Considering there are 850 Planned Parenthood Federation of America health centers across the United States, it’s rare that a city of Charleston’s size would be without one. Through a recent substantial cash donation of $50,000 each, cousins Harriet Rigney and Harriet Williams hope to change that.
Appalled by staggering teen pregnancy and STD rates in South Carolina, the Harriets hope a local Planned Parenthood (PPHS) health center would improve Charleston County’s dismal statistics. Along with other donations matching their challenge grant, PPHS has about a quarter million dollars in the bank to get started, but it won’t be without significant opposition that a new center opens in South Carolina.
The donations were given as a memorial to the cousins’ mothers — both of whom faced health risks in the 1920s that birth control could have prevented — in hopes of continuing PPHS’s mission of providing “affordable, quality, abstinence-first, medic ally accurate sexuality education to women and men to help make informed decisions about their reproductive health.”
The duo hope construction on a center will begin in three years, and will offer physical exams, birth control, emergency contraceptives, cancer and STD screenings, pregnancy tests, urinary tract and vaginal infection tests, sexual education, and even reproductive health care for men.
The center aims to focus on PPHS’s key points of health care, education, and advocacy. Once there, patients will receive informed counseling about each of their options, and were to go for follow-up care such as well-baby checks, pap smears, and mammograms if they decide to have the baby. Abortions will not be carried out in-house — those who choose it will be referred to another clinic.
Nonetheless, the national Planned Parenthood` organization is the largest abortion provider in the country(255,000 in 2004), and local pro-lifers aren’t thrilled.
Tim Cox has been a pro-life activist for eight years, doing “whatever’s needed — from policy work to standing outside the clinic.” He supports abstinence outside of marriage, opposes birth control, and believes the local PPHS chapter is hoping to turn a profit.
“People who say they’re pro-choice aren’t — they’re pro-abortion,” he says .
Harriet Williams disagrees.
“We are opening to be in the ‘let’s prevent abortion business.’ When they occur, they should be safe, legal, and rare.”
Williams remembers a time when contraception was legally available only to married couples and believes women’s lib is largely to thank for available, easy-to-use birth control.
“Our aim is accessibility and affordability,” she says, emphasizing that the center will be open in the evenings and on weekends, targeting the working, uninsured, 18- to 24-year-old demographic who struggle to visit state operated health centers with short hours and long waits.
The “other” Harriet, Harriet Rigney, is married to James Rigney, also known as Robert Jordan, the author of a highly successful series of science fiction books. Due to an illness her husband is suffering from, Mrs. Rigney was unavailable for comment.
“In the last five years, South Carolina’s family planning budget has been cut from six to one million dollars,” says Janet Segal, a local PPHS boardmember. She feels that a state government in favor of overturning Roe v. Wade should be providing healthcare to poor families with children.
Instead, according to a recent Post and Courier article, 30 of the 100 DHEC family planning clinics have been closed, plans for teen-only clinics shelved, and hours and staff significantly cut back. Local PPHS members hope the center will fill this void in Charleston County, where the teen pregnancy rate had been reported as high as 12.8 percent.
South Carolina’s high school graduation rate is a meager 53 percent, the worst in the nation, and a third of those who never graduate are pregnant teen girls — about 6,400 a year. Furthermore, South Carolina is in the top 10 nationwide in cases of gonorrhea, syphilis, AIDS, and infant mortality.
“Everything students are taught in sex ed is taught in the context of marriage only, yet 71 percent of high school seniors claim to have had sex,” contends Segal. Clearly the state is in a crisis, and the Harriets and other PPHS supporters hope a clinic will help bring positive change.
“Will making more medically accurate information available solve or create problems?” asks Segal. “Looking backward won’t help.”
Faye Hill is the director of the Lowcountry Crisis Pregnancy Center, a pro-life health clinic that counsels and helps pregnant women throughout their term. At the N. Charleston and new West Ashley health centers, they offer prenatal care, childbirth and parenting classes, counseling, and even items like diapers, cribs, and carseats, all free of charge.
Hill doesn’t believe PPHS’s will offer unbiased counseling.
“Planned Parenthood’s major goal is to promote abortion,” a contention she backs up by pointing out that, in 2004 alone, PPHS performed 255,000 abortions and referred 1,414 patients to adoption agencies, a ratio of 180 to 1.
Segal counters this with the assertion that 92 percent of PPHS’s agenda and educational material is totally unrelated to abortion. Even so, PPHS is the largest abortion provider in the nation, and many pregnant women even contemplating termination are more likely to visit a pro-choice clinic then a pro-life clinic.
Considering Planned Parenthood’s colorful history and reputation, it’s no surprise a clinic will face opposition in a conservative stronghold like Charleston. The organization’s lurid and promiscuous matriarch, Margaret Sanger, championed birth control throughout the early 20th century, famously taking countless lovers the world over, and some while well into her old age.
President Teddy Roosevelt preached the evils of birth control as “criminal against the (white) race” at a time when many white Americans feared a change in status quo due to reproductive rates among minorities.
Sanger took another approach to contraceptives, forming the American Birth Control League in 1922, which grew into PPHS in 1942. Modern critics of today cite Sanger’s comments and writings that discouraged “the defective and diseased elements of humanity from their reckless and irresponsible swarming and spawning.”
These racial overtones carried into more modern policy, as George H.W. Bush and Barry Goldwater fervently defended and set up PPHS clinics during the 1960s in Texas and Arizona. At that time, covert racism was acceptable, if not beneficial to politicians, and PPHS fit well into the small government “stay out of my life and let me make my own decisions” Republican viewpoint.
At the time, however, PPHS had yet to publicly endorse abortion, still focusing on birth control. In Charleston today, even at a clinic that will focus on women’s reproductive health care and not offer abortions, the “A-word” is still a flashpoint issue.
Charleston’s Planned Parenthood health center is still a long way from becoming a reality. Although significant money has been donated and matched, far more is needed before any physical work will begin.
“I think our support is going to be very wide,” Segal states. “Given the teen pregnancy stats and rampant venereal diseases, the leaders of this area understand the connection with the health and future of our area. This organization makes information easily accessible to everyone.”
There will be those who disagree, with arguments sound and unsound.
Tim Cox, who once picketed the county public library over a Maurice Sendak book that contains an illustration of naked 3-year-old boy, sees teaching anything but abstinence as the opening of a Pandora’s box, giving teens new ideas of things to try, and thus producing a clientele for PPHS to profit financially from.
Others, like Harriet Williams, are struggling to realistically bring about change in a county where 17,000 children already live in poverty. She quotes her daughter, a social worker who counsels pregnant women:
“I can only present alternatives and then help the person live with the decision they make.”