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Women's stories

The true stories of women's lives drew Janet Colm to Planned Parenthood--and they keep her there

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Political arguments only go so far in explaining the need for abortion rights and birth control. The bulk of the evidence is in the stories of women's lives.

Janet Colm, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Central North Carolina, has been fortified by those stories since her college days. When clinic hours are over at her Chapel Hill office, she often slips downstairs to the recovery room, where women rest after abortion procedures, to read the messages left in the notebooks there. "We used to do it to get feedback about services," she says of the books. "But now I do it for a very personal reason, which is to get juice. I'll be up here dealing with administrative stuff, or get bummed out about the political situation, and all I have to do is go down there and read those books. They're real stories."

The stories are usually unsigned. They vary in tone from sadness to relief, and convey a wide variety of cultural backgrounds and education levels. Some are in Spanish. They say things like: I already have four children; I can't have any more if I want to provide for them all. Or, I'm not ready to have a baby. Some address God. Some address the other women who might be reading them. They tell of difficult choices, measured decisions and gratitude to the clinic staff for explaining the medical issues and being sensitive to their needs.

It's thanks to Colm that the stories turn out well. She started as Planned Parenthood's first director in 1982. On her first day of work, she entered a small office to find boxes of paperwork and not much else. "Somebody had brought in a card table and two lawn chairs, and that was Planned Parenthood."

Today, this affiliate serves about 15,000 people per year, offering affordable health services at its health centers in Durham and Chapel Hill, plus peer education and political advocacy. The budget has gone from $50,000 to 2.5 million, with a staff of about 50 people.

The bulk of Planned Parenthood's work is to provide birth control and health services for clients at all income levels. But in a state where 80 percent of the counties don't have an abortion provider, that small part of the organization's mission is crucial. So is its advocacy work: Colm helped to create an action fund that lobbies for pro-choice issues and releases influential election endorsements.

Colm's affiliate is expanding. Its board recently voted to take on an additional 23 counties beyond Orange and Durham and changed its name to Planned Parenthood of Central North Carolina. She's taking it step by step: One staff member has set up a satellite office in Fayetteville, and is starting out with advocacy and peer education on women's health and birth control issues.

Rivka Gordon, chair of the Plannet Parenthood board and director of U.S. programs for the international women's health group Ipas, says Colm's careful approach is key to the organization's longevity. "She knows that as we expand our services and expand our reach into new communities, we have to do that with real sensitivity and thoughtfulness, so that what we provide to the community is sustainable," Gordon says.

Women's stories are what brought Colm into the field of women's health. While in a women's history course at Duke in the early 70s, she stumbled across a book of letters that women had written to Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood and crusader for contraception, in the early 1900s.

"The letters said things like, 'I'm 23. I've been pregnant seven times. I've had three miscarriages. I cannot go through this again. Please, tell me what to do.' " For Colm, the lesson was that all the aspects of the women's movement she was experiencing--music, literature, academics--hinged on the most basic of rights. "It was such an eye-opener to me. I became sexually active in a world that knew the pill. I knew people who had had unplanned pregnancies, and I definitely knew people who had had abortions, but it wasn't until I read that book that I really understood what a difference having control of your fertility makes in a woman's life."

Before Planned Parenthood, Colm was director of the Orange County Rape Crisis Center, another organization she helped build from scratch. "It was a very hard job, and I really didn't know much about what I was doing." She quit in frustration and was elated to see an ad for the Planned Parenthood position a week later. Determined not to burn out, she took to heart lessons she had learned about the importance of knowing her limits, and knowing where her strengths lie. "Until I had that experience at Rape Crisis, I thought I wanted to be a social worker, or a counselor. I didn't really understand that what I wanted to do was to be a builder."

Karen Bley, the organization's chief operating officer, has worked with Colm since 1984. "Janet is very devoted to a work-life balance and sets a great example for all of us." She says Colm is known for the little notes of encouragement she leaves in staff mailboxes. Shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, when a staff member opened a threatening letter and white powder fell out of the envelope, Bley says Colm was able to strike the perfect balance of taking the threat seriously and allaying her frazzled coworkers' fears. "She provides an excellent role model to say, 'We're not going to let this stop us.'"

"We joke sometimes," says Colm, "that to work at Planned Parenthood, you have to have this perfect balance of paranoia and denial."

Colm says there is more at stake now than at any other time in her career. "The day after Bush signed this abortion ban," she says, referring to the so-called "Partial-Birth Abortion Ban" that criminalizes various forms of abortion, "they started attacking mifepristone," also known as the abortion pill, "which is about early abortion. Meanwhile, there has been a whole assault on contraception." Politicians are moving to change the legal definition of pregnancy to fertilization, rather than implantation, which has always been the medical definition. That's because the right wing wants birth control methods like the pill and the IUD to be classified as abortion, she says.

That Planned Parenthood is a target of their attacks is further evidence that this is a political game. "We do more every single day to prevent the need for abortion than they do in years."

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