Is Planned Parenthood in peril?

Free, easy access to reproductive services is starting to look like a thing of the past.

Published February 28, 2006 9:58PM (EST)

Think Planned Parenthood makes it easy for sexually active teens to have easy, open access to birth control? Journalist Kara Jesella says you should think again.

In an article posted yesterday to AlterNet (via, Jesella writes that despite attempts by conservatives to depict Planned Parenthood as "an abortion mill" and "an institution that doles out emergency contraception to teenage girls like Halloween candy," in recent years a combination of rising costs, clueless receptionists and mammoth lines at clinics has actually prevented many young women from getting the contraceptive care they desire.

Hannah, a 17-year-old, told Jesella that when she was looking for birth control, going to Planned Parenthood "wasn't even an option," because "they charge[d] $100 a session and $40 per pack of birth control." Unable to find less expensive services elsewhere, Hannah decided to simply rely on condoms (a method that, as Jesella notes, is unfortunately also reliant on "the cooperation of not-always-willing teenage boys").

Jennifer, 24, told the author a similar story: "They were very unhelpful," she said. "I didn't have insurance, and they just couldn't comprehend why I didn't. They kept making hints about how they assumed I could afford it and thus it was my negligence. But I really couldn't afford it." Other women's complaints included "waiting three hours to see a doctor for the morning-after pill" (though eventually, the woman in question got the prescription but not a doctor visit), hard-to-navigate voice-mail systems and inconvenient office hours.

According to Jesella, since 1970, when Title X (the family-planning program of the Public Service Health Act) was passed, one in four women has sought the services of Planned Parenthood at least once in her life. The start of Planned Parenthood, she writes, "was the first time women could decide when they wanted to have children and orchestrate the rest of their lives accordingly ... So when did it become 'not an option' for vulnerable young women?"

Unsurprisingly, that answer's not clear. In Planned Parenthood's defense, Jesella writes that the group remains a beloved and vital part of the women's movement and continues to work on the front lines of reproductive healthcare fights over the right to an abortion, emergency contraception and the accessibility of birth control for teens. But the day-to-day operation of the organization appears to be breaking down under political and fiscal pressures; for instance, Planned Parenthood representatives admit that Hannah -- Jesella's 17-year-old source -- should have gotten her birth control pills for free. But, unfortunately, according to Vanessa Cullins, PPFA's vice president for medical affairs, the teen was likely assisted by an entry-level trainee who lacked the proper experience to "deliver complex messages about sliding scales and government-funding restrictions."

Indeed, across the board, Planned Parenthood's woes all work their way back to money. "Health-care costs -- from Pap smears to pathology labs -- are skyrocketing," Jesella writes. "The cost of contraceptive supplies has risen sharply as well, particularly for newer, longer-lasting methods with lower failure rates. More money is being spent hiring staffers who speak multiple languages." Ultimately, writes Jesella, "less money means more miscommunication."

As of now, little about the current political climate bodes well for the future of the organization and its mission. Crunching the numbers, Jesella reports that "Title X's annual allotment is $283 million a year; if it [had] kept pace with inflation, that number would be $693 million. But instead of increasing funding, the Bush administration is funneling money to abstinence-only education, which doesn't provide information on contraception -- or health care."

If that doesn't change, many more women may soon find themselves out of options.

By Sarah Karnasiewicz

Sarah Karnasiewicz is a freelance writer and photographer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. Until recently, she was senior editor at Saveur magazine; prior to that she was deputy Life editor at Salon. She has contributed to the New York Times, the New York Observer and Rolling Stone, among other publications. For more of her work, visit and Signs and Wonders.

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