Faye Wattleton : Planned Parenthood: On the Ramparts of the Abortion Battle

<i> Jefferson Morley is former associate editor of the New Republic and Washington editor of the Nation</i>

Not since Margaret Sanger has there been an advocate of women’s reproductive rights as prominent or effective as Faye Wattleton. A nurse-midwife from St. Louis, Mo., Wattleton was completely unknown when she was asked to become the president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America in 1978. Under her leadership, Planned Parenthood grew to include 170 affiliates in 49 states, and more than 900 clinics nationwide, that provide counseling and birth control. At the same time, Wattleton took the lead in supporting the right of all women to choose abortion, leading to repeated clashes with the Reagan and Bush administrations. Now, after 14 years, Wattleton is leaving Planned Parenthood to finish a memoir of her years in the reproductive-rights movement and to launch a syndicated TV talk show.

It’s no surprise that Wattleton aspires to a larger stage. Her poise, empathy and intelligence--not to mention her good looks--make her a natural media personality. She has a knack for the sound bite framed in terms of women’s experience, not ideology, which gives her a good rapport with most audiences. A single mother of a 16-year-old daughter, she knows the realities as well as the mythology of the American family. She also shows respect for her opponents, not always an easy task when the rhetoric about “baby killing” starts flying.

But one senses another reason for this career move: to shape the national political agenda. Wattleton has been effective at Planned Parenthood, but much of her agenda has been defensive: opposing the Hyde Amendment forbidding Medicare abortions, opposing parental consent laws and opposing Reagan-Bush Supreme Court appointees. When she talks about Roe vs. Wade’s imminent demise, her mastery of the legal issues seems tinged with resentment that six Supreme Court justices can undo all her work. It is unsurprising that Wattleton made the decision to leave Planned Parenthood around the time of the Clarence Thomas-Anita F. Hill confrontation, when many women were deciding it was high time for female political assertion. “The Faye Wattleton Show” will not be an advocacy show, she says. But Wattleton says she wants a “top-flight research staff,” and hopes to make a contribution to expanded issues. Wattleton is looking to graduate from organizational leader to national opinion-maker.


Question: When is the Supreme Court going to overturn Roe vs. Wade?

Answer: There are those who believe that if the Supreme Court upholds the Pennsylvania law (this summer) . . . it would effectively overturn the meaning of Roe . . . . (T)he court in Roe ruled that the state had to have a compelling interest to intervene in a woman’s right to have an abortion. That meant that the state had to have such a profound interest in protecting fetal life that it could violate a woman’s rights in order to carry out its needs. Now the Pennsylvania law challenges that standard . . . . (T)here are probably a majority of the justices now who believe that it should be at a lower standard. That is, that the state can impose . . . restrictions that are not unduly burdensome to a woman in exercising her right.

Q: What has the Bush Administration decided about the “gag rule”? What is your reaction to the new regulations?

A: There is nothing “new” about Mr. Bush’s guidelines to implement the gag rule, which censors speech about abortion at federally funded family-planning clinics. They merely affirm Mr. Bush’s intent to prevent health-care professionals from giving poor women full information about all their reproductive options. The gag rule is not only an affront to free speech, it is a government-sanctioned medical malpractice.

. . . . The announcement that the guidelines do not gag doctors was a conscious deception. Doctors still are not permitted to refer women to abortion clinics. Mr. Bush is also well aware that options counseling at most federally funded clinics is not provided by doctors, but by nurse practitioners, social workers and other trained counselors who are silenced by these guidelines. If the Administration weren’t convinced of the public’s overwhelming resistance to the gag rule, it would not be trying so hard to deceive us.

Q: What in the Constitution in your view guarantees a woman’s right to choose an abortion without state intervention?


A: The doctrine that was laid down . . . at the time of Roe evolved from a series of cases that defined more clearly the Bill of Rights’ protection of privacy . . . protection of the people from the government, equal protection of the people . . . to exercise their rights . . . .

Q: For the first time in 20 years, Congress is considering legislation to guarantee access to legal abortion. What would this legislation do?

A: The Freedom of Choice Act . . . simply says that the states may not restrict the right of Americans . . . to control their reproduction.

Q: What are the prospects for that bill?

A: The . . . prospects will be quite strong if the court does uphold the Pennsylvania (abortion restrictions), although I still doubt that the momentum will be as great as it will be . . . if the court directly overturns Roe . . . .

Q: Parental notification arises as a key issue. What’s wrong with it?


A: (T)his is one particular argument that raises . . . issues beyond the abortion issue, around family authority . . . the rights and power of teen-agers, the liberty of teen-agers. I’m the mother of a teen-ager, and so I’m very sympathetic to those anxieties that all parents have. Yet I don’t believe that parental notification laws are a solution. There is ample evidence that they can be very destructive. But they’re very seductive. I mean, who wouldn’t say that parents should be involved in their teen-agers’ lives? . . .

(B)ut the reality is . . . we aren’t involved in a lot of decisions that they make. And the danger is that if there’s a kid who’s desperate enough to avoid going to her parents . . . she’s likely to end up with someone who says, “I know how I can get rid of it (the fetus) for you”--and that could be a very dangerous, if not lethal, situation.

Q: Imagine the Freedom of Choice bill in Congress. The people pushing it through could win a veto-proof two-thirds majority--with parental notification in the law. Would you favor compromising?

A: No, I would not favor compromising . . . . (W)hat you would be doing is giving up . . . the right of a . . . class of women to have a choice not to continue a pregnancy . . . . (Parental notification laws) are designed to punish young women, just as we have punished poor women because poor women aren’t supposed to have sex and get pregnant. . . . I mean, how far will it go?

Q: Instead of winning the hearts and minds of five Supreme Court justices, pro-choice activists now have to go out and win the hearts and minds of thousands of people in Congress and state legislatures. Some say this shift is good for the pro-choice movement. What do you think?

A: I frankly find it unconscionable that our most private reproductive function is the subject . . . of political discussion . . . . I’d like to see any parallel in American life to such an invasion of our most private decisions and private lives . . . . I don’t think that it’s unreasonable to have discussions about these issues, but not to discuss them in the context of . . . a law to force conformity to the views of others.


Q: The pro-choice movement seems to be growing stronger politically. Democratic candidates now are open about being pro-choice. There is a pro-choice movement within the Republican Party that’s clearly growing stronger. Maybe the end of Roe vs. Wade will contribute to a pro-choice consensus.

A: I don’t believe that women need to have their rights and their lives in a state of limbo so that political movements can grow . . . . This is not an issue about the theory of politics--this is an issue that affects real women in real lives.

Q: But given the reality of a significant minority of pro-life sentiment in the country, what is the better long-term guarantee of abortion rights: a constitutional blessing or legislation?

A: (Roe) has been pretty effective for two decades . . . . What we failed to recognize is that you can’t give it away in presidential campaigns . . . . (The) result of 12 years of right-wing occupancy of the White House . . . has been a wholesale restructuring of the federal judiciary . . . . (W)hile we were figuring out how to lobby the Congress, the right-wing was getting a President elected; getting sufficient strength in the Congress that they could sustain a President’s veto; getting sufficient strength in Congress that members of the ruling party, the majority party, were intimidated . . . into approving appointments that should never have seen a federal bench.

Q: There have been stories about the “common-ground movement”--women in the pro-life and pro-choice movements get together to focus on mutual concerns, such as reducing the number of abortions. What do you think of this?

A: I don’t think that anything of this is new . . . . If you read those stories carefully, . . . those efforts were largely devoted to helping women after delivery . . . . (T)hose discussions did not seem to lead to expanding our commitment to preventing unintended pregnancy . . . . (The) emphasis was not where it should be . . . . (But) any dialogue in that kind of arena is far more productive than the dialogue that takes place on the floor of legislative bodies.


But until we start facing (the fact) that these issues are about people being pregnant and not wanting to be, . . . we still will not get to the root cause.

Q: What’s the biggest thing you think you’ve achieved in the time you’ve been at Planned Parenthood? What’s the thing you’re most proud of?

A: . . . . I hope that what I have done is to frame this issue (abortion) in a way that makes it possible for Americans to support choice and not in a way that that has been judged to be extreme and unreasonable . . . . As a nurse-midwife, . . . I’m particularly delighted and gratified that we have been able to continue to expand to more and more people to our services to more and more locations since I’ve been here.

Q: What do you think you could have done better?

A: Well, I wish that we had had more resources to persuade more people to . . . the issues around teen-age pregnancy and the need to really aggressively address that issue from a prevention perspective . . . . I came to Planned Parenthood at the local level, because I was working for the Health Department in Dayton, Ohio, and, as a part of my supervisor experiences, I oversaw a school-age pregnancy program for teen-age mothers. I saw the futility of that approach. I thought Planned Parenthood represented a more rational answer--which was to prevent the pregnancy in the first instance. So I wish that I had spent more of my time on that particular issue, because I think it is an important one. It will probably continue to be at the vortex of this battle.

Q: The issue of teen-age pregnancy now seems to focus on abstinence versus contraception.


A: I hope that teen-agers are taught the value of postponing sexual activity so that they don’t imperil their own futures and their lives. And, you know, I think there are a lot of kids who are persuaded of the wisdom not to get involved sexually until they’re older and more mature. But then, what do you do with those who do? You can’t ignore them and say, “Stop doing it, don’t do it.” I suppose you can, but is that sufficient? Or do you step up to the reality in preventing a further problem or to preventing a serious problem, which is a pregnancy or an unwanted child.

Just as I often say I have yet to meet the woman who looks forward to her next abortion, I have yet to meet the young person . . . who hasn’t heard a lot about abstinence . . . . (On) the other hand, we bombard our kids with messages that are explicitly sexual, that frame sexuality in the context of glamour without consequences. (It is) a wildly contradictory approach to how we deal with kids.