Why Planned Parenthood is Essential to Ithaca (And Everywhere)

An interview with local activists Maureen Kelly and Liz Gipson

By Katie O’Brien


This summer, anti-abortion group The Center For Medical Progress released videos that were deceptively edited and spliced to make it appear as if a Planned Parenthood-affiliated social worker was facilitating the illegal sale of fetal tissue. The full videos, available online, show that the context of the conversation actually had nothing to do with fetal tissue sale, but fetal tissue donation for medical research, and the social worker’s list of prices was in reference to transportation costs. Despite the videos being obviously and verifiably fake, the Republicans in Congress have used them to fuel their extreme agenda to defund Planned Parenthood and systematically remove women’s access to essential, legal health services.

In accordance with the Hyde Amendment, a provision of Roe vs. Wade, Planned Parenthood’s federal funding does not even go toward paying for abortions. Instead, the approximately $530 million in funds that the nonprofit receives annually provides millions of women with birth control, STI screenings, pap smears, breast exams, sexuality education, and general healthcare.

Ithaca’s Planned Parenthood clinic is an affiliate of Planned Parenthood of the Southern Finger Lakes (PPSFL), which serves four upstate New York counties with healthcare, and ten with advocacy. There are health centers in Ithaca, Watkins Glen, Elmira, Corning, and Hornell. To find out more about the importance of Planned Parenthood in our own community, as well as on a national scale, kitsch interviewed two women who work at Ithaca’s Planned Parenthood.

“We’re Never Quite Off-Duty”

Maureen Kelly, VP of Education & Communications, has worked at our local Planned Parenthood for the past 21 years. She first became passionate about reproductive rights when she failed a women’s health class at her Catholic, all-girls high school for attempting to give a presentation about contraception. “That was a pretty formative moment for me as a young activist. I remember thinking ‘wait…what? You don’t get to pick what I get to know. These are my parts!’” She has since dedicated her life to educating youth about sexual health and sexuality, working first at Planned Parenthood’s front desk, then as an educator, and now managing the education program. “I come from the philosophical approach that we have to talk about this stuff, we have to eradicate shame, we have to eradicate secrecy and that sense of embarrassment, whether it’s an abortion story or a need for birth control or a concern about an STD,” she said.  

Liz Gipson, Director of Public Affairs, says she first became involved with Planned Parenthood as a patient herself. Then, after she graduated college, she began work for a political reproductive rights organization, and volunteered at a Manhattan health center as an abortion doula, supporting women as they went through the procedure. In July, she began work in Ithaca. “I’m really lucky to be one of the few people that’s gotten to see Planned Parenthood from three different sides,” she said.

Kelly and Gipson agreed that one of the things that makes them proudest to be part of Planned Parenthood is the way people open up to them. “We tend to be people that hold people’s stories,” said Kelly. They both said that patients, strangers, and friends often confide in and consult them. “You get friends that contact you because their kid’s having their period, and they don’t know how to talk to them. So we’re never quite off-duty. I have picked up countless packs of birth control pills and emergency contraception; you become a more integral part of people’s communication or their prevention behaviors.” But they also have to have their guard up a bit more when talking about their work, because they never quite know how someone is going to react. “I think it takes a very specific type of person to work at Planned Parenthood, because you do have to deal occasionally with people saying terrible things when they find out where you work,” said Gipson. “And so it has to be something that you’re passionate about and that you’re willing to really fight for, whether you’re anything from an educator to a billing associate. It’s something you have to be willing to talk to people about constantly.”

“We Serve Our Community As It Exists”

PPSFL annually provides healthcare to 11,000 and education to 16,000 people of all genders, ages, and socioeconomic backgrounds. However, the majority of patients are under 25, low income, and people of color, due to the prejudices and barriers that make it more difficult for these groups to access healthcare. “It’s such an intersectional approach to how we do healthcare, which is, being a young, African-American girl in the city of Ithaca, you’re dealing with a different circle of stuff that’s going to make accessing healthcare harder,” said Kelly. Despite the efforts of the Affordable Care Act, there were still over 32 million uninsured Americans in 2014. Forty-eight percent of those individuals said they were uninsured due to the cost of insurance, according to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. “In terms of age, race, socioeconomic status and background, we really do serve our community as it exists. Our job is to see you and whatever experience you bring and to honor that, and to care for you—period, non-negotiable, what do you need?” said Kelly.

“Our job is to see you and whatever experience you bring and to honor that, and to care for you—period, non-negotiable, what do you need?”

Due to its position in New York, a liberal state, PPSFL faces fewer limitations and restrictions on their ability to provide care for patients than many other states do. “New York State is one of the 14 states that uses state funds to fund abortions which is fantastic, and we’re one of the few states that actually opted to do it, was not sued into doing it, which is something that I’m really proud of as a New Yorker,” said Gipson. This means that they can help more people pay for their procedure that would not otherwise have coverage—“people traveling from Pennsylvania, people whose insurance won’t cover it, people who can’t get Medicaid or make just over the Medicaid cutoff.” Planned Parenthoods in New York are uniquely positioned politically as well, because they can push more progressive legislation that other states “could never dream of.”

However, PPSFL’s position in a rural community can bring challenges. The decreased visibility of upstate New York as compared to New York City means that state funding is often allocated downstate, leading to strains in resources. And a major difficulty for patients in accessing Planned Parenthood’s health services is the availability and cost of transportation in upstate New York—there is no abundance of buses and trains like there is downstate. If someone cannot get transportation or time off work, they could have to delay their appointment by weeks. “For many people, we’re the only doctor that they see that they can have access to, and we’re one of the only Medicaid providers in the area,” said Gipson. Being in a rural community also affects the education work they do. New York State does not require schools to teach sex ed, so there is “a massive inconsistency” in what students learn. “Often our education and outreach staff are really the only informed, expert resource they’ll come in contact with about the actual facts,” said Kelly. “We’re dedicated to combating the myths, making sure that young people, in particular, know that they actually have a lot of rights, being a New Yorker. If they were living in Pennsylvania, it’d be a really different story—they don’t have the same kind of access.”1448006081

“All the Restrictions and the Barriers”

In the 21 years since Kelly began work at Planned Parenthood, limitations on reproductive rights have only become stricter and stricter. “When you look at all the restrictions and the barriers and just the sheer volume of votes we’re fighting against, it has definitely been sliding backwards,” she said. When Kelly started her job, many of the doctors she worked with were able to recall the time when abortion was illegal, and all of the medical consequences that came along with it. “They had a really different, intimate orientation to seeing what that looked like—the sepsis, and the loss of fertility, and the infections—they saw that,” said Kelly. And due to all the increasing restrictions on abortion on both the state and federal level, America has slowly, scarily, been returning to this time: “I went to a national Planned Parenthood Conference a few years ago, and a really brilliant CEO got up in front of everyone and said: ‘We live in post-Roe America; it’s now.” In other words, we no longer have to imagine what it would be like if the 1973 court case that legalized abortion were overturned—there are now so many restrictions on abortion, that for many people, it effectively is illegal.

And restrictions have not just been tightening when it comes to abortion, but also when it comes to sex ed. Kelly noted that in 1994, she could teach much more in middle schools than her education staff can now, thanks to the federal push for “abstinence-only” education that began in 1998. According to Advocates for Youth, none of these programs have been shown to have any success in delaying sexual activity or reducing teen pregnancy, and often contribute to the spread of misinformation about the effectiveness of contraception. “Unfortunately, a lot of the ways that information gets tinted by some of the shame and assumptions and hopes that people have is based on the idea that ‘if we don’t tell young people, they won’t do it,’ which is just the opposite of everything we know,” Kelly said. She cited the Netherlands as a place where they start sexual education much earlier, in much more detail than the US does, and the average age of becoming sexually active is two years later than it is here. Similarly, the states with the highest teen pregnancy rates are New Mexico, Mississippi, Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma—all states with abstinence-only education. Meanwhile, states with comprehensive sexual education have the lowest rates.

Kelly said that in the future, one of her dreams is to have a drop-in, after-school sex ed program, where students can feel comfortable asking any questions they have about sex and relationships and all the things they don’t talk about in school. “We want to make sure there are many more ways for people to access information and support and resources to have full, healthy sexual lives as people, instead of relegating that to one semester, one class,” she said. “When you ask a group of college students in their freshman year, ‘how many people got a really accurate, adequate, and complete sex education?’ people are like… ‘yeah no.’ And so there’s gaps.” Planned Parenthood also works with campus advocacy groups to do many dorm education programs at area colleges.  “The demographics we serve overlap with college students, we serve a ton of students.  So making sure we are engaging students we are providing services for and helping them feel empowered can empower us all,” said Gipson, who oversees the campus organizing program.

“An Uptick in Protests”

“The recent attacks on Planned Parenthood have not affected operations in that we have not been closed a single day because of them. But we are seeing an uptick in protests,” said Kelly. The Ithaca health center sees regular protesters who stand across the street with signs, but do not bother patients and staff. The health center in Corning sometimes gets “more aggressive” protesters. And ever since the fraudulent videos were released, PPSFL’s Hornell center, one of the smallest clinics, has been seeing up to 40 protesters show up at a time, harassing patients as they try to enter the building. The staff discovered that the protesters are not local, and are being bussed in from outside of the communities they serve. “Our first thought is always ‘how can we make our patients feel safe?’” said Gipson. “Having escorts to walk you from your car to the health center makes a huge difference for patients.”

The fallout from the attacks has also forced them to keep an even closer eye on what is happening in Congress. “Politically, we’ve been paying attention to our elected officials and how they’re voting. Tom Reed just voted to defund Planned Parenthood for the second time. We are grateful that Obama is in office because he is going to veto that bill, but it is something that we are constantly thinking about and looking at,” said Gipson. While PPSFL does not have to worry about losing funding on a state level, if Planned Parenthoods in Pennsylvania and Ohio lose funding, PPSFL will be affected because many of those patients will have to come to upstate New York.

“The recent attacks on Planned Parenthood have not affected operations in that we have not been closed a single day because of them. But we are seeing an uptick in protests.”

However, there has also been a silver lining to the most recent efforts to discredit the organization—many supporters and former patients have been speaking out in support of Planned Parenthood. The online campaign #IStandWithPP was trending on Twitter, with people circulating reasons why Planned Parenthood is important. And those who participated in the campaign #ShoutYourAbortion fought to decrease stigma around the procedure by sharing real stories. “In the future, I would love for Planned Parenthood to have a whole army of advocates that are former patients of ours. One thing Planned Parenthood has not been great at in the past is being able to empower our patients to become advocates,” said Gipson. “We’re realizing the importance and the desire from our patients to learn about what’s happening, and how they can support Planned Parenthood.”

“Make Them Listen To You”

On January 25th, Planned Parenthood staff and supporters will travel to Albany for the annual Day of Action, where they will lobby New York State’s elected officials. “It’s a fantastic opportunity for students, we pay for the whole thing, transportation, food, training on how to lobby, so if you are anyone even mildly interested in activism and political organization, this is a great thing to do because it teaches you the skills you need to talk to elected officials and make them listen to you,” said Gipson. For 2016, Planned Parenthood will be lobbying for the passage of three bills. One is the Comprehensive Contraception Coverage Act, which would mandate that health insurance companies follow the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that they cover contraception. “If you’re on birth control you should not have to pay for it legally; when you go to the pharmacy to pick it up it should be free. But that is not happening, people are having to pay co-pays, and that’s illegal,” said Gipson. The second bill they are pushing is the Paid Family Leave Bill. “We see that as integral to the work we do because if you can’t take off time because you’re sick or your child is sick, that affects your health, and we also see people canceling their appointments because they can’t get time off.”  And the third bill would prohibit solitary confinement for pregnant women—an important justice issue especially for upstate New York, which has a high prison population.

The work that Planned Parenthood does is clearly integral to the communities it serves.  Especially while the United States does not provide universal access to healthcare, and school systems provide woefully inadequate sexual education (or none at all), Planned Parenthood is absolutely essential for women and youth to be able to take control over their own reproductive health. And defunding Planned Parenthood only takes away access to essential health services for lower income women, while those who have adequate money or coverage for the procedure still have access to it—accomplishing nothing but increasing inequality in this country even more. We are lucky to have such strong, passionate advocates for our reproductive rights at our Planned Parenthood here in Ithaca.

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