12 August 2010

Summer is winding down :(

This is a post by one of our WONDERFUL summer interns, Dani. We were so lucky to have such talented and dedicated young folks working with us!

So. End of my first summer at Planned Parenthood and I’m still conflicted about the experience. It was nothing like I anticipated applying or even after completing training, yet it definitely still provided me with great skills and understanding.

Coming in, we were taught all sorts of different political involvement techniques—door-to-door canvassing, phone banking, crowd canvassing, writing letters to the paper—with the understanding that we’d be placed at the bottom tier in some struggling politician’s campaign to help make a difference and get them elected. But my internship didn’t turn out that way. Our luck with candidates was legendary—we had politicians who wouldn’t return our calls or who, when we finally got involved with them, did not live up to our expectations—and so my partner Bailey and I never really landed on a campaign. We were more freelance in our political action, doing what would could from the PPWP office and from our limited city bus pass access.

I was looking forward to getting involved in a real political campaign this summer, because it seemed glamorous and complicated and important (I think I’ve watched a bit too much West Wing). In this, I guess I guess I was a bit disappointed, because now my views of them must wait to be disillusioned or confirmed, or both. But my real love and passion is sexuality, not politics, so our focus on Planned Parenthood’s issue and goals and office space really suited me just fine.

This is not to say that I haven’t still learned a lot about politics through my work here. Beyond the truly invaluable political skills of pitching an issue on the phone in such a way that the caller won’t hang up, or getting people to see the value in registering to vote, or being able to speak eloquently about issues, candidates, and the importance of voting for choice, I as well learned many more challenging, intangible lessons. I learned that politicians can be imperfect, even flawed, and still be candidates that need to be supported and advocated for because they can do important work for women and choice in office. I learned that voters really just want to feel like they are being heard and that they are important. And I think I finally grasped the true importance of the democratic process, even—perhaps especially—on the local level. Because political work really is an equal, and an equally important partner, to direct services in cases of social work, be it medical services, choice, domestic violence, or whatever. Work in the interpersonal sphere can only exist as long as there are political policies in place to safeguard it. We can continue performing abortions, or handing out EC, or advocating sex ed because down the road, people have done the hard political action to ensure those freedoms.

But I also learned that politics will probably never be for me. So much compromise and value negotiation goes into becoming a viable candidate, a candidate who can win and then do good things, and I don’t want to settle. I think I’ve learned I’m far too liberal to be tamed like that. But I do know that one day I’ll still end up inside a campaign. Because I learned through this internship, and through my supervisors and mentors at PPWP, that being the lone, loud progressive voice in a candidate’s ear can help remind them what they’re fighting for.

25 June 2010

Medical Care Behind Bars

In 1984, Wanda Boswell was arrested for operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol. During booking, the jailer learned that Boswell was 6 ½ months pregnant, and having a difficult pregnancy. Boswell began bleeding and notified jailers, who locked her in a cell without calling a doctor. The bleeding worsened and she requested a doctor. She was left locked in the jail cell overnight. In the morning, Boswell was cramped, bleeding, and in pain, and again requested a doctor. The jailer refused and told Boswell she would be released when she posted bail. Boswell was allowed to call her mother-in-law who told the jailer that even if she was able to raise the money to for bail, it would take quite some time to travel to the jail. The jailer continued to insist that she needed "$ 150 to let Boswell out." When a local police officer (and emergency medical technician) stopped by the jail before his shift, he heard Boswell’s cries. While looking in on Boswell, he noticed the bleeding and demanded an ambulance which transferred Boswell to a hospital. Her baby, Joseph Boswell, was born at the hospital, where he died thirty-four minutes later. (Boswell v. County of Sherburne, 849 F.2d 1117. (8th Cir., 1988)).

The health concerns of incarcerated women do not differ markedly from those outside the prison walls. However, a woman in prison has no power to care for herself. Her incarceration completely restricts her liberty, including access to any and all medical care. Due to an inmate’s complete dependence on prison officials, deliberate indifference to an inmate’s serious medical needs is considered “cruel and unusual punishment” and a violation of the Eighth Amendment.

Between 1977 and 2007, the female prison population has increased by 832% (according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics). Two-thirds of these women are incarcerated for non-violent – mostly drug and property-related – offenses. While the numbers are shocking enough on their own, the implications of the flood of women into the prison system are even more so.

Like many institutions, the criminal justice system is structured by and for men: from sentencing and punishment to prison programming and the provision of medical care. Women have specific medical needs that do not vanish once the prison gate locks: gynecological care and education, access to prenatal care or abortion services, and (more often than men) counseling for prior sexual abuse. If incarceration is at least in part about rehabilitation, an inmate’s health is vital to achieving this goal.

The physical and emotional pain Wanda Boswell experienced should be part of no one’s sentence. Reading case after case of such abysmal treatment, it’s difficult to see a light at the end of the tunnel. If prisons fail to adopt and implement procedures to meet the needs of their new inmates, the only means of redress seems to be the one Boswell had: in court, after enduring several hours of pain and the death of her son. Although that’s certainly better than nothing, the better alternative – for all involved – is to realize the reality that women’s health needs do not disappear upon incarceration and the value of investing in caring for these women.

23 June 2010

Planned Parenthood and Me

I have been exceedingly lucky in my life to have been raised by strong women who believe in the power of being a strong woman. While they each had their own strengths, they truly believed in the autonomy of self and the freedom to make one's own choices. My home was always sex positive and open, and I am thankful for that.

However, no matter how sure I felt about my own body, sexuality, and self, there was something missing. The lack of proper health education, particularly sex education, in my upbringing, combined with the absense of self-esteem (all too normal, in this day and age, for adolescents) led me into an abusive relationship with an older man at the age of sixteen. After that relationship ended, swearing I wouldn't tell anyone, I carried that burden around with me for years, always questioning why I wasn't "good enough" or "smart enough" to have gotten out of that. In my senior year of high school, Planned Parenthood's "Peer Education" program began to disseminate the information invaluable to a growing teen, and helped me cope with my past.

Years later, I realized it wasn't a problem with me that led me into that relationship, but also a problem with the system. I did not have a network at school to whom I could tell my deepest secret. The health classes, which focused on abstaining from drugs, alcohol, and sex, did not help me develop confidence and self-esteem, and did not teach me how to say "no". In University I began a teacher training program, focusing on history and ethics/religion, but took more and more courses in the fields of sexuality, women's health, and sociology. It is my goal to pursue a Masters of Public Health in Adolescent Health/Sexuality, and to promote proper health and sex education within schools and other institutions.

It also shocks me how little even "educated" people know about contraceptive usage and anatomy. Since coming out as a future sex educator, I have had many friends come to me, in confidence, asking basic questions about sex, health, or anatomy, that I find disturbing for people in their mid-twenties. I do not blame them, however-- after all, they are seeking to correct misinformation from their schooling-- but rather the teachers, guardians, and institutions who continue to pass on such wrong data. That is something I seek to change, and am thankful that Planned Parenthood has been doing that for ages.

Working at Planned Parenthood is a way for me to give back, and a way for me to take part in a larger public health measure. I believe, above all, in the value of proper education, caring teachers and mentors, and trust. Thankfully, so does Planned Parenthood.

21 June 2010

My Planned Parenthood Experience

I only understood the true significance of my body and my rights to it after I left a long-term abusive relationship. The healing process turned me toward literature and advocacy that respected each individual's rights to her/his own body. When it came time to apply for internships that actually considered my interests in respecting these issues, Planned Parenthood seemed the perfect choice.

I was completely off base when I imagined the type of work I would be doing as a campaign organizer. Yes, I phone bank, canvass, and fill out data forms, but I also get to table for events and listen to individuals' issues. I am actually working with like-minded people on advocacy issues that are meaningful to everyone involved. People do not work at Planned Parenthood merely to receive a paycheck. The positive energy in the office creates a safe space for conversation and motivates me to get up every morning for work.

Even though we are only about three weeks in, I have learned so much with my fellow campaign organizer, Dani. We muse at how uncomfortable some people are with the presence of condoms at tabling events and how others seem desperate not to make eye contact with us. One girl even asked us if it was awkward handing out condoms. After responding in the negative, we encouraged her to look into volunteering with Planned Parenthood, but she gingerly smiled and walked away. For a country filled with sexual images, people are way too uncomfortable with discussing sexual health and safety. Issues, such as sexual violence, seem to be even further from conversation.

While not everyone is willing to share their stories of abuse, sexually transmitted infections, or pregnancy, I think the more we talk the better off we are. Discussion is not meant to desensitize people on these issues, but to make them more aware of what is out there in the world for them to encounter.

What I'm Doing at Planned Parenthood

As a double major in Public Health and Gender Studies, it makes perfect sense that I would end up interning at Planned Parenthood this summer. I believe in feminism, in gender equality, in sex positivity, and in safety, responsible choice, and decision making, so this office just made sense for me. There are so few organizations out there that not only care about these rights and issues, but makes it their fight and their number one priority. Planned Parenthood is a wonderful place.

My involvement and love affair with Planned Parenthood, however--particularly with the affiliate I am now working with--began a long time ago. As a kid who had jumped from a conservative Jewish day school to a predominantly uninformative health class in high school, Planned Parenthood gave me my first real sex ed. They came into my gym classes and taught us about relationship communication, about protection, about contraception, and, yes, about different types of sex and their benefits and disadvantages. I was completely spoiled--I thought that everyone knew this information that I knew, that everyone was as informed as I was about sexuality and their own bodily autonomy.

Evidently not. Between the ages of 15 and 18, so many of my friends ended up having pregnancy or STI scares or were sexually abused or in unhealthy relationships. No one ever seemed to know what to do, so they would come to me and we'd talk about their options and their resources, and first on my list was always Planned Parenthood. We'd walk down the street during walk-in hours to get tested, emergency contraception (back before it was legal to purchase over-the-counter), or counseling. Planned Parenthood moved from being a place of education to a resource and a health service. And it changed me from being just a naive kid to someone with some real, valuable education who wanted to make sure everyone had the same. It turned me into an advocate.

So now I'm back here again, this time hopefully helping the community from the inside rather than the out. Although most of my background and my own experiences with Planned Parenthood have been educational or health related, now I'm sitting at the other end working with the political landscape of Pennsylvania to try to create pro-women, pro-choice change. I didn't think doing the stuff I do all day--phone banking or knocking on doors or stuffing bus pass holders with condoms and information--was ever something I'd willingly do. I don't think I ever really grasped how much I could learn from it. But beyond just the comparatively simple lessons like how to keep people from hanging up even when you call during dinner, or how much work goes into planning an outreach event like Pride, or how rewarding it is to see a fully-completed petition page, spending my time doing this work, and listening to the people who have actually made this their living, I've learned that this sort of grassroots advocacy work is exactly the right step for me right now. Planned Parenthood rests on pillars of education, health services, and political action, and all three are so important and so interrelated. It's not hard to be compassionate when calling voters for hours to support sex ed when you have witnessed how it can positively influence the health and well-being of kids growing up. And marching up and down streets all day asking people to support a pro-choice candidate becomes a lot easier when you know that their one voice can be the pressure that helps to improve reproductive health care and access in Pennsylvania.

So now, with the vote for the Healthy Youth Act coming so soon, we get to keep pushing to see if the work we've been doing so far will create good change. I hope it will.

03 June 2010

Reproductive Rights and Environmental Justice

“Who would want to live in a world which is just not quite fatal?”
- ecologist Paul Shepard, quoted by Rachel Carson in “Silent Spring,” 1962

What does environmental justice have to do with reproductive freedom? Well, of course, as people, we must all care about the world in which we live. The impact that we have on the environment, and its impact on us, is all the more clear as we watch the weeks tick by as oil continues to spill into the Gulf of Mexico and onto the shores of our southern coastline.

Aside from this basic connection that we all have with the planet, reproductive rights advocates and environmental activists share a common belief that when armed with knowledge we can make choices to keep ourselves healthy. Reproductive health stems in part from the health of the environment in which we live, what we ingest, and what we pass on to our children. Nutrients as well as toxic substances pass from pregnant mother to unborn child and through breast milk to infants. The health of the external environment directly impacts our internal health, of which reproductive health is an important piece. Many specific issues therefore make the two coalitions natural allies.

Take toxic substances for instance. Rachel Carson, a Pennsylvania native, warned of the dangers of pesticides as early as 1962. Her work spurred modern environmental activism and the creation of the EPA in 1970. In 1976, Congress passed the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) in an attempt to give the EPA the power to regulate chemicals used in consumer products and manufacturing facilities.

Since 1976, EPA has evaluated 200 of the now 82,000 registered chemicals and banned 5 since 1976 and none since 1990. The 2008-2009 President’s Cancer Panel Report focused solely on the environmental cancer risk. The Panel called TSCA the “most egregious example of ineffective regulation on environmental contaminants” and stated that rates of environmentally induced cancers are “grossly underestimated.” Since 1982, 40% more women have reported impaired fertility and 30% more babies have been born prematurely since 1994. While environmental contaminants are not the sole cause of these rising rates, there are strong links between human health and chemical exposure.

With a push from Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, a coalition of individuals, businesses, health professionals, reproductive health advocates, and environmentalists concerned with the safety of toxic chemicals in consumer products, our homes, and workplaces, Congress is now attempting to revamp TSCA with bills introduced in both the House and Senate. The “Safe Chemical Act of 2010” would require fast action on the worst chemicals, publication of basic information on all chemicals, and a focus on communities disproportionately affected by harmful chemicals (people living near manufacturing sites, workers, pregnant women).

Although the bill is a promising start, Lindsay Dahl (Deputy Director of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families) points out that work must still be done to make the bills stronger – especially with regard to requirements for new chemicals. New chemicals will likely still be able to get to market unless flagged, perhaps due to their similarity to chemicals already deemed harmful. More strict criteria must be laid out so that the chemical industry is required to show chemicals are safe, rather than have the EPA chase down chemicals once their harmful effects manifest.

The chemical industry is likely to fight against tackling the “worst of the worst” chemicals first for such action would put a black mark on these chemicals. Yet, if they’re the “worst of the worst,” don’t they deserve a black mark?

A revamped TSCA asks the chemical industry to tell us the health risks of the chemicals used in our insecticides, shampoos, plastics, etc. so that we armed with the knowledge to make informed choices about what we purchase. "Choice" in matters of health encompasses the range of choices from what kinds of chemicals we allow to enter our body (or not) to whether and when to have a family (or not) and numerous other decisions in between. And as new science continues to show, environmental contaminants can directly impact reproductive health – from infertility and premature births to breast and testicular cancers (Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families Health Report).

Rachel Carson asked in the first installment of her “Silent Spring” series in 1962: “Have we fallen into a mesmerized state that makes us accept as inevitable that which is inferior or detrimental, as though we had lost the will or the vision to demand that which is good?” Advocates for both reproductive rights and environmental justice have always envisioned that better education and greater choices empower individuals to demand that which is good for themselves and their communities.

20 May 2010

I've Come to the End

As of today the count is thirteen days until I’m done with high school. After four years it is finally coming to an end, and I have to say I couldn’t be happier. It’s certainly time for me to move on from the tedious (and occasionally exhilarating) world of high school. For my classmates and me, this last semester has been a difficult push to the end filled with missing assignments and skipped days. Compared to my peers, however, I’ve had the opportunity to do something new in the last four months of school. Instead of sitting around in school for another few hours after lunch, counting down until the end of the day, brining me that much closer to the end, I’ve come to Planned Parenthood every day and been engaged in something new and exciting, giving me a reason to come to school every day. In fact I even came to my internship on Senior Skip Day. Crazy right? Tells you there’s something special about this place though.

I think the biggest difference between school and working at Planned Parenthood is that I truly care about the work I do here. At school everyone has such resentment towards doing work and being productive; seniors just want it to be over already. When I come to Planned Parenthood, however, I get excited about what I get to accomplish that day. Everyday I get to do something that makes a difference, whether it’s preparing outreach materials for an event, writing a blog post or even doing data entry, and it is all working towards a cause that I care about. The notion that the work I do can make a little something about the world better is enough to give me drive and inspiration to get the work done without dread. Compare that to writing an English paper on Hamlet… I’ll trade any day.

Working here for four months has given me knowledgeable insight into office and nonprofit work. Paper pushing, phone banking, blogging, all of this was new to me, and although not always the best of times, personally rewarding in a manner that makes me proud of the work I do. Proud because I’m helping an incredible organization like Planned Parenthood accomplish goals I care about like promoting comprehensive sex ed, protecting reproductive rights and ensuring women’s health.

Sitting here on one of my last days at Planned Parenthood, I know I made a smart choice when choosing where I wanted to intern (thanks for the suggestion mom!). I’ve gotten to do some really fun projects, things that I care about and tasks things that are tedious, but extremely important. This internship was exactly what I needed at this point in my life, something to keep me motivated, hold my interest and give me the opportunity to make a difference. I can only hope that I’ve given as much to this organization as it’s given me.

Before I go, I need to give a big shout out and thanks to Tiffany Hickman, the Volunteer and Intern Coordinator at Planned Parenthood who has been my supervisor these past months. She’s been incredible to work with and has made this whole experience so much better by being extremely friendly and encouraging. I also need to thank Rebecca Cavanaugh and the rest of the Planned Parenthood administrative staff for welcoming me to their floor and opening lots of doors! (I mean that literally).