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Many of the political conversations around women's reproductive rights in America revolve around Planned Parenthood, the self-proclaimed largest provider of reproductive health services in the country, with 650 health centers nationally. Defunding Planned Parenthood—i.e. taking away the group's Medicaid reimbursements and Title X funding—has long been a conservative talking point because of the provider's abortion services. But that talking point has morphed into a legitimate threat under the Trump administration, which is giving Congress the go-ahead to dismantle the healthcare system envisioned by the Obama administration.
Amy Whitaker, medical director and vice president of Planned Parenthood of Illinois, says that hundreds of patients have signed up to receive long-acting birth control since Republicans took the White House and Congress. She says she's worried about what will happen to these patients under the new administration, but wants them to know that Planned Parenthood is here to stay, regardless of what actions Congress takes.
Decisions about women's health are so politicized. What made you want to become an OB/GYN and abortion provider?
I first wanted to become an abortion provider because I knew that the number of abortion providers was shrinking. A lot of abortion providers had become abortion providers in the days before Roe v. Wade, when the horrors of illegal abortion were visible everywhere—there were emergency rooms full of women dying and sick from septic abortions [infections that results from using nonsterile techniques]. After Roe v. Wade, those horror stories had stopped happening, and abortion became safe and legal. Emergency rooms stopped being full of women dying of illegal abortions. So there were less people that were willing to become abortion providers. I felt very passionate about being one of the doctors to fill that need and help women obtain safe and legal abortion care.
How are you feeling about the new political climate?
[Under Barack Obama] we had a president that—if Congress voted to defund Planned Parenthood—he would veto it, and currently, we don't have a president that would do that. Frankly, I'm worried about health care and the current government and their commitment to health care for all. I am feeling like they don't understand how important it is to provide healthcare for all Americans, regardless of race, income, and gender.
What do you think is at stake for your patients under the new administration?
Access is definitely threatened with this new administration. Our patients have the potential to lose their preferred, and sometimes their only, provider of health care with the proposed defunding of Planned Parenthood. But overall, with the health care cuts, there are going to be millions and millions of Americans who lose access to basic health care and basic reproductive health care, [including] preventative care, which is so important to have access to. When patients lose access to preventative care, they are likely to become sick. They are more likely to use the emergency rooms. They are more likely to not get the vital healthcare they need.
What are you hearing from patients? What if anything is worrying them?
The first thing we're hearing from patients is support. The day after the election, one of our health centers got a box of cookies! Women and patients have walked in off the street with flowers! Women—patients, I should say, because it's women and men—who have accessed our services are writing us letters saying how important we were in a time when they really needed help. We have had such a moving outpouring of support.
The other thing is, in record numbers, they're coming to us to get birth control. We have seen a huge spike in our requests for long-acting reversible methods, so methods that last anywhere from three to 12 years. They're getting IUDs, they're getting implants. We've seen an over 450 percent rise in them in our online appointments. Then, we've heard anecdotally from a number of these patients that they are basically getting birth control to last through this administration, that they are very concerned to losing access to basic reproductive care, including birth control.
Has the Trump administration's rhetoric about abortion and Planned Parenthood changed the day-to-day functions of the clinics that you oversee?
It has not, currently, affected our day-to-day functions. I have heard from some managers that there are some employees who used to not want to talk vocally about working for Planned Parenthood, and now they're proudly wearing Planned Parenthood buttons and saying, "I work for Planned Parenthood." Our staff, they're incredible, they're committed, they're passionate, and they show up for our patients. And they will continue to do so.
What's a myth about abortion you'd like to dispel?
If I could dispel anything about abortion it would be the stigma attached to it. I think that it's incredibly sad that the many, many women who have had abortions often are stigmatized and don't have people they can talk to. They hear all of these negative messages when they made a personal decision they felt they had to make that was right for them, that was right for their families, that helped them live and continue full, productive lives. So, they make these decisions, which I believe firmly they can and should be able to make, and then [they are] stigmatized. That rhetoric has not allowed women to come forward and share their stories in the past.
When women come out and share their abortion stories, I really think that helps other women feel safe and comfortable and not alone. There are women who feel like, "I don't know anyone else who had an abortion," when, in fact, they certainly do. So the more we can encourage women who have had abortions to share their stories, to not feel stigmatized and shamed by that experience, the better off all women will be.
How do you personally deal with the rhetoric of the pro-life movement within the GOP, and outside of it, which can even become violent when talking about punishment for abortion providers?
That rhetoric's been around for a long, long time. As I said, I love my job. I'm passionate about my job. I'm passionate about working for Planned Parenthood and providing the full range of Planned Parenthood services. I'm passionate about being an abortion doctor. So that rhetoric, I've been hearing it for as long as I've been thinking about being an abortion doctor. Personally, it does not affect me.
What would you tell young women and girls who are listening to the new administration talk about their bodies and their rights?
I'd say, it's your body, it's your choice. You have a lot of choices, and we will help you figure out which one is best for you in all scenarios. We have a diverse group of patients. We have patients who are immigrants. We have patients of all races. We support all women and men. We'll be here for you! We'll keep being here for you. I would tell them that strongly, because part of the fear of being "defunded" is that, you know, people may actually say, "Oh, Planned Parenthood, they closed down. They got defunded." So, what I want to say to the patients who need us is that we're here now. We're going to stay here.