Planned Parenthood was founded on the revolutionary idea that women should have all the information and care they need to live strong, healthy lives and fulfill their dreams without conditions or limits. Perhaps nowhere is this notion still as disruptive and controversial as it is in the American South. That’s why Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis Region takes pride in serving a three-state region that has an exceptionally conservative bent and “traditional” culture norms. We’ve been fulfilling our mission for more than 75 years, thanks to our many, many supporters and advocates — and we’re growing.
The history of Planned Parenthood and the reproductive rights movement is as complicated as our American history. There have been moments of great progress and triumph, and moments of great injustice and wrongdoing. Our founder, Margaret Sanger, devoted her life to bringing birth control to women so that they could make their own decisions about when and whether to have children. That does not obscure the fact that she held beliefs, practices, and associations that we acknowledge and condemn today.
Closer to home, we can look back at marketing and fundraising materials that our affiliate distributed four decades ago and shudder at the repugnant way our staff referred to people of color in our community.
An example was a Planned Parenthood booklet found by MLK50 editor Wendi C. Thomas in the papers of Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb, which are kept at the public library. Loeb was the mayor when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
Thomas, a supporter of Planned Parenthood, posted some photos on Facebook, where they sparked an intense discussion among her followers. In the undated Planned Parenthood booklet, authors cited an unnamed government report, writing that a “vicious cycle of poverty and fertility is at work.”
“By 1987, the number of illegitimate births will nearly equal the number of births in non-poor families, unless illegitimacy rates are reduced.”
A $500,000 federal grant would pay for expanded birth control access and women who had previously had “illegitimate” children would be targeted.
“Assuming nothing is done to reduce present birth rates and assuming 25% of these same ‘unwanted’ children become indigent adults, then the additional public cost of caring for them in Memphis will come to $6 billion, 470 million,” the booklet read.
PPGMR welcomes this look into our past, no matter how painful and uncomfortable it may be. Our discomfort with this evidence of our past is, we hope, proof that we are growing beyond those offensive, racist tropes.
No room for racism in reproductive justice
To be clear: the solution to poverty in Memphis is not, never was, and never will be a systemic reduction in the number of people of color in our community. Our goal is to extend the full range of reproductive rights to all people, in respect for their agency and freedom, not as means for mitigating the perceived economic burden on the dominant culture.
For those harmful and offensive things we have said or done in the past, we offer our sincere apologies. The only way forward is to acknowledge past wrongs, encourage open conversation, and continue to address racism wherever it exists. Our journey to do better is not complete because of the recent Facebook discussion or our response to it. Recognizing our blind spots with openness, gratitude, and humility is a daily activity, and one we undertake with vigor. Our mission depends on it, because there is no room for racism in the work we do every day to keep our patients healthy.
Unrelenting advocacy for health care
In our part of the country, people of color experience remarkable disparities in access to quality, affordable health care and worse health outcomes. Over the last decade, Tennessee’s state legislature has demonstrated unique and abiding hostility to improving public health outcomes, and this is especially true for sexual and reproductive health. The legislature has enacted laws creating barriers to family planning, abortion, and sexual health education. Repeatedly, the legislature has blocked Medicaid expansion which would provide healthcare to more than 200,000 of Tennessee’s working poor.
Planned Parenthood is working as hard as we can to partner with local nonprofit leaders, faith leaders, doctors, and other community partners to address these chronic inequities.. To increase access to life-saving care and reduce wait times for time-sensitive services we have expanded to two locations: our long-standing health center at 2430 Poplar Avenue and our recently opened health center at 835 Virginia Run Cove near Summer & I-240. We currently see more than9,000 patients per year in more than 13,000 visits and it is our goal with the second health center is to increase the number of visits by 33% in the first year. Our services include, but are not limited to, contraception, cancer screenings, STI testing and treatment, and abortion. Fifty-three percent (53%) of our patients are uninsured, 18% use Medicaid, and the remainder (29%) have private, commercial insurance. Our patients are 68% African-American or multi-racial (4% identify as Hispanic). Seventy-four percent of our staff and 39% of our Board of Directors are African-American or Latinx.
In spite of sustained political opposition, we are a fearless voice in the movement for reproductive rights and are unrelenting in our advocacy for increased access to safe and legal abortion, contraception, and sex education for all.
We look forward elevating that voice at our 2017 James Awards featuring keynote speaker Dr. Willie Parker. Dr. Parker is African-American, a Christian, a physician, an abortion provider, and a reproductive justice advocate. In his recent book, Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice, Dr. Parker recounts his personal journey to provide abortion care without judgement and centered in his Christian faith. We’ll also recognize County Commissioners Reginald Milton and Van Turner with our annual James Award, and present the Judy Scharff Lifetime Achievement Award to Joyce Blackmon, Happy Jones, Modeane Thompson, Jeanne Varnell, and Jocelyn Dan Wurzburg as representatives of the Memphis Panel of American Women, which formed in the aftermath of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and was critical in preventing a second sanitation workers strike.
As we begin our second 75 years in Memphis, we know one thing will not change: every day, people show up at our health centers. Every day, PPGMR’s doctors, clinicians, staff, and volunteers provide expert, nonjudgmental, compassionate care — no matter what.
We will not rest until access to health care and rights are a reality for all people. To get there, we are counting on your generous support, your outspoken voices, and when it is necessary, your total candor about where and how we can do better serving the community we love.
We’re just getting started, and we hope you’re with us for the long road ahead.
Ashley Coffield is the CEO of Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis Region. Prior to joining PPGMR in 2013, Ms. Coffield worked for Partnership for Prevention, a non-profit health policy research organization in Washington, D.C. While there, she developed and applied evidence-based methods for comparing the health benefits and cost effectiveness of preventive services, co-authored peer-reviewed research articles and reports, and directed education programs for federal policymakers. She previously worked as director of the Washington D.C. office of the New York-based Center for Children’s Health and the Environment and as a policy analyst for US Department of Health and Human Services.