A Conversation with Faye Wattleton: Part 1, Historical Perspectives

Faye Wattleton reflects on her career in the family-planning movement. Image: Planned Parenthood of Southern Arizona, 1981

[F]aye Wattleton was president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America from 1978 to 1992. At 34 years old, she was not only the youngest and the first African American to head PPFA, but was also the first woman since Margaret Sanger to hold that position. She had already been executive director of the affiliate in Dayton, Ohio, for seven years, and is still PPFA’s longest-serving president.

Ms. Wattleton received her nursing degree from Ohio State University in 1964, and a master’s degree in maternal and infant care, with certification as a nurse midwife, from Columbia University in 1967. Working in obstetrics, she saw a wider world than she had known and was exposed to the choices women in other circumstances needed to make. She saw the results of illegal abortions when women were desperate to end unwanted pregnancies, and saw the judgmental attitudes of many of the doctors and nurses who treated them. These experiences, along with her religious upbringing by a strong mother who was a preacher in the Church of God, led her to a career in the movement for reproductive rights.

“What is different today is that the element of violence is much less of a factor in the struggle” for abortion rights.

Ms. Wattleton was generous enough to speak to me on January 7, 2013, and throughout the month of February we’ll be sharing her experiences and perspectives in observance of Black History Month. In this first installment, she speaks about the battle for women’s reproductive rights as it has evolved over time.

In the years since Roe, states have been passing more and more restrictive laws, such as Arizona’s strict 20-week cutoff for abortions, and mischaracterizing some birth control methods as abortifacients. I asked if it had been difficult to watch the worsening attacks against reproductive rights since she left Planned Parenthood — and was surprised when Ms. Wattleton said she does not think the struggle for reproductive rights has gotten more difficult. In some ways, she said, things have gotten better.

“When I took over as president of Planned Parenthood, the year before our clinic in St. Paul, Minnesota, had been burned to the ground,” Ms. Wattleton recalled. “Fires were being set in our waiting rooms, people were entering the waiting rooms and chaining themselves to the seats. I was picketed on almost every public appearance. Subsequently, needing, from time to time, security to protect my personal being. That’s not very elegantly put.”

She continued, “What is different today is that the element of violence is much less of a factor in the struggle, which made those years far more dangerous than the ones these days.”

While recent attacks on birth control have made many of us feel we are going backward, Ms. Wattleton pointed out that contraception was always contentious, especially with the Catholic Church. She spoke of a local priest condemning her clinic’s presence in Dayton — although it did not provide abortions, just birth control. Contraception was not legal in all states until 1965 — a fact that might be easily forgotten today.

Violence against abortion providers began shortly after the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. Abortion clinics were picketed and entrances were blocked. By the late 1970s, violence had escalated to arson and bombing, increasing in frequency into the ’80s. While harassment at clinics sharply declined after President Bill Clinton signed the Freedom of Access to Clinics (FACE) Act in 1994, the ’90s also saw the most extreme anti-abortion activists intensify their violence to include assassination. In 1993, after Ms. Wattleton had left PPFA, there were two shootings of abortion doctors: David Gunn was murdered and George Tiller was injured. Shooting fatalities occurred regularly through 1998. After that, there were no killings until Dr. Tiller was assassinated in 2009.

Although attacks on family planning might seem like a recent trend, Ms. Wattleton reminded me that right-wing attempts to cut off Planned Parenthood’s funding are not new: “The very first act of the Reagan administration was to attempt to cut off funding to Planned Parenthood, and you can go back in the history and look at the phenomenon of defund[ing] the left and Planned Parenthood was right at the top of the list. And so the efforts at undermining the federal funding for the organization to provide reproductive health services [have] a very long legacy.”

In contrast to President Ronald Reagan in 1980, she points out, “in 2012, a president used reproductive rights as a positive lever in his reelection. In my mind, that’s a watershed event in evidence of the widespread support for the fundamental right, at the same time that the struggle goes on around the incremental aspects of it.”

The real problem has been the politicization of abortion. During the 12 years of the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, abortion funding was excluded from the Title X program, and gag rules restricted the use of U.S. funds for abortion counseling and services, both internationally and domestically. Ms. Wattleton calls attention to the power of the anti-abortion movement within the Republican Party.

She specifically points to the lifting of Judge John Dooling’s injunction on the Hyde Amendment, which resulted in the loss of federal funding for abortion services. “I think [the Hyde Amendment] began the slippery slope of incremental denial and restrictions for poor women,” she stated. “The attempts to terminate the Title X program go all the way back to the election of Ronald Reagan. Even though George Herbert Walker Bush was a co-sponsor of Title X when he was a congressman from Texas. Even though Ronald Reagan was the first governor to sign [into law] state Medicaid funding for low-income women’s abortions when he was governor of California.”

She continued, “The evidence is replete that this has been a political football for a very long time. The way in which the Susan B. Komen controversy charged the atmosphere and allowed the president to take advantage of the anger and the backlash of that particular controversy, perhaps will cause politicians to think again about using this to serve their political ambitions.”

What is surprising, Ms. Wattleton said, is how long the battle has endured: “Instead of, in a wholesale way, overturning Roe v. Wade with a constitutional amendment or an act that would have the same effect, [abortion opponents] were forced to resort to incremental gains,” she said. “And that is why I think that this has been an enduring battle … Roe is no longer the decision as it was handed down by the [Supreme] Court in 1973.”

Speaking further about the slow erosion of the rights guaranteed by Roe, Ms. Wattleton told us, “The [most] significant erosion is this court’s willingness to uphold a law that could ignore a woman’s health in making the decision to permit a late-term abortion. Because in Roe v. Wade the court said that a woman’s health and life always had to be preeminent. We now have a court that says health doesn’t matter.”

She continued, “If there is anything that should get our attention, it is the endurance of the struggle. At the same time that women continue to practice birth control, including abortion. Now I don’t mean to diminish or minimize the importance of continuing the battle and the vulnerability of those less able to circumvent the restrictions that the incremental battle has managed to accomplish, but I do mean to suggest that we really need not to lose sight of history and the context of how all of this has evolved with respect to social change and social practices.”

Ms. Wattleton commented on a recent Time Magazine cover, which read, “40 Years Ago, Abortion-Rights Activists Won an Epic Victory With Roe v. Wade. They’ve Been Losing Ever Since.” The article looks at changes from the federal to the state level, and the success of abortion opponents’ “incremental” strategy: Four states offer surgical abortions in just one clinic, the number of doctors performing abortions has dramatically decreased, and legal restrictions are increasingly being enacted by state legislatures. It also reports that even pro-choice women might support certain limitations on abortion access. The article has caused a stir, inviting praise as well as criticism.

In response to the Time article, Ms. Wattleton states that we are not merely involved in a “battle of activists” — it is women who lose with each new impediment to abortion access.

“The question is not whether women are losing, because we proved before that we will terminate pregnancy if the desire is sufficiently strong,” Ms. Wattleton stated. “The question is, Will there be barriers that impinge upon vulnerable women to a greater degree than they do on women who have resources and who have the means to circumvent them, or whether there will be the ability for women to exercise this right without regard for their personal resources. The question is whether they will be able to do so safely and with dignity or will continue to be harassed.”

Ms. Wattleton sums it up by reminding us that abortion will exist with or without legislation to protect our reproductive rights: “The bottom line is that women continue to attempt to control their fertility, including the practice of pregnancy termination. Period. It happened before Roe v. Wade. It will go on.”

Click here to see all four installments of our wonderful interview with Faye Wattleton, which we ran on Mondays in February 2013 in observance of Black History Month.

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  1. Pingback: A Conversation With Faye Wattleton: Part 4, Looking Back | Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona | Blog

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