This month, on October 16, we mark the 100th anniversary of Planned Parenthood. The occasion deserves a massive celebration, for no other organization has done more for the health and empowerment of women in this country than Planned Parenthood. It has played, and still plays, an indispensable role in the lives of millions of women and their families.
So pop a few champagne corks, but let’s keep the celebrations to a minimum. There is too much work to be done. In the interests of preserving—and building upon—the notable progress that has been made, let’s observe this important centennial by noting the many and significant accomplishments of Planned Parenthood and then re-doubling our support for its mission and work.
In 1916, when Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, first opened a birth control clinic in Brooklyn, maternal mortality was the second leading cause of death among women of reproductive age and the infant mortality rate in the U.S. was 105 in 1,000. Today, thanks in no small part to the pioneering efforts of Planned Parenthood, maternal and infant mortality rates are dramatically lower. Planned Parenthood currently operates 650 health centers across the country that serve as a vital gateway to birth control and other preventive health care services, including cancer screenings. Additionally, 72 million people a year visit Planned Parenthood’s website to obtain sexual and reproductive health information that they can rely on.
Planned Parenthood also played a pioneering role in the establishment and expansion of sex education programs in American schools and communities. In 1964 it founded the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), and today it conducts sex education programs for more than one million people a year.
In 1916, when Sanger opened up her first family planning clinic in Brooklyn, she was arrested for handing out birth control information. Today, birth control is legal and almost universally accepted. The vast majority—an estimated 99 percent—of women aged 15 to 44 who have engaged in sexual intercourse have used some form of contraception, and, for its part, Planned Parenthood is providing two million family planning services every year.
No should underestimate the transformation wrought by access to modern methods of contraception. Giving women the ability to prevent an unplanned pregnancy has allowed women to complete their education and plan their careers. The number of women completing college has increased dramatically. One study indicates that one-third of the wage gains made by women since the 1960’s can be attributed to the use of oral contraceptives. Another study indicates that contraception is responsible for 30 percent of the increase in the proportion of women in skilled careers between 1970 and 1990. Able to plan their pregnancies, women now account for half or more of all medical, law and doctoral degrees.
Margaret Sanger, like many social pioneers, had her flaws. She held some beliefs that were at odds with reproductive freedom. Coercion in any form—and eugenics in particular—has no place in a free and just society. No one should attempt to defend the wrongs embraced by Sanger, but neither should anyone overlook the enormously positive contribution that she made in founding Planned Parenthood and supporting public access to birth control. Over the past 100 years Planned Parenthood has been a vital and indispensable force for social good, and those who seek to destroy it today are doing a grave injustice to women and their families.
Planned Parenthood provides abortion services to women seeking to terminate a pregnancy, but abortions account for a very small percentage of its work. And let’s be very clear: Denying Planned Parenthood reimbursement for the birth control and other preventive health care services it provides under Medicaid and Title X will not reduce the number of abortions being performed in this country. Limiting access to the contraceptive services provided by Planned Parenthood and other providers will only increase the demand for abortion services. Whatever your position on abortion, there is neither merit nor virtue in denying women the ability to limit or space their pregnancies.
Over the past hundred years, Planned Parenthood has protected and promoted women’s health and, in the process, empowered millions of women. Let’s take a moment to be grateful for what Planned Parenthood has done to advance the well-being of women and their families, but then let’s get back to the serious business of ensuring that all women in this country—regardless of where they live—have access to family planning and reproductive health services.
This past January, when the Population Institute released its annual 50-State Report Card on Reproductive Health and Rights, 19 states received a failing grade. There is plenty of work that remains to be done.