I still remember my first job out of college. I was newly returned to Baton Rouge, Louisiana with a degree in psychology, looking to impact the field of female reproductive health. I saw that they were beginning construction on the first Planned Parenthood in Baton Rouge. I walked up to the clinic door, knocked, and said, "What can I do to help?" I started as a volunteer painting the walls of the clinic, and over the following two decades, transitioned to family planning expert, outreach coordinator, HIV counselor, and eventually board member.
Planned Parenthood was one of the first places to offer HIV testing, and I recall the first person I had to inform of a positive diagnosis. He identified as a heterosexual, Christian man. I remember holding his hand as I told him, and he then asked me, "What is your religion?" I answered him that I was Jewish. He took a pause, sighed, and said, "Well, you are the Chosen People. Tell me, what do I do now?" I remember smiling at his attempt to bring levity to the situation and replying, "Tell your partner, and tell your pastor." I was twenty-two, and we thought I was delivering a death sentence. He asked if we could pray. We then prayed together - to Jesus Christ on my patient's terms.
Twenty-five years later, the Baton Rouge metropolitan area ranks second among major U.S. cities for new HIV infection diagnoses behind Miami. New Orleans is third. Baton Rouge also has the highest number of new HIV cases among females. Louisiana's high incarceration rates and lack of access to healthcare prevents these numbers from dropping. There are few places in the state where you can get reliable testing or education about STIs. Last year, the state also passed House Bill 305, a bill that bans all employees affiliated with organizations that provide elective abortions at any location around the country from providing their education programs in primary and secondary schools. This bill effectively prevented all Planned Parenthood workers from delivering sex education - including information about safe sex and STI prevention - in Louisiana schools. Following the release of the doctored videos attacking Planned Parenthood, Governor Jindal also signed a bill stopping Medicaid funding to Planned Parenthood clinics in the state.
Here's the kicker: whether you're pro-choice or not, as of the passing of these bills (and to date) Planned Parenthood does not provide abortion services anywhere in the state of Louisiana, and abortion services represent only 3% of their services nationally. Instead, the government is preventing men and women of all backgrounds from getting safe, qualified sexual healthcare, testing, and education. My daughter went off to Tulane in New Orleans this year. Before she left, I made sure she knew where the Planned Parenthood in New Orleans was, and told her to go there for all of her sexual health questions and needs. Both my son and my daughter grew up learning about sexuality with Planned Parenthood's "No Place Like Home" curriculum, an education program that is appropriate and accessible to all ages, races, and religious backgrounds.
Sexual health education and access to care isn't simply a personal luxury, it's a question of national safety and security. It is the job of the government to protect its citizens, and that includes giving them information and access to prevent potential health pandemics. If Planned Parenthood is defunded, people must be given an alternative. I currently run the largest private family foundation in Southern Louisiana, and when clinics like Planned Parenthood close, as stewards of the community, people flock to our doors. None of these organizations are asking me where they can send people to get abortions. Instead, they're asking for money for programs that enable people to obtain contraception; provide confidential STD, STI, and cancer screenings; and any of the other programs Planned Parenthood would provide (again, making up 97% of their total services).
Planned Parenthood aims to prevent unwanted pregnancies, particularly among poor and underserved communities. Should an undesired pregnancy occur, the organization always meets the person where they are, regardless of race, religion, sexuality, or any other factor. They offer counseling on adoption, keeping the child, and whatever else is right for the mother at that time. Some Planned Parenthood facilities will perform an abortion as an option for potential mothers-to-be, but it's certainly not the only option they present. Additionally, while Medicaid and federal funding may be used towards Planned Parenthood's sexual education programs as well as their STI and cancer screenings, no federal funding goes directly to Planned Parenthood's abortion services.
Proper education about sexual health isn't simply a humanitarian concern either; it's an economic imperative. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, federal funding for HIV and AIDS has climbed from $26.2 billion in 2010 to a requested $31.7 billion for 2016. Most of this spending is earmarked for crucial work done within the US to prevent and treat HIV and AIDS. Unintended pregnancies are also incredibly costly. The Guttmacher Institute released a new report this year that revealed that unintended pregnancies cost taxpayers approximately $21 billion every year in federal assistance. Imagine how much could be saved by having an effective prevention program like the one presented by Planned Parenthood?
The continued attacks on Planned Parenthood are baseless, illegally-conducted, and downright harmful to the security of our nation. The programs Planned Parenthood provides improve physical, economic, and social stability. As a reproductive healthcare professional for over twenty years, I can attest that they provide some of the best education and vital access to preventative healthcare in the country.
While now, over twenty years after I held our first client's hand in a Planned Parenthood clinic and informed him that he was HIV positive, HIV is no longer necessarily a death sentence in this country if identified and treated properly, I feel as though if we're going to talk about defunding Planned Parenthood as a matter of national faith and character, we should all hold hands and pray for prevailing logic and sense when it comes to national access to preventative healthcare.
Written by Irene W. and C.B. Pennington Foundation CEO Lori J. Bertman (@LoriBertman) and Program Officer Rachel A. Pickens (@MsRachelAyn).