Between the time I accepted a job with the Los Angeles Regional Family Planning Council and the day my plane landed in Los Angeles a year ago, Gov. George Deukmejian had cut family planning almost entirely out of his proposed state budget. I still had my job with the council, which is the prime contractor for family planning services to low-income people in Los Angeles County. But I was shocked that the governor wanted to eliminate a program that had proven itself critically effective. I was confused, angry and apparently more than a bit naive.
There was no dearth of explanations. First, Deukmejian said the state couldn't afford the program. Then, when a $2-billion surplus was "found" (our program for the whole state cost only $36 million), new reasoning was offered. The governor said that teen-age pregnancies were increasing, and therefore the program wasn't working. When we produced studies indicating that the teen-pregnancy rate in some age groups had actually gone down, a new argument was born: The program wasn't efficient. So, a study was done by the UC San Francisco Center for Population and Reproductive Health Policy. The study showed that the family planning program was extremely efficient, and that for every dollar not spent on family planning, the state could expect to spend $12.20 in medical and related costs.
There were more smoke screens offered, but by then, we in the field knew the truth. The extremists, those on the "far wrong," had tied family planning to abortion and to promiscuity, and they had captured the governor's thinking.
None of the state family planning money goes for abortions. It never has and our detractors know it. And, as for promoting promiscuity, there's no basis for that argument either. The fact is that most people, and teen-agers in particular, don't show up at the clinics until after they have been sexually active for at least six months. We only wish we could see them sooner and help prevent the spread of disease and unwanted pregnancies.
Deukmejian managed to ignore more than 300,000 letters, postcards and telegrams. He ignored demonstrations attended by a couple of thousand people. He ignored hundreds of phone calls, bad press, scores of editorials and legislators from both sides of the aisle pleading with him to set aside his personal feelings and put the family planning money back in the budget.
What couldn't be ignored in the end was the fact that the Republicans were losing state elections, in part because of their position on family planning.
After the outpouring of public sentiment in our favor, the merits of family planning were actually peripheral to the decision to restore funding. What turned the tide in California was last summer's Supreme Court decision that granted states the right to limit abortions. That threatened a right that women had begun to take for granted, and brought them to the voting booths with a vengeance.
Now, just over a year since I arrived, this round of the battle is over. Most of the funding has been restored and the clinics are reopening, trying to bring their services back to previous levels.
But there were casualties. Twenty percent of our clinics were closed and almost all the remaining ones had to cut their services. The family planing council lost 41% of its staff. The human consequences tell the rest of the story.
Every week that women went without contraceptive services there were 300 unwanted pregnancies in Los Angeles County alone. From 40% to 48% of women who have unwanted pregnancies have abortions. So, for the six months that services were cut back, we estimate that there were 7,200 unwanted pregnancies and, on the conservative side, 2,880 abortions in Los Angeles County due to the governor's stubbornness.
No one knows, or ever will know, how many of the babies of mothers who didn't want them were born addicted, or will be abused or wind up in prison. We have no idea how many cancer cases that used to be discovered during family planning checkups have gone undetected and how many women will die because of it. We have yet to find how many young girls dropped out of school because they had no access to contraceptive services and became pregnant. And we don't know how many thousands of people contracted venereal disease because the problem wasn't discovered because someone couldn't get a checkup.
It's been a year I'll never forget--or fully understand. I was one of the lucky ones. I didn't lose my job, didn't contract a venereal disease, didn't get cancer, didn't get pregnant and didn't have an abortion. I wish I could say the same for the thousands of poor women and men who weren't so lucky.