Family-Planning Leader Speaks Out for Choice

Times Staff Writer

Even though her face was etched with pain, the 17-year-old girl's natural beauty was still evident as she lay dying in New York's Harlem Hospital from a bungled, home-induced abortion, recalled Faye Wattleton in describing the numerous deaths of women from illegal abortions she witnessed in the mid-1960s while working as a nurse in one of the nation's worst slums.

Nearly 20 years later, abortion continues to be a traumatic subject for Wattleton, who today is national president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. As she entered the Newport Harbor Yacht Club last Thursday night to address a dinner commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Orange County chapter of Planned Parenthood, she was confronted by placard-carrying anti-abortion demonstrators shouting "Don't kill babies."

Yet as Wattleton--who is the first woman, first black and, at 41, the youngest person to head the nation's largest voluntary family-planning organization--made clear during an interview two days after last Tuesday's series of nationwide demonstrations by anti-abortion forces protesting the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 decision legalizing abortion, she will not be dissuaded in her campaign to assure that women retain the legal right to an abortion.

Missionary Zeal In the face of picketers, death threats against Planned Parenthood personnel and firebombings against Planned Parenthood clinics, including an attempted firebombing at the family-planning organization's Santa Ana clinic two days before Christmas, she retains the missionary zeal of her minister mother.

Indeed, Wattleton finds it ironic that she has been thrust into the role of being a national spokeswoman for the "pro-choice" side of the abortion controversy, considering that relatively few abortions are performed at clinics operated by the 70-year-old Planned Parenthood organization, the nation's oldest family-planning agency. It has 190 affiliates throughout the United States, an annual budget of $180 million, 250,000 donors and 20,000 volunteers and staff.

"Those who try to discredit Planned Parenthood call us the 'biggest purveyors of abortion' in this country," Wattleton said during an afternoon interview in Newport Beach at the Big Canyon home of Shelley Klein, who earlier had hosted a luncheon in her honor. "The truth of the matter is that of the 3.3 million people we saw last year, only 80,000 women received an abortion at one of our clinics--this was 80,000 abortions out of the 1.5 million that were performed in this country last year.

"Abortion is not our major service. (Fewer than one-fifth of Planned Parenthood's clinics perform abortions; none of the five in Orange County do so.) Our programs run the gamut of reproductive services: contraceptive care for women, sterilization for men, sex education to prevent teen-age pregnancies, cancer screening, pregnancy tests and counseling.

"I think what really upsets our opponents is that we don't shrink from taking a strong pro-choice position"--a position Wattleton has espoused since taking the helm of the New York-headquartered organization in 1978.

Wattleton's deep commitment to individual choice in family-planning matters, she said, is a reflection of her upbringing as a minister's daughter and her professional training, which showed her how to "alleviate hurt and human suffering."

'Raised in Religious Family'

"I was raised in a very religious family where we went to church four and five times a week," said Wattleton in recalling her upbringing in a working-class neighborhood of St. Louis, the only daughter of a factory-worker father and a mother who was a seamstress and minister of the Church of God.

Growing up in the home of a minister who stressed service to others, Wattleton said, shaped her decision to go into nursing and, later, into family planning.

"I don't remember ever not wanting to be a nurse," Wattleton said, commenting on how simple the decision had been for her. "My mother had a vision of me becoming a missionary nurse.

"Those were the days when missionaries would come back from Africa and talk to our church about the 'saving grace' they had extended to the 'heathen in the dark continent of Africa.' I didn't go off to Africa, but I brought this missionary spirit that was instilled in me as a child to my work with Planned Parenthood."

And her upbringing, in an ironic way, taught her the need to show tolerance for others when it came to issues of morality.

"My parents, and the members of our church, were religious fundamentalists who were very strict on moral issues," said Wattleton.

"But even as a child I saw people in our church who were unable to conform to the very rigid moral standards they were supposed to live up to. Yet, they they pretended that they were doing so. I guess you'd call them hypocrites.

"When I was 10, a girl in our church, who was three years older than me, got pregnant. She married and that made it OK, but in church people always said, 'Isn't that too bad.' The girl went on to have more children. I remember seeing her six or seven years later and thinking: 'She's already an old woman.' That's my first memory of pregnancy."

After graduating from high school early, at 16, Wattleton entered Ohio State University to study nursing. Birth control and family-planning issues were far from her mind; she was working her way through Ohio State and concentrating on her studies so that she could become the first member of her family to earn a college degree.

After graduating in 1964 with a bachelor's in nursing, Wattleton spent two years teaching maternity nursing in Dayton, Ohio, and treating, among others, patients who came into the hospital emergency room with botched abortions that had been performed under unsafe conditions by laymen or unscrupulous doctors because such operations were illegal at the time.

Still, family planning and abortion played a relatively minor role in her thinking, she recalls. In 1966 she moved to New York City to obtain a master's degree at Columbia University in maternal and infant health and to obtain a certificate in nurse-midwifery, which her obstetrics professor at Ohio State had urged her to do.

Worked at Harlem Hospital

While a graduate student, she worked at Harlem Hospital. Her life would never again be the same.

"I had worked with poor people in Dayton, but I'd never seen such a concentration of problems and people with so few resources," recalled Wattleton. "New York City is not an easy town for anyone, but it's particularly hard on the poor.

"It was my introduction to drug addiction, to drug-dependent mothers, to widespread teen-age childbearing. I saw mothers with seven, eight or nine children--they didn't know what they were going to do with the new one, had nothing to take their child home to, no clothing for the baby and sometimes not even a place to live.

"And who can say what conditions led women to find themselves in situations like this, or to pass judgment on them? Is it me, you, Mr. (Jerry) Falwell (the Virginia minister and Moral Majority leader who is a leading opponent of abortion)?

"I wish life were so simple that I could have the moral certitude that Mr. Falwell has--and I had as a child. But if you are a caring person involved in the real world where complex decisions have to be made about difficult problems, I don't see how you can have the moral certainty of the anti-abortionists, especially if you want people in the community to live a better life."

(Although Wattleton is not a member of any denomination, she frequently attends services at the Marble Collegiate Reformed Church in New York City, whose senior pastor is Norman Vincent Peale, the best-selling author of 'The Power of Positive Thinking,' which stresses the importance of religious faith for success in life.)

"When on a daily basis you confront women and children in a precarious financial and emotional situation--and who are trying to do the best they can in the predicament in which they find themselves--then you discover that you become less judgmental about how they should conduct their lives. And you see the necessity of giving them as many reproductive options as possible so that they can better themselves."

When Wattleton returned to Dayton, she worked for the health department, spending much of her time on a special program to show school-age mothers how to care for their infants. Wattleton, however, soon found this approach limiting.

'Great Responsibility' "I have a 9-year-old daughter (Felicia) who was planned and very much wanted," said Wattleton, who is divorced. "But meeting her needs are a great responsibility and challenge, even for someone with my background. So, you can imagine the near impossibility of showing a teen-aged mother, who was often poorly educated and lived hand-to-mouth, how to provide for her baby, even on a minimum level."

Disillusioned with this "Band-Aid approach" to the problem of teen-age pregnancy, Wattleton, who had been a Planned Parenthood volunteer, successfully applied for the position of executive director of the Dayton Planned Parenthood chapter.

When she took over in 1970, the Dayton affiliate had 3,000 clients and a budget of less than $400,000. When she left in 1977, the number of clients had tripled and the budget was nearly $1 million.

In 1978, the board of directors of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America selected the 34-year-old Wattleton to be the organization's national president. The choice marked a sharp departure from the succession of white middle-aged male executives who had previously held that office.

"If someone today would ask me if a 34-year-old should be appointed president of Planned Parenthood, I'd say, 'Oh, no, you're crazy,' " acknowledges Wattleton. But Planned Parenthood's board of directors took what Wattleton calls a "brave" step because the organization was suffering a crisis of confidence.

In 1978 the Planned Parenthood Federation had a total budget of $116.7 million, half of which was supplied by government sources, making it vulnerable to political changes in Washington. Its clients were poor or working-class women. Because the middle and upper classes had come to accept family planning, Wattleton said, the agency had lost much of the importance it had once had with those groups: in a sense, its past successes were contributing to its failures and robbing it of its vitality.

Wattleton has done much to turn this around. The annual budget is now $180 million. She has strengthened lobbying efforts in Washington, and Planned Parenthood has joined forces with other reproductive rights groups to prevent the Reagan Administration from eliminating federal funding for family planning. The Administration has also been unsuccessful in its attempts to enforce the so-called squeal rule, which requires notification to parents of teens seeking contraceptive services.

100,000 New Donors

In addition, Wattleton has reinvigorated Planned Parenthood's financial and volunteer support among the middle and upper classes, with the organization obtaining 100,000 new donors in 1983 alone.

But Wattleton is not one to rest on her laurels. As she cautioned the 150 people at the Orange County chapter's anniversary dinner:

"Some of you here tonight represent the third generation of your family involved in Planned Parenthood, so you know that Planned Parenthood's struggles have never been easy.

"The battles we have fought and won are not secure. Our great challenge is to remain ever vigilant in protecting the fundamental freedom of families to make reproductive choices without governmental interference."

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