The construction of a new Planned Parenthood health center in New Orleans has been a hot topic this summer as opponents of women’s health care rail against the clinic and journalists title it a “state-of-the-art abortion center.” Signs claiming that “NOLA Needs Peace” have cropped up on New Orleanian yards, and articles discussing the center’s arrival have brought in hundreds of comments from readers, but all of this contention seems less firmly rooted in fact than based on opinion. I had a conversation with Julie Mickelberry, the Director of Public Affairs for Planned Parenthood in Louisiana, to separate fact from fiction.
Planned Parenthood (PP) has been providing quality affordable health care in New Orleans for nearly 30 years now, offering services that include sexually transmitted infection (STI) treatment, distribution of contraceptives, life-saving cancer screenings, STI and HIV testing, and education from their health center on Magazine Street. Just last year, this location received 7,508 visits from men and women in the area.
The new clinic will continue to provide these same services plus expanded educational programming and clinical research. Right now, their major education program in New Orleans and Baton Rouge is a program called Real Lives, Real Talk that focuses on educating parents and partner organizations on how to talk to young people about staying safe. Topics discussed include puberty, healthy relationships, and the prevention of unintended pregnancies when a young person chooses to become sexually active. It’s really about teaching caregivers how to be approachable so that they can be there for young men and women when they have questions, because, as Mickelberry put it, “we know that parents are the first and often best educators for these issues.”
In addition to the aforementioned services, PP does plan to eventually provide abortions at its new health center. At the moment, there are only two other clinics that offer abortions in the area. However, despite claims from the opposition stating that the organization pushes women into choosing abortion over other options, PP recognizes that the decision to have an abortion is deeply personal and complex. Mickelberry explained, “Planned Parenthood believes a woman should have accurate information about all of her options, which include becoming a parent, considering adoption, and also ending the pregnancy.” It’s the organization’s goal to ensure that a woman feels supported and has the accurate, unbiased information she needs to make the decision herself. “I think this is a decision women do not take lightly,” Mickelberry added, “It is one that they think through. They talk to their partners, they talk to their faith leaders, and they talk to their support system to come to a decision that is right for them.”
Moreover, while protestors quote numbers to prove that the new clinic will somehow increase the number of abortions in New Orleans (though the only thing it should be increasing is the number of safely performed abortions), 97% of the services Planned Parenthood provides are preventative health care services, not abortions. These preventative services—like the distribution of contraceptives—actually lower the number of unexpected pregnancies, thus reducing the number of abortions. Like other community health care providers, PP is able to provide services through Medicaid, and the health centers are able to keep costs very low for clients who have to pay out of pocket or are underinsured. In fact, in New Orleans, 32% of the family planning visits at the Planned Parenthood health center were paid through federal programs that help women access preventative health care services that they would not otherwise be able to afford.
For those unfamiliar with the importance of these services in Louisiana, let me relate some statistics from the State of Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals. In the most recent CDC HIV Surveillance Report, Louisiana ranked the fourth highest in estimated state AIDS case rates, with a rate of 20 cases per 100,000. Among large metropolitan areas across the nation, New Orleans ranked fifth highest in estimated AIDS case rates. Likewise, in 2010, 36% of all persons living with HIV infections in Louisiana were not in care. Additionally, Louisiana is ranked first in the nation in primary and secondary syphilis rates, first in congenital syphilis rates, second in gonorrhea rates, and third in chlamydia rates. 58% of all pregnancies in Louisiana were unintended, and in 2010, the teen birth rate was the sixth highest in the United States. Twenty percent of Louisiana citizens lack health insurance, to boot. While some other clinics may offer treatment plans for STIs and HIV/AIDS, the sheer number of cases in the state is overwhelming. “People need health care, and they need it from somebody they trust to provide it,” Mickelberry noted. “One in five women across the nation have visited a Planned Parenthood in their lifetime.” Planned Parenthood is a name so trusted that, for some individuals, PP’s health centers are their only health care visit.
Even in the face of resistance, Planned Parenthood is forging forward with the new center. “Our focus is providing the highest quality health care to the men and women who need these health care services,” Mickelberry remarked. Recent resolutions went through legislature this year in Louisiana through which opponents of women’s health (including out-of-state interests and some of our own legislators) attempted to pass measures that threatened the thousands of men and women who trust PP for its basic services. One of the politically motivated resolutions encouraged the state to suspend Planned Parenthood’s participation in the Medicaid program while an investigation was undertaken. There are no credible claims of wrongdoing that would trigger an investigation by the state, and a suspension would violate Louisiana state law and could lead to costly litigation for the state. Even so, Planned Parenthood now faces legislated investigation by state agencies, but the organization isn’t concerned. Mickelberry affirmed that this is an action already within existing legislature’s power to do. “If they want to scrutinize our business practices or our billing processes, they can already do it. They don’t need permission from the legislature.”
Although it may seem extreme, Mickelberry assured that the opposition Planned Parenthood faces in New Orleans is nothing they haven’t seen before. “Opponents of women’s health come out when Planned Parenthood decides to build new health centers. This is something that’s happened in the past.” The plan for the new health care center holds firm, and the organization will continue to strike down barriers to provide women with access to high-quality and non-judgmental care. Though there is political resistance, PP does have support from elected officials, state representatives, and senators who are supportive of their cause. Just last week, Councilmember LaToya Cantrell joined in a telephone town hall meeting at which Planned Parenthood discussed the health disparities in NOLA and how they plan to help men and women get the access they need. More than 2,000 people joined, and 60% of the callers who participated in the poll said that access to preventative health care services was the most pressing need for the city. In addition, 1,600 Louisianans recently signed online petitions in support of Planned Parenthood’s efforts to ensure Louisianans have access to health care. “Every day in New Orleans, thousands of hardworking women and families have a tough time getting the care they need due to our over-burdened health care system,” said MarkAlain Déry, DO, MPH Assistant Professor of Clinical Medicine at Tulane Medical School. Due to the state’s health care crisis, hospitals are shutting down as funding for public health programs is cut. Déry concluded, “It’s health care providers like Planned Parenthood that help those who need health care the most get it.”
Currently, Planned Parenthood has been reaching out to neighbors for the last few months to educate them about the organization and its goals. This community outreach will continue throughout the summer, and Planned Parenthood will make monthly appearances at the Freret Market. “We are excited to be able to build a health center that is going to help meet the needs of New Orleans,” Mickelberry says. “[The opposition] isn’t going to deter us from providing health care in Louisiana.” Those looking to become more involved in helping the organization through donations or volunteering can send an email to Lapublicaffairs@ppgulfcoast.org. Proponents can also show their support by following them on Twitter at @PPLouisiana or liking their Facebook page by clicking here.