s family planning program and provides us with a subsidy to be able to subsidize preventative healthcare and birth control for low-income women. For example, when a woman who has a low income comes to us, because we have that Title X subsidy, we are able to provide a sliding fee scale.” Planned Parenthood also uses Title X to inform women about birth control and provide access to it.
Recently, protesting congressional control of the nation’s capital, District Mayor Vincent Gray and six council members were among 41 individuals arrested. Washington, D.C. faced the possibility of having its powers to spend its own tax dollars on abortions for low-income women taken away with an additional ban on its needle exchange programs. Meyers supports the mayor and council members. “I applaud the Mayor,” she asserts, “and members of city council for their courageous act to engage in civil disobedience — to say that the district should be able to make its own decisions about how it chooses to treat some of its most vulnerable citizens: low-income women.” Meyers added: “There are 600,000 people in America: residents of the District of Columbia who are totally disenfranchised. I have no vote in Congress. I pay taxes and I have no vote. I support the efforts of the mayor to say that Congress should not be interfering in local autonomy.”
Expressing appreciation to the Obama administration, Meyers stated: “I think it’s important to express appreciation to the President, members of the Senate, and our champions in the House of Representatives – for fighting the good fight on behalf of women’s health.”
This year PPMW will be focusing on improving patient care and moving towards electronic health records. PPMW also plans to explore the different ways it can “engage young advocates.”
Jenny Kim, a local who volunteered with Planned Parenthood in Pennsylvania, asserted: “I don’t think government should force anyone or set their priorities. Every individual has their right. There should be opportunities for those who want to take different steps to make their life much better.”
Recently, PPMW’s national research campaign indicated that voters 35 and younger were its greatest source of support in opposing defunding efforts. “That gives me a great sense of hope,” Meyers says. “The next generation of leaders cares about every individual living out their destiny according to their own values with as much information and access to good care. Young people care about health disparities and care that they get to make critical decisions about their own healthcare — that Congress doesn’t decide for them.”
According to Coleman, one out of every five women has visited Planned Parenthood. These are women of all ages, races, and income levels.
Meyers believes in the work that Planned Parenthood does. “I’m very drawn to our values of compassion, being non-judgmental and providing people with information, so that they can make decisions based on their beliefs and moral framework. There’s a sense of humility about that.” Addressing the Washington metropolitan area, she adds: “For thousands of people here, we are the only healthcare provider they will see, and that can’t be minimized. “What that means [is]for somebody to be able to access affordable health services at a time when people have lost their jobs, lost their health insurance. Planned Parenthood is a place they can come to.”