My first job out of college was working at a Planned Parenthood clinic as a front desk intake specialist. Every day, I checked in people who were coming in for STD screenings, confirming pee-stick pregnancy results, getting their annual pap smears, and yes, receiving abortion care. This experience had a profound effect on me, and even though I don't work there anymore, I'll always be a vocal supporter of the organization. So if you came here expecting to get an unbiased account, sorry, this isn't it.
But what I can offer is a unique perspective. And this morning, in the face of the recent backlash against Planned Parenthood (and Congress preparing to vote on a bill that would pull federal funding from the organization), I decided to share a small glimpse of that perspective on Twitter:
— Barb (@BarbofPA) August 3, 2015
— Joseph D. Matulonis (@Josephmatulonis) August 3, 2015
— Sean (@S8M2D) August 3, 2015
I am all for people speaking their minds, and I am aware that we will probably never all agree on the issue of choice. However, the misconceptions out there about Planned Parenthood—what it does and the types of people it serves—are mostly just incorrect. So I thought I'd share a few things I learned during my time working there...
Abortions are Expensive, and There's Very Little Help for Women Who Can't Afford Them
An abortion can cost anywhere between $300 to $1,000, and while most of the women I met were sure they wanted an abortion (95 percent of women who get abortions usually are, according to a study published in the journal PLOS ONE), they had no idea how they would pay for it.
In 2014, Planned Parenthood received $528 million in federal funding, zero of which went to abortion care (federal funds can't go to abortion except in the case of rape, incest, or potentially life-threatening factors). That hasn't stopped its detractors from launching an attack not only on Planned Parenthood, but on the thousands of women and men who walk into one of their 700 clinics every day, though. These people—just like you and me—are mostly normal folks in need of a little healthcare. And I know because I've met a lot of them.
Most People Are Doing Sex "Wrong"
One thing I noticed during my time at Planned Parenthood is that a lot of teenagers who came to the clinic had only become sexually active shortly before their visits but were already experiencing STDs and unplanned pregnancies. According to the CDC, 41 percent of high school students having sex in 2013 didn't use a condom the last time they did it. That might not seem shocking, but the impact is pretty harsh—half of the 20 million new STD cases in 2013 were among people ages 15 to 24.
Numbers sometimes feel ephemeral without a human face, but I saw a lot of those faces, and they all looked frightened. Not only that; a lot of the faces I saw didn't belong to young people at all. Older people came in to Planned Parenthood with STD symptoms just as regularly as teenagers. In fact, between 2007 and 2011, chlamydia infections among Americans 65 and over increased by 31 percent, and cases of syphilis increased by 52 percent, according to data from the CDC. They may be from different generations, but young and old people share a common risk factor for STD infection—a lack of information.
Arming yourself with knowledge on how to stay safe and healthy is essential, but information is not something everyone in our country has access to. Planned Parenthood is a place where people can go not just to get treatment for infections they already have, but also to get facts and tools to help keep them safe and healthy in the future.
Many Different People Walk Through The Door
As a young, naive 22-year-old, it was surprising to me to see women who looked upper-class and well into their late thirties and forties stopping in to Planned Parenthood to get a pregnancy test or an STD screening. They came alone, with their friends, with male and female partners, and presumably with husbands and wives. Visiting Planned Parenthood was one of many errands they needed to run that week, and the clinic was a place they knew they could get what they needed without too much hassle.
And yes, many women in that demographic were also there for abortions.
It was kind of cool for me to look around the waiting room and realize what a unifying experience basic gynecological care can be for women—especially in such a safe space.
Zero-Judgment Zones Can and Do Exist
One thing all medical professionals are required to do is screen for signs of abuse. If a woman was coming in for services and seemed to be overly scared or nervous, that's when questions might have been asked. But beyond that, I genuinely experienced Planned Parenthood as a zone of zero judgments. Women could express concerns they had about different birth control options, list off symptoms of STDs and heavy periods, and I, along with my fellow intake specialists, would nod my head and schedule an appointment for them. The goal was to get patients the best care possible, not to make them feel bad about asking for help in the first place. Like any good business, we always wanted them to come back to us—it's not like people are going to stop needing UTI meds and cervical cancer screenings any time soon.
Kindness Is The Easiest Choice
If I wanted to be good at my job (and I did because I am that type of person), I needed to be as empathetic as possible and recognize that young women, older women, women of color, trans women, wealthy women, poor women, and yes, men, who seek out sexual health services at Planned Parenthood don't benefit from being judged on a few intimate choices they've made in their lives—and especially not by me. People benefit from being able to talk about and learn from their experiences—and receive the medical treatment they need without having to worry if they can afford it or not.
And while we're on the topic of cost, while working at Planned Parenthood, I learned that many women are really just seeking a gentle ear to listen to them, and that's a totally free service—one that you don't need to be a doctor to provide.
Caitlin Abber is the Senior Editor of WomensHealthMag.com.Follow her on Twitter.