Why We Need Planned Parenthood Now More Than Ever

Photo: Amanda Edwards/Getty Images.
In honor of Planned Parenthood's 100th birthday, we're proud to present the following essay by actress, entrepreneur, and activist Stephanie March.

When I was 17 years old, I started having sex. I attended a well-regarded high school in a predominantly white, upper-middle class neighborhood in Dallas, TX. I had my first serious boyfriend, and I earned a spot on the drill team as well as a seat on the honor roll. We had health insurance and a family doctor whom I saw annually, and I had straight, Chiclet-white teeth thanks to three years of braces.

In short, I was a healthy, fortunate teenage girl, just like all the other teenage girls I knew. And when I started to become sexually active, I went to Planned Parenthood to get my birth control — just like all the other teenage girls I knew. You would think that, given my resources and education, other avenues would have been available to obtain the Pill, but such was the stigma of adolescent sex that I truly did not feel I could approach anyone else — even a beloved teacher or aunt. My relationship with Planned Parenthood continued into college and a few years beyond, until I finally moved to New York and, through my SAG insurance, was able to get my own gynecologist. Essentially, Planned Parenthood was my doctor until I was 24. And as I mentioned before, I was a privileged white girl. So what on earth were all the other girls doing? It would seem they were going to Planned Parenthood, too.

But I’m proud to say that isn’t my only connection to Planned Parenthood. In 1938, in San Angelo, TX, my great-grandmother Ruby Webster March cofounded the clinic that became Planned Parenthood of West Texas. That means I have very cool women in my family tree. It also means there was some practical follow-up to the alarming video I saw in fifth grade about what happens when “a girl becomes a young woman.” And that there was a resource for me to turn to when my body and life changed.

Alas, that is no longer an option for too many girls. Many Planned Parenthood clinics across the country are shuttered. "Family values," the vilification of Planned Parenthood’s work, terrorizing of the clinic staff, and radical de-funding (in the name of “saving" us) has seen to that. Despite the facts that the clinics that perform abortions are separate legal and financial entities, that federal funds are not used to pay for abortions, and that abortion only constitutes 3% of the work Planned Parenthood does.

I was a privileged white girl. So what on earth were all the other girls doing?

You can say what you like about morality and values and abstinence and sexual mores, but I have news for you: Teenagers have sex. Most of them. They have since the beginning of time. Like, a lot of sex. It appears to be the primary thing many teenagers are thinking about. In fact, a recent study about the major decline in teen pregnancy found that the reduction wasn’t due to teens having less sex — it was because they’re using more contraception. (Imagine that.) So why have we obstinately and resolutely turned a blind eye to this wholly natural, if somewhat embarrassing, fact?

In May, I traveled to Kenya with OneKid OneWorld, an organization near and dear to my heart. OKOW rebuilds and refurbishes schools in the developing world, and I have taken many such wonderful trips with them. Over the years we have observed a very important fact about girls in school. If you do not address their health needs with regard to their developing bodies and sexual activities, you cannot keep them in school, period. Shame, teenage pregnancy, and often terrible infection lead them to drop out. Bit by bit, month after month. The mortification of using a dirty sock as a sanitary napkin or bleeding through their one pair of panties is just too damning to endure. An unwanted pregnancy changes them overnight from an aspiring office worker to a 14-year-old mother who gets to haul water and sweep the floor for the next 16-plus years.

This year, OKOW delivered 900 reusable sanitary napkin kits made by a remarkable group called Days for Girls. And as part of our mission, we explained, in excruciating and often hilarious detail, how each kit works. Most girls are too shy to ask a question about such things in front of their class (this is true all over the world), so my friend Tracy, with whom I was conducting the class, and I asked them to write their questions down on a piece of paper and pass them to the front. Oh boy.

“A man told us you cannot get pregnant the first time you have intercourse.”

“Is it true you can’t get pregnant if you are having your monthly?”

“If I have not had my monthly in four months but I have not laid with a man is there something wrong with me?”

“If I have had an infection for many months but I wash with laundry detergent will I get better?”

“What do you do if a man tells you he will not love you if you do not want his baby?”

“If I have not had my monthly for three months am I pregnant?”

And on and on. There is only one way to answer such questions: with complete honesty and a total lack of embarrassment. Keep in mind, these are the lucky girls in this area — the ones who attend a good school with a nurse and likely a government-sponsored health clinic within one (long) day’s walk. And they still can’t get the answers they need.
Photo: Courtesy of Stephanie March.
The culture being what it is, national health workers often shame the sexually active girls, sometimes going so far as to tell them birth control will render them sterile. The school nurses don’t have a supply of sanitary napkins and are prohibited from handing out condoms, the young women themselves are too poor for so much as an extra pair of panties, and the men don’t give a damn whom they infect or get pregnant. What a completely bewildering landscape to navigate.

How scarce and precious is information? How dire are the consequences of misinformation? We ask young women to be morally upright, socially adaptable, well-educated, and examples to society, and then we deprive them of the simplest of resources and information to do so. No one wants an illiterate teenage mom, but no one wants to hand out the condoms. Which is it, world?

And you know what made me profoundly sad? When I realized that, contrary to popular belief, the problems I witnessed there were not very different from the ones we face here at home. How taking a full day off work to travel by foot or by bus constitutes “local care.” How the responsibility for family planning (and the resulting penalty for an unwanted outcome) falls disproportionately to young women. How the state metes out morality but not education.

In the 21st century, a future tax-paying, voting, educated citizen of the United States does not have access to the most basic self-care, or even health care. I owe the legacy of my great-grandmother and so many women like her the deepest debt of gratitude. Were it not for Planned Parenthood, I would not have had access to the tools I needed to take care of my body and myself. I would not have had the ability to determine my own future and my own professional trajectory. I would not have had the answers I needed.

In no small way I was able to turn to a relative for help when confronted with the inevitable rite of passage that is puberty and a transition into sexually active young adulthood. I wonder, with growing horror and disappointment, what options are available for the girls of today?

The gap between what we learned in sex ed and what we're learning through sexual experience is big — way too big. So we're helping to connect those dots by talking about the realities of sex, from how it's done to how to make sure it's consensual, safe, healthy, and pleasurable all at once. Check out more here.

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