Planned Parenthood ‘Sister CEOs’ on the Pandemic, Ramped Up Attacks on Abortion and Racial Justice
In many ways, the positions Planned Parenthood of Greater Ohio President and CEO Iris E. Harvey and Planned Parenthood Federation of America President and CEO Alexis McGill Johnson are similar.
Both are leading major nonprofit healthcare organizations during a once-in-a-century pandemic. They’re both witnesses to the regular attacks to reproductive health care in the state and nationwide in recent years, and, as Black women, they both feel an enormous call to speak to the social injustices faced by Black Americans outside of the realm of healthcare.
In conversation with the two, both are proud of the work being done and not letting up on the challenges ahead.
Like everyone else, Planned Parenthood went virtual in response to the pandemic. Harvey said while other providers closed down, its healthcare centers stayed open, shifting to offer a hybrid of telehealth and face-to-face care.
She said the Greater Ohio health centers and clinics served over 10,000 patients in the three or four months at the height of the pandemic.
“At the end of the day, [patients] knew that the Planned Parenthood health center that they were familiar with was there and open,” she said.
For many of Planned Parenthood’s patients, its health centers are the one place they go for a lot of their healthcare.
Planned Parenthood prides itself in providing culturally competent, affordable and accessible care. Many of its patients are younger, vulnerable economically or rely on Medicaid, and are in communities that are underserved in terms of healthcare — some of the same communities hit hardest by the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
“One of the things that COVID did prove and demonstrate is how important having that local presence is,” Harvey said on the need to stay open during the pandemic. “We understood how important it was because it’s certainly — speaking as a Black woman — our Black community, Latinx community or Asian communities, which are the communities that are getting the least access to care, and the slowest.”
At the federal level, Planned Parenthood continues to advocate for the expansion of Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act, while also fighting against some of the most “horrific” restrictions on abortion access as well as democracy and voting rights.
Johnson says across the country, close to 500 abortion bans have been signed into law or introduced.
“It has just been the busiest state legislative season that is shaping up to be one of the most hostile in recent history for sexual and reproductive health care,” she said. “And when there is a threat in one state, it’s really on all of us to fight and to push back.”
516 abortion restrictions have been introduced in 44 states in the first two and a half months of 2021, compared to 304 over the same time in 2019, according to a report by Planned Parenthood.
“We’ve seen the number of constitutional amendments more than triple. They’ve been so incredibly egregious because they are actually designed to go to the Supreme Court. And they’re being very explicit,” she said. “They keep saying the quiet parts out loud.”
Anti-abortion policy is now favorable to the federal courts, where pro-abortion rights advocates have typically looked to for support. Johnson said about 18 cases are currently one step away from the country’s highest court, and any one could overturn Roe v. Wade or effectively ban abortion entirely.
“We are now in a moment where advocates will be fighting state by state to ensure abortion access,” she said. “In some states, it means…you’ll be able to determine when was the right time for you to become a parent or not. And in other states, you could be forced into pregnancy because of your ability, perhaps, to get out of state.”
The continued challenges to reproductive healthcare are more than represented in Ohio, as the state has seen nearly 25 attacks on sexual and reproductive health care, including abortion, in the last decade.
Ohio legislators are making increased attempts to exclude patients from making decisions about their own body autonomy. And these restrictive policies are introduced without any concern for patients and their needs, said Harvey.
“The foundation of the bills that are being introduced have no science to them. They also don’t take into consideration the inconvenience and the inequality that many women face,” she said.
She points to legislation signed into law (and temporarily blocked by judges) in the middle of a pandemic — the fetal tissue disposal law and the telemedicine abortion ban. A recent Ohio law banning abortion if a doctor knows the patient’s reasoning is based on a Down syndrome diagnosis — which Planned Parenthood says “does nothing to address ableism and systemic discrimination against people with disabilities” — is still in effect.
“We are fighting an upstream battle because many of our legislators are using the access and the limitation of abortion care to appeal to a base that is unconcerned about the health of women,” said Harvey. “We’re hopeful that one of the ways of changing this is indeed to make sure that the people who are in the Statehouse understand the needs of their population for good healthcare, and recognize that abortion care is part of that mix.”
Aside from just reproductive healthcare, Planned Parenthood of Greater Ohio has expanded its gender-affirming care, including hormone therapy replacement, and has partnered with Nationwide Children’s Hospital to provide sex education in high schools, as well as CelebrateOne and others to address maternal and infant mortality.
“About 47% of our patients do have other social needs. So we’re attentive to the social determinants of health,” e.i. housing, education level, neighborhood, etc., said Harvey.
Those social determinants can’t be separated from reproductive health. While legislation limiting body autonomy becomes law in Ohio, there remains a lack of paid family leave, a stark wage gap between men and women, and increasing costs to healthcare.
Planned Parenthood also isn’t siloed into discussions surrounding healthcare. The organization has commented on issues outside of reproductive health, including police violence, gun violence, racial justice, immigration, women’s rights and LGBTQ+ rights, among other issues.
“You’re talking to two Black women who are really clear about not separating our identities in this work, because these are our kids, right?” said Johnson. “I mean, there’s no question Ma’Khia should be alive today.”
Harvey said she’s proud to be a part of an organization that takes a stand on these kinds of issues. Understanding the issues facing its patients allows Planned Parenthood to provide trauma-informed care, and putting resources behind fighting social injustice builds trust with the communities they serve.
“We have to be concerned about the conditions that make a community unsafe, the conditions that mean our young people have a reason to fear for their lives,” she said. “We’re concerned about the total environment that our patients live in.”
Still, the need to speak out on these kinds of issues is in direct relation to Planned Parenthood’s mission.
“You can’t isolate reproductive healthcare from the environment in which a woman and her family lives and tries to thrive, and especially for Black women,” said Harvey. “If a Black woman is being denied safety, is facing violence in her community, is being policed in an equitable way, it has an impact on her and therefore many of our patients.”
“Our patients sit at the intersection of so many injustices, and they come to us, come to you, for access to STI testing and birth control and family planning and gender-affirming care, and then they leave and ICE may show up on their job, or they may get pulled over,” said Johnson.
The coronavirus pandemic proved Planned Parenthood locally and nationally can deliver safe and affordable reproductive care virtually and through telehealth, and that they can organize digitally and connect 17 million supporters from across the country. Johnson said she hopes to continue to see Planned Parenthood leverage that national presence on the local level.
“All politics is local, all healthcare is local. And all the fights that we are having are local and personal. None of it is possible without really strong partners and leaders on the ground,” she said. “And so thinking about how we build that infrastructure to make sure that that we can continue fighting on all fronts. That’s the vision, that’s the mission: to keep moving.”
Calling Harvey her “sister CEO,” she said her voice has been integral in making the local issues the national fight.
Meanwhile, Harvey said having Black women at the table — who have experienced and have an understanding of racial discrimination and how it manifests — provides the necessary framework for culturally inclusive, life-saving care.
“We’re not going to stop doing what we’re doing,” she said. “And what we’re doing we think is really making a difference.”
For more information on Planned Parenthood of Greater Ohio, visit ppgoh.org.