I was born in 1952 in South Dakota to a young couple who had been married for 14 months. My arrival predated the birth control pill (1959) and was long before the Griswold v. Connecticut ruling by the Supreme Court (1965) rolling back laws that made the use of contraception by married couples illegal.
My parents came from families of limited means, and were just starting their lives together. They’d recently purchased a small farm and were attempting to create an economically viable life there. The house we lived in had no indoor bathroom and only recently had been wired for electricity.
Then, as now, poor women had little information about birth control. 11 months after I was born, a brother arrived. Then 21 months after that, my second brother appeared. And 13 months later, my sister.
My mother was not frail, nor was she the most robust of women. Growing up on a prairie farm during the 30’s, she experienced the food insecurity common to the depression era. Although reasonably healthy, she no doubt suffered some nutritional deficiencies that impacted her health in adulthood. Each pregnancy took a lot out of her, and by the time my sister was born, Mom’s teeth had deteriorated to a degree necessitating their complete removal and replacement with dentures.
The obstetrician who worked with my mother may have had a primarily rural clientele with limited education, but he was far from backward himself. His firsthand observation of what childbirth took out of my mother led him to approach my father and suggest that he have a vasectomy. The doctor made his case by stating that if Mom continued with pregnancies at the current rate, she’d never be alive to see her children to adulthood. To my father’s credit, he agreed.
Without the vasectomy, my mother could easily have gone on having a baby every year or two, ruining her own health while being unable to feed a gaggle of hungry humans. The wisdom of the doctor’s suggestion would be even more apparent when my father died at age 40 after 14 years of marriage. As it was, my mother was left at age 38 with the daunting challenge of providing for four children on her own.
I reflect often on how different my life and those of my siblings would have been if that wise country doctor hadn’t made a bold suggestion. Despite some meatless meals growing up, all four of us were able to mobilize resources to finish college and move into careers that support us. If there’d been any more of us, the simple struggle to survive would have consumed our limited assets.
Without the willingness of that country doctor to work toward a rational solution—even if it went against the norm of the time—it’s unlikely I would have had the life I’ve had and the opportunity to reach my potential. I’d not have had a fulfilling career in biomedical research; resources to help support my extended family; and chances to impact others seeking their own path through life.
Now in my 60’s, I’ve had time to think about where I’d like to expend my volunteer energies. The answer has been clear to me for a while: I want young women and men regardless of their economic standing to have the same chances I had—and that means the ability to control their own fates. I want them, as they move through puberty and adulthood, to understand how to manage their reproductive capacity responsibly. No one should end up on a life trajectory that stunts their potential simply because they didn’t have access to reproductive education and services. Equally important to me is that every child be a wanted child—not the accidental result of a lack of information and possibly the target of retribution from parents who feel trapped in a situation they didn’t seek.
The population served by Planned Parenthood consists precisely of those I want to help: an average age around 20 and largely unable to afford health insurance (despite implementation of the Affordable Care Act). In these young people, I see myself at that age—not realizing it, but poised precariously on daily decision points that could irreversibly dictate the path of one’s life.
Of course, wanting to help and finding a suitable role in which to do that are two different things. I’m a scientist who is more comfortable with books than with people—so showing up at PPPMNS with a willingness to work wasn’t a guarantee I’d fit well within the organization.
Again, I was fortunate…PPMNS is outstanding at matching volunteer capabilities with the organization’s needs. I was offered a position on the Information and Education Committee, which reviews printed materials given out to patients. My role is to evaluate documents for accuracy, appropriateness, and completeness. It’s a perfect fit to my skills; I’ve served for 5 years and continue to enjoy contributing.
But the success of this match isn’t just about me…it’s more about PPMNS and the organization’s ethic of respect and care for every individual. The non-judgmental support they provide includes a belief that people can make smart decisions for themselves once presented with all the relevant information. There’s no agenda and no coercion; it’s a mission of helping the individual work toward their own best interest.
When I started as a Planned Parenthood volunteer, my motives were driven by empathy. Increasingly, I’m feeling that my principles are under attack by a society gone mad, and I am motivated as never before. For the foreseeable future, I will continue to support Planned Parenthood in any way I can.