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.