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Sarah Fister Gale

Sarah Fister Gale
Chicago, Illinois, USA
August 07
Sarah Fister Gale is a freelance journalist, novelist and wine-drinker based in Chicago. She is agented by the fabulous Jacquie Flynn of Joelle Delbourgo Associates who is currently seeking a good home for her novel, Losing Jenni, a story of a little girl who drowns in the Chicago River, and the amazing choice her mother makes to cope with her loss. Follow her on Twitter @SarahGale.

Editor’s Pick
MARCH 14, 2012 5:24PM

Planned Parenthood Changed My Life

Rate: 23 Flag

When I was a child, if I needed a doctor I always went to the same guy. Dr. Horton was my pediatrician from the day I was born. He was an old man, tall and stern, and bald as an egg. He wore a white lab coat and steel rimmed glasses low on his nose, and he always smelled strongly of antiseptic and Vicks Vapor rub.

He was a nice enough doctor but he always made me a little uncomfortable. As a result, I never viewed him as a valuable source of healthcare information.  He was the guy who stuck cotton swabs down my throat, and checked my spine for scoliosis -- not someone I would talk to about menstruation or how you catch a sexually transmitted disease.

So when I turned 18 and was heading off to college, it’s not surprising that I was woefully under-educated about my reproductive health. Except for a few embarrassing sex ed discussions in middle school, and a lot of inconsistent information from my peers, I was given few hard facts about the inner workings of my ladyparts, or what I needed to do to keep myself healthy and safe.

It didn’t seem all that important however. I was a young woman and reproductive health issues were pretty low on my list of things to worry about.

Then, about halfway through my freshman year at Madison, I decided I wanted to go on the pill. A lot of my friends used birth control pills and it seemed like a smart choice for a woman on the verge of adulthood. I was sexually active, and not at all interested in having children.

But I didn’t have a doctor in Madison, and I certainly wasn’t going to ask Dr. Horton for birth control pills. (I cringe even now when I picture that conversation). So I did what every normal teen-aged girl does when she wants answers. I asked my friends what I should do.

Every one of them gave me the same answer: Go to Planned Parenthood. I quickly learned that for a young woman in a new city with no established medical network, Planned Parenthood could always be counted on to offer friendly affordable healthcare services.

So I called them up.

In order to get a prescription for birth control pills, you need to have a full gynecological check up – something I’d never had done before. So I was understandably nervous when I arrived for my appointment the following week. But the Planned Parenthood office in Madison immediately put me at ease. It was a small building on Mifflin Street, just down the block from the co-op where we bought fresh fruit, and a house that I would later rent with five other girls my sophomore year.

Unlike my pediatrician’s stark office with its slippery plastic couches and glaring florescent lights, this office was warm, and comfortable, and friendly. In place of the outdated Highlights magazines, were fitness publications and colorful pamphlets with information on every woman’s health issue I might want answers about – and several I’d never even heard of.

When I was called to my appointment, the doctor I met was equally warm and friendly. She spoke to me in an easy fashion. There was no judgment about my sexual choices or demands to know why I wanted birth control. Instead she gave me answers. While she performed my first and surprisingly not mortifying gynecological exam, she talked to me about what she was doing and why it was so important.

That single appointment changed the way I thought about my body and my role in keeping myself healthy. She educated me for the first time about why I needed to get an annual pap smear – it is the best way to catch cervical cancer,  which affects an estimated 500,000 women every year.

According to the American Cancer Society, both the incidence and deaths from cervical cancer have declined markedly over the last several decade due to increased Pap test screening.

She also taught me how to do a proper self  breast exam – don’t forget your arm pits – and explained how this simple step could help me catch breast cancer early enough to wipe it out. This was vital information considering breast cancer effects one out of every woman in the US at some point in their lives.

She also talked to me about safe sex, and STDs, and what I needed to be thinking about as a sexually active woman to keep myself healthy and to make sure I was in control of my own reproductive choices.

When I went to pay the nominal fee for that valuable service, I found  a glass jar full of colorful condoms sitting on the counter. “Take a handful,” the woman behind the desk encouraged me. Again, there was no judgment or leering looks, because she was simply one more person on the Planned Parenthood staff who wanted me, and every other woman who came through their doors, to have the tools and information we needed to make healthy choices.

I left that appointment feeling empowered, because that Planned Parenthood doctor had taken the time to arm me with information that would become the foundation for my own journey of reproductive health.

I continued to go back to Planned Parenthood for years -- for the cancer screenings, for birth control pills, and for advice. Even after college, I drove 45 minutes out of my way to see doctors at the Planned Parenthood office in Chicago. Not because there were no gynecologists in my neighborhood, but because I trusted this institution to guide me, and educate me, and provide me with the care and information I needed to make the best choices for my body and for my life.

It’s been 25 years since that first appointment and I’m happy to report that I’ve never developed cervical cancer or found a lump in my breast. But I know that if some day I do end up with one of these terrible diseases, I’ll find it early because of what  Planned Parenthood taught me.

In a time when people can barely afford healthcare, it’s shocking that Republicans would focus so much of their time, attention and venom on doing away with an organization that has provided low cost cancer screenings and healthcare information to young women for decades.

Mitt Romney proudly declared last week that he’d “get rid of” Planned Parenthood if he becomes president. Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have made similarly aggressive statements.

I suppose it shouldn’t be astounding that in the midst of the current Republican war on women, its leaders would be determined to destroy an organization that educates and empowers young women.  Still it is deeply discouraging, particularly as I think about my daughter and her future.

Planned Parenthood did more than give me birth control. It gave me knowledge, and that knowledge gave me the power to be healthy, and strong, and confidant that the choices I make for my body are the right ones for me. And I was not alone.

Planned Parenthood has become a vital resource for young women trying to navigate the complex world of adulthood and their own sexual identify. To destroy it would put millions of these women at risk.

I like to think that when my daughter grows up she will come to me for information about sex and her reproductive health, but if she is like most girls, she probably won’t want to talk to her mother about sexually transmitted diseases or cervical screenings. So I hope that when she’s ready to get that information, Planned Parenthood will still be around. To do for her what it did for me.

How dare the Republican Party try to take that away from her and from every other young woman who deserves the right to affordable reproductive health care? You should all be ashamed of yourselves.

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I love these sorts of personal narratives on key issues that just tell someone's story, it's a great way to cut through the BS, put a human face on the issue and help people understand things better.
An excellent post. It makes me realize that, for all we're a modern nation, women still haven't received particularly good healthcare, for reasons of discomfort, feeling they can't be open with their doctors, for doctors with patriarchal attitudes, and a lot of left-over Victorian prudery about the way women are "supposed" to behave.

I agree they should all be ashamed of themselves. It's up to the women of this nation to make sure they HEAR that message in a manner that cannot be denied or dismissed. Let them rue the day they decided women's votes were dispensible. I hope they realize just HOW bad a mistake that was on the morning following Election Day 2012, and experience horrible remorse and shame.
We can always hope, right?

The idea is to get rid of the 'promiscuous' women(i.e. any woman who has sex and God forbid-enjoys it, and isn't ashamed about it), and scare the rest into submission. I am convinced that is the Republican plan and their sticking with it! Excellent writing! R
It is wonderful that this organization was beneficial for you.

You wrote, "In a time when people can barely afford healthcare, it’s shocking that Republicans would focus so much of their time, attention and venom on doing away with an organization that has provided low cost cancer screenings and healthcare information to young women for decades.

Mitt Romney proudly declared last week that he’d “get rid of” Planned Parenthood if he becomes president. Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have made similarly aggressive statements."

It would be wonderful if you realized, and wrote about it, that they want to end GOVERNMENT funding of PP. They are not trying to "get rid of it". They are trying to keep tax dollars from it.

You, of course, are free to write a check to that organization. I suggest you do so.
Yep, just checked - Romney, for example, was speaking in the context of government funding and, of course, that is the context in which Santorum always has as well. If you have different information on Gingrich - something like he said he would try to actually make it illegal or remove it, somehow, from the country, please post it.

We can disagree all we like on these issues, but clearness about what is or is not being said is helpful.
If people are so against government funding for a healthcare service, how about we do away with the tax exempt status of the churches who so want to stick their noses in the mix? That tax money would go a long way towards helping the deficit, and seeing some of those megachurches being constructed-I say that the money is easily there-for those who are so concerned about government funding for healthcare-not abortion-healthcare.
I wish everyone who supports defunding PP could read your compelling account. The idiot Republicans who run my state cancelled their funding last year, leaving thousands of lower income women without any easy source of health care. Excellent post!
Change some minor details, and this could be my story, as well as the story of millions of other women as well.

We need to hear these stories.

Barbara Joanne, of course he was talking about eliminating government funding. And in this day and age, that's pretty much the equivalent of getting rid of it. You personify the prevailing mindset of, "Why should I have to...?" God forbid you should have to do anything that has to do with the common good. It's an ugly, petty, vindictive attitude.

Richard Nixon decided that family planning was important enough to initiate government funding. In that, he did something admirable. How far the Republican party has fallen since then
Right on! Great story.
I stand with Planned Parenthood. In whatever context he meant it, Mitt Romney lost any chance that I'd ever stand with him whenk he stated he wanted to "get rid of Planned Parenthood."

@Jeannette, I think making that fact about Richard Nixon's funding family planning needs to become a lot more widely known. I know he did some awful things, but he also did some very good things--things no Republican President would THINK of doing now. I think the GOP seriously needs to reinvent itself if it is to remain viable in the long term.
Planned Parenthood was my first source of reproductive health information and gynecological services, as well. I went to my local Planned Parenthood office when, at the age of 20, I wanted birth control but did not know how to ask my parents for help finding a doctor. They educated me about my body and explained how I could take care of myself as a young woman in college. Without the support and advice of the Planned Parenthood staff in my area, I might not have been equipped to make the smart decisions that made my younger life so much easier. Thank you for sharing your story.
@ Barbara Joanne--there are a lot of things the government does that I'd like to stop funding. War in Afghanistan. Subsidies to oil companies. War in Iraq. The trouble is, we don't get to choose. Making a rule that insurance companies cover contraception with no co-pay, and providing federal funds to Planned Parenthood makes financial sense. Birth control is far, far cheaper than babies. Prevention is far, far cheaper than treating cancers and other diseases. I'd like to see any argument for the financial sense of bombs in Afghanistan.
Powerful story and an excellent and timely post. And what froggy said. R
Preach it sister!! An excellent post and what a tribute to this great organization! I really like the point you make about the power of Knowledge! You forget though, that the second thing these candidates are going to cut after Planned Parenthood will be Healthcare for all people. or...maybe just poor people and women...
i don't believe a word of this story.
I once worked for Planned Parenthood....it made me decide to be a nurse! If Romney or Santorum read your article, they would not be educated by the facts your give. They are not at all interested in facts. They actually think their beliefs override facts.
My PP story is also very similar to yours, with one addition. Thanks to the affordable, non judgmental services I've received there, my pre-cervical cancer was caught and treated, successfully and early.

Having no insurance, and to this day no other such positive gynecological doctor experiences, I am convinced my story would have had a very different and not-so-happy ending. I'm very grateful that my country cared enough about little old me to fund Planned Parenthood services. (I'm betting my son is, too.)
You bring new meaning to PPH.
.........(¯`v´¯) (¯`v´¯)
............... *•.¸.•* ♥⋆★•❥ Thanx (ツ) & ♥ L☼√Ξ ☼ ♥
⋆───★•❥ ☼ .¸¸.•*`*•.♥
I'm saddened by this story for one reason. Ms. Gale, you explained how Planned Parenthood helped you. My own sexual education was probably as bad as yours; porn secretly read in my sister's bedroom, half-heard comments from a few boys, dirty joke books. And finally something seen on early-morning TV as a fill film, the first explanation of the menstrual cycle, the kind of thing they probably showed you in junior high.

Planned Parenthood is a worthy organization, deserving of support. The tragedy is that there's nobody to counter Romney, Gingrich, Santorum or the rest of the right-wing bastards about it.

Obama won't. He probably won't even let his wife speak positively about it. There's no woman journalist or public figure who would get in Romney's face and shame him for his lies and criminal ideas, even if there was a chance for it. No one, especially among the Democrats, will dare to speak truth to power. That may be the biggest tragedy of this "clown car" election year.
Thanks for sharing this wonderful post!
I also have a daughter, and hope she will have organizations like planned parenthood to help her keep healthy and safe. R
I had a similar, wonderful experience with Planned Parenthood when I went to college. So many women have these stories -- our bodies are very unknown, and they shouldn't be. We're lucky to have Planned Parenthood. Great post! [r]
Sarah,excellent writing in such an imροrtant issue.I will keeρ your article..Thank you so much for sharing.Best regards.
Great post making the case for the need of a healthy, compassionate, progressive society.

I cannot understand the reasoning behind the candidates endorsing the hundreds of millions of dollars that go into damning ads against each other while they advocate pulling the plug on health organizations....it simply does not make sense. How many un-empowered, poor people are served by campaign spending and expensive bluster?
"This was vital information considering breast cancer effects one out of every woman in the US at some point in their lives."

Please don't play public health educator. Physical breast exams, especially self-exams, are not link to a reduction in mortality, and are in fact linked to unnecessary tests and their associated risks in the recent systematic review of all available studies by the Cochrone Collaboration. I am not saying it is a bad thing to notice what is going on with our bodies, but lets not pretend these are life savers. To quote the Mayo Clinic, "Breast exams, once thought essential for early breast cancer detection, are now considered optional. While screening mammograms have been proved to save lives, there's no evidence that breast exams can do this. "