Where to begin about women's issues in North Carolina and the 2014 elections? I asked Janet Colm, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Central North Carolina and its advocacy arm, the Planned Parenthood Action Fund: She began with North Carolina's progressive history on reproductive rights.
When a federal court struck down the Comstock Law in 1936, Colm recalled, North Carolina was the first state to add family planning services to its public health programs. Margaret Sanger, Planned Parenthood's founder, famously violated the Comstock Law by distributing information about contraceptives.
North Carolina was the second state to liberalize its abortion law—before the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. When Congress passed the Hyde Amendment barring the use of federal money for abortions, North Carolina created its own abortion fund for low-income women. Later, North Carolina was among the first states with a "contraceptive equity" law, which required that all health insurance plans, if they covered other prescription drugs, cover birth-control prescriptions too.
"North Carolina was always just slightly ahead," Colm said.
Ahead, that is, until the last three years, when Republican control of the General Assembly spawned an assault on reproductive rights, with Planned Parenthood in the crosshairs.
For the male-dominated GOP, it was a war on women, but Colm saw it as one front in a wide-ranging Republican assault on low-income people, men and women alike, for whom all government aid was slashed.
Republicans tried to punish Planned Parenthood, which provides abortion services, by making its other health-care programs ineligible for Medicaid funding. They enacted unnecessary and expensive "safety" requirements for abortion clinics—amending what had been a motorcycle-safety bill—in an effort to shut them down.
Lawsuits followed, and while some Republican measures survive, the most extreme were found by judges to be in violation of women's fundamental rights.
But the Republicans weren't finished. They went after birth control with a bill allowing employer-funded health insurance plans to omit contraceptives, trying to repeal the "equity" law.
The bill actually passed the House. It died in the Senate after women's rights supporters made a mockery of it, protesting in pillbox hats and vintage dresses to underscore how backward it was for the Republicans to interfere with birth control.
- Courtesy of Planned Parenthood Action Fund of Central N.C.
Now, House Speaker Thom Tillis, who led the Republican assault, is the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate against Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan, a champion of women's rights.
Hagan, who leads in the polls, "has been 100 percent on women's health issues," Colm said. "When she wins, I think it will be a statement to North Carolina about our belief in progressive policies overall, and it will be a statement to the country that we're not this crazy state that's been on The Daily Show for the last few years."
Colm's political comments were made in her role as head of the action fund. In a few weeks, she'll be retiring from that job and as CEO of the Planned Parenthood affiliate after 32 years at the helm. Her plans are to make no plans for six months.
When Colm started, the local Planned Parenthood consisted of a card table, two lawn chairs and some files compiled by its founders, who understood that for women to claim equal rights, they must first have control over their own fertility.
Today, the organization runs three health centers in Chapel Hill, Durham and Fayetteville. It serves a 23-county area on a budget of $5 million. Most clients are women coming for gynecological screenings and contraception. Men are tested for sexually transmitted diseases.
Why choose Planned Parenthood? Because its centers are accessible (open nights and weekends) and affordable, Colm said. Many of its clients are low-income. But the most important factor is its reputation for confidentiality and care that's high-quality and non-judgmental.
The fact is, women and men do have sex—and it's usually not to have a baby. So when they need a checkup, the first question many clients ask is, "Where can I go where they won't look at me cross-eyed?"
Colm recognizes that public opinion about abortion is more conservative today than previously. Yet most people are neither purely pro-life nor pro-choice. "They're both," she argues. "It's a false choice." A majority support a woman's right to have an abortion even if they don't like her decision, Colm points out, and they don't want women dying in back-alley operations because safe abortion services aren't available.
Americans may be of two minds on abortion, but contraception is another matter. More than 90 percent of American women use some form of birth control at some point, Colm says. An amazing one in five has been a Planned Parenthood client.
On birth control, when Planned Parenthood speaks, women listen—men too. So it was front-page news a year ago when Colm was arrested in a Moral Monday demonstration and hauled away in handcuffs.
For Colm, a calm, behind-the-scenes leader and self-described introvert, it was a departure in style. She did it because the Republicans had gone way too far, and to be in solidarity with the NAACP and other Moral Monday groups.
The Moral Monday issues are inter-connected, Colm says: poverty, racism, high unemployment, low minimum wage, cuts to health, education and voting rights. All have to do with low-income people who seek greater equality and control of their lives against others, who with political backing, want to control them.
For women, the questions boil down to sex and autonomy. And yes, it's the same old battles, Colm acknowledges.
But there's a river of progress flowing from Margaret Sanger through her generation to the young people who've joined the fight to oppose the Republican pushback, she says. "And what I think about that is, thank goodness we haven't given up."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Obsessed with the uterus."