Our newest blogger is named Care, who shares with us the lessons she learned as a Peace Corps volunteer in this powerful piece.
My relationship with Planned Parenthood has grown and evolved over my life. When I was a kid, my dad, who was a clinic escort for Planned Parenthood, would tell me how important their work was and how thankful I should be every day for it. He used to walk up to anti-abortion people and ask them how many kids they had adopted, or offered to adopt, during their time as protesters.
In West Africa, there are no coat hangers. There are a lot of bicycle spokes, though.
I was never more than cursorily interested in Planned Parenthood and what they did though. Sure, they did STD prevention and treatment. Sure, they did women’s health. Sure, they did abortion services. But, like most people who grew up post-Roe v. Wade, that last one meant little to me. I never knew a world where abortions and birth control were inaccessible. I never knew a world where condoms and safer sex were not taught. So it is understandable that my dad, who would tell me about girls he knew who were seriously injured or even killed by back-alley abortions, would be more of an activist than I was.
This all changed in 2006. I was 23 years old and a Peace Corps volunteer. I was assigned to a village in a remote part of West Africa. The community told me that what they really needed was someone to help out in the “hospital,” a rural health clinic, the only one in the district. We served more than 20 villages in two countries. I was lucky — I worked with dedicated people who cared more about the welfare of the community than anything else.
One of these things was helping with women who had “fallen off a bicycle.” For the first time in my life, I was living in a place where abortion was illegal.
Before, when I would see pro-choice rallies, I would see coat hangers and didn’t understand what that meant. In West Africa, there are no coat hangers. There are a lot of bicycle spokes, though. Since abortion was illegal, women who were unmarried or had been assaulted or who just could not handle another pregnancy would go to … someone. And when it went wrong, like it often did, they would come to us because we had the reputation of helping and not asking many questions.
Near the end of my service, a foreign doctor was caught providing safe abortions to women in the country. He was deported, and the local nurses who were helping him received prison sentences in a hard labor camp. In a West African prison, this is tantamount to a life sentence.
We also saw many patients with STDs. There was no education or preventive services, so even if the community members knew what caused the symptoms (and many times the patients were women whose husbands were asymptomatic), they didn’t know how to prevent recurrence. Assuming they had the ability, of course. Women’s rights were not much of a thing over there. Women would come in time and again with chlamydia and gonorrhea. We would treat them, then months later they would be back. Treating the women did nothing if their husbands wouldn’t come in or wouldn’t practice safer sex when they visited the brothels. But because there wasn’t sexuality education, they didn’t believe that these were things that they got from sex, or even believe that they had an STD.
Nearly every service Planned Parenthood offers, be it medical, educational, or advocacy, was lacking in my service country. And the negative consequences of this were far reaching. You just have to see one baby born to a mother with chlamydia to become a passionate and vocal proponent of sexual health education.
Long before I came home, I vowed that I would never take my rights for granted again. Shortly after I returned to the United States, I made my first donation to Planned Parenthood. I was a vocal advocate of the services they offered, and of the importance of the existence of Planned Parenthood. For the last five years, during which time I lived in three states, I have been a Planned Parenthood volunteer, and am grateful for the opportunity to serve my community.
I have seen the world without Planned Parenthood, and I never want to live in that world again.