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Moving ‘Beyond Abortion’ : Planned Parenthood President Pamela J. Maraldo Says Her Mission Is to Re-Emphasize Health Care and Birth Control

TIMES HEALTH WRITER

The new president of Planned Parenthood is late for a meeting--foiled by her fame. Or rather, lack of it.

She is locked out of her hotel room at the Westin Bonaventure. But because she is registered under a pseudonym, she can’t convince the front desk clerk that she is the true occupant. The only credentials she’s carrying are for a Pamela J. Maraldo.

And, well, who’s she?

Pamela J. Maraldo, who took over leadership of the massive Planned Parenthood Federation of America in February, laughs at her predicament, which is in keeping with her style. She is easygoing and effervescent, characteristics that will serve her well as she attempts to replace the formidable--and very recognizable--Faye Wattleton, who led Planned Parenthood for 14 years.

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Indeed, if any of the organization’s 22,000 employees and volunteers worried that their new leader would be unapproachable, Maraldo quickly doused those concerns.

“I found her extremely genuine, personal and compassionate. But she’s very focused on where this organization needs to move,” says Margie Fites Seigle, chief executive officer of the Los Angeles Regional Family Planning Council. Seigle, like many family planning professionals, met Maraldo for the first time last week at the federation’s annual meeting at the Bonaventure.

And, says Jacqueline Jackson, chairwoman of the Planned Parenthood board, which selected Maraldo from among 100 applicants: “She has an ability to get to know people quickly. People at this meeting greet her as if they’ve known her forever. She lets people know she is listening to them. And that is so important in such a large organization like this one--to feel listened to.”

But, nine months into her tenure, it is equally clear that the nice woman with the friendly smile and tousled hair is no pushover. She is not timid about using the sharpest rhetoric to deliver her messages, such as in her description of the “crazy fringe lunatics” who have the “ audacity to preach only abstinence to sexually active teen-agers.”

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Maraldo, 46, is a front-and-center feminist. You don’t rise to the position of president of Planned Parenthood without being ready and able to go to war on behalf of abortion rights. But while Wattleton made abortion rights her top priority, Maraldo came into office hoping to make issues other than abortion her focus.

“What I love about this job is working to see women become fully equal citizens,” says Maraldo, settling into an empty hotel suite at the Bonaventure after a successful battle with the front desk clerk. (Security was especially tight at the meeting because of past anti-abortion demonstrations.)

“You know, being pro-choice is about more than abortion. It’s about respecting the right of privacy in peoples’ lives and it’s about tolerance. I’m a social reformer at heart.”

It’s clear that Maraldo feels at home in her role. But she concedes that her first months on the job have hardly been smooth.

A policy wonk who earned her bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in nursing, Maraldo was working as CEO of the National League for Nursing when a search team asked her to interview for the job Wattleton was vacating.

The committee was impressed by Maraldo’s far-sighted approach to health care--her emphasis on making greater use of nurses to reduce health-care costs--and deft administrative talents. Maraldo came to the National League for Nursing in 1984, when the organization was floundering, and quadrupled its revenues.

“We knew we needed someone visionary because we knew health care reform was just down the road,” Jackson says.

The board was also impressed with Maraldo’s insistence that Planned Parenthood needed to re-emphasize its basic mission: to provide health care for women and reduce unwanted pregnancies.

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She assumed office with the highest ambitions. Then, on March 10, Dr. David Gunn, an abortion provider on his way to work in Pensacola, Fla., was shot by an anti-abortion demonstrator.

“I thought when I came in that it would be a good time to move the organization beyond the abortion issue,” says Maraldo, with the slightest tinge of frustration in her voice. “I thought I would be working in health care. But, instead, I’ve been spending my time raising money for bullet-proof vests and car phones for security and barbed-wire fences. That has been a sobering reality and a daunting one.”

Although abortion rights have greater protection under a “friendly” Clinton Administration, the escalating violence directed at providers and clinics has reduced accessibility to the service more than at any time since Roe vs. Wade, Maraldo says.

So, instead of working on her dream of developing a sex education curriculum for students, Maraldo spent weeks setting up a recent meeting with Atty. Gen. Janet Reno.

“I was desperate to get a meeting,” she says. “We felt nothing was being done about clinic violence. We felt impotent. But Janet Reno was very sympathetic and very receptive.”

Colleagues praise Maraldo for being nimble and determined enough to respond forcefully to the Gunn killing just weeks after taking office.

“I think the extent of clinic violence--which those of us in the field for a long time are used to and resigned to--was really shocking to her,” says Jeannie Rosoff, president of the Alan Guttmacher Institute in New York, a research and policy organization devoted to reproductive health issues.

“Pam is trying not to get stampeded by this. But it’s difficult to give your attention to prevention when you have to deal with violence and a cut-off in services. To some degree, she is powerless in turning this thing around.”

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Right to Life leaders say they believe that the Planned Parenthood leadership has no intention of turning their attention away from abortion rights. And they scoff at Maraldo’s commitment to reduce unwanted pregnancy.

“Planned Parenthood in the past has been the premier supporter of abortion rights. I don’t see that changing,” says Anne Kindt, executive director of the Right to Life League of Southern California.

“The goal of reducing unwanted pregnancies is a great one. However, Planned Parenthood has been trying to do that for 20 years by making contraceptives available and that has only increased the rate of unwanted pregnancies and abortions. If Planned Parenthood was really concerned about reducing unwanted pregnancies, they would be talking about abstinence programs where minor children wouldn’t be handed condoms.”

But Maraldo says she is determined to see her agenda fulfilled, although she says it will take “at least five years” to get the organization aimed in the right direction.

Among her dreams:

* To reduce teen pregnancies and to provide more HIV testing and counseling.

* She would like Planned Parenthood to have its own television show to provide news and information on reproductive health care and women’s health issues.

* She would also like to see the federation’s 168 affiliates expand beyond such standard services as birth control counseling, abortion and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases into obstetrics, well-baby care, immunizations and basic health services for women beyond their reproductive years.

“Planned Parenthood has a great deal of potential to address some of the most serious problems in health care,” Maraldo says.

But the Planned Parenthood affiliates will have to change the way they do business.

For most of its 77-year history, the organization has consisted of highly independent clinics that receive funds from a variety of public and private sources. But private donations dropped off last year, triggering a budget crisis. Now, the affiliates will need to join forces with large managed-care networks to stay afloat in a new era of health care.

“I’ve been working very hard to ensure that Planned Parenthood has a seat at the table in health care reform,” she says. “How we are going to be involved is a big question. We don’t want our clients to have to go through an HMO before they see us. We want to retain their right to confidentiality.”

Lobbying for Planned Parenthood in Washington is something Maraldo does well and even enjoys.

“I love politics. Our politicians are often the object of disdain and scorn. But the alternative to politics in a democratic society is imperialism or totalitarianism--someone imposing their will on us,” she says.

Born to a mushroom farmer and an energetic homemaker in Kennett Square, Pa., Maraldo was the oldest child and was nurtured into believing that she could do anything.

“My father, from the time I was knee-high, told me that no one could ever tell me what to do with my life and my body,” she says. “I think my father had high hopes for me. He wanted me to be independent. He saw a lot of women who were raised to be dependent, who were in bad marriages they couldn’t get out of. He always told us we should be financially independent. I’m grateful for that.”

Maraldo, who is single, says she would like to marry someday. But she turns down any deals that involve relinquishing her goals and ideals. She is equally stubborn when it comes to religion, remaining a practicing Catholic in spite of her support of abortion, which the church opposes.

Maraldo is an unpretentious woman who spends most of her waking hours working at her $225,000-a-year job. Relaxation involves exercise, especially tennis, and “intimate Champagne and pizza dinners with friends.” Although she dresses in polished-looking suits and remembers to touch up her lipstick before a photo session, Maraldo is not the sort to fret over a bad-hair day.

But realizing that she has become high profile--that her appearance is important--has been tough to reconcile, she says. From being thrust before a television camera to comment on a new rash of clinic violence to being asked what kind of birth-control method she uses, Maraldo has squirmed in the limelight.

Being a novice in media relations isn’t helpful, either, when following in the footsteps of the glamorous, poised, collected and highly regarded Wattleton. (She left Planned Parenthood to pursue an offer to host a TV talk show.)

During Wattleton’s years at the helm, revenues increased from $80 million to $432 million and the number of affiliates doubled. Planned Parenthood also moved from a polite, white-gloved organization to a forceful political institution.

“Faye was a very different kind of person than Pam,” Rosoff, of the Alan Guttmacher Institute, says. “She was an imposing person, and sometimes a little overpowering to people. Pam is much more easy to approach.

“I think Faye was a good person to weather a very difficult period during the Reagan and Bush years, in which one faced nothing but antagonism. A straightforward person who could give it back was the right person for this time. Pam, who appears to be more conciliatory, may be the appropriate leader for this time.”

Maraldo agrees.

“I think the organization was at a juncture where it was ready for a change. And I’m old enough and wise enough from living to know that trying to be someone else doesn’t work.”

And, so far, despite “one crisis after another,” things are working out between Planned Parenthood and its new leader.

Says Maraldo: “It feels like a good fit.”

The Stats on Planned Parenthood

Family planning is still the most popular service provided by Planned Parenthood. But the organization’s leaders hope to expand services into obstetrics and general health care for women. Service: Number of consumers (1992) Contraception, female: 1,871,891 Contraception, male: 14,894 Abortion: 130,844 HIV testing, female: 104,026 HIV testing, male: 25,444 Vasectomy: 3,316 Female sterilization: 690 Prenatal care: 9,072 Infertility: 701 Colposcopy: 15,246 Cryotherapy: 5,791 Other treatment/health maintenance, female: 922,355 Other treatment/health maintenance, male: 30,645

Source: Planned Parenthood


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