Dr. Joycelyn Elders, a Champion of Teen Sexual and Reproductive Health

EldersIn honor of Black History Month, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona would like to recognize an outstanding and inspiring black woman who championed adolescent sexual and reproductive health and rights: Dr. Joycelyn Elders. Dr. Elders served as surgeon general to the United States under President Bill Clinton, and famously said, “I want every child born in America to be a planned and wanted child.”

She started her life in rural Arkansas, picking cotton to help support her family, and in 1978, she became Arkansas’ first board-certified pediatric endocrinologist. Dr. Elders’ work in endocrinology is what first piqued her interest in adolescent sexual health — some of her young patients, such as young girls with diabetes, would face serious health risks if they were to become pregnant.


Dr. Joycelyn Elders is an inspiring, passionate, and outspoken advocate for sexual and reproductive health and justice


In 1987, Dr. Elders became the director of the Arkansas health department. In this role, Dr. Elders championed an initiative that required sex education in the K-12 curriculum. She also aggressively campaigned to make birth control more readily available, particularly for teens, widened the state’s HIV testing and counseling programs, and advocated for greater access to abortion.

Then, in 1993, Dr. Joycelyn Elders became the first African-American and only the second female surgeon general. In an interview, Dr. Elders stated that her No. 1 priority for her tenure as surgeon general was to “to do something about unplanned and unwanted pregnancies.” Continue reading

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

Faye 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. Continue reading