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Planned Parenthood medical director, a former fighter pilot, began flying through gender barriers as a girl

Janet Jacobson
Janet Jacobson, a former Navy fighter pilot, is the new medical director for Planned Parenthood’s chapter serving Orange and San Bernardino counties.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Despite a cacophony of naysayers, rigid social conventions and legal hurdles, Dr. Janet Jacobson often took the road less traveled — from fighter pilot to physician to recently-named medical director of the Planned Parenthood chapter of Orange and San Bernardino counties.

“Throughout my childhood and adult life, there’s been this desire to do the things that I think are important regardless of whether I am supposed to do those things,” Jacobson said. “When I was growing up I really wanted to do things that typically young girls weren’t encouraged to do or even allowed to do.”

Being a pilot was always the plan.

“I always wanted to do it as a kid,” said Jacobson, 51, of Orange. “My dad was a pilot in the Navy. It was kind of something I grew up around and naturally was interested in.”

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She lived in Florida, Texas, California and other states — constantly on the move for her father’s occupation.

While attending grade school in Arizona, Jacobson tried to sign up for a Pop Warner football team but the league wouldn’t let her play.

“They said I could be a cheerleader,” Jacobson said.

Her parents took the league to court, and Jacobson ended up playing for three years.

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“When I was growing up I really wanted to do things that typically young girls weren’t encouraged to do or even allowed to do,” Jacobson said.

Her experience trying to become a fighter pilot proved similar. At the time, the country’s combat exclusion policy law barred women from taking aviation positions in the military.

Once the law was repealed in 1993, Jacobson entered flight training to become an FA-18 fighter pilot.

The military wasn’t ready for the change.

“There was like one women’s restroom for women to use out of about 5,000 people,” Jacobson said, of her first carrier ship. “I had to watch the Navy essentially learn how to have women in combat roles. It was very clear to me that there wasn’t a plan in place.”

Jacobson said there were several instances when women who were reporting up to her became pregnant and were immediately removed from the ship.

“It was very harmful to their careers,” Jacobson said, “but the male partners had really no consequences.”

Fueled by her experiences, Jacobson decided to become a doctor, specializing in OB/GYN.

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But just as she was set to begin interviews with medical schools, hijackers flew two planes into the World Trade Center. Jacobson’s carrier was immediately sent overseas.

“The night before, we were out to sea doing workups to prepare for a six-month deployment,” Jacobson said. “We had flight operations until about 2 a.m. so we were asleep when the captain woke us up and told us what had happened.”

Jacobson was able to start medical school the following year at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

Prior to becoming medical director, Jacobson served as a physician for Planned Parenthood for about six years.

“My time in the Navy, particularly learning to fly and being a pilot, is very similar to what it takes to survive in healthcare as a physician,” Jacobson said. “You spend years training, learning and practicing — that’s the same whether you are flying a plane or doing surgery.

“Most of the time while you are doing those things, it’s pretty routine, but when something unexpected happens, all that training and practice kicks in. During that moment, when you’re feeling your heart rate go up and you’re having to use all your skills, that’s when all that training pays off.”

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Jon Dunn, president and chief executive of Planned Parenthood of Orange and San Bernardino counties, believes Jacobson’s military experiences provide her with exceptional leadership skills that are necessary to navigate the current political maelstrom.

“Every day that our staff comes to work, they are making a political statement in a very challenging political climate,” Dunn said. “I think strong leadership like we will have with Dr. Jacobson gives every member of the staff a sense of purpose and reassurance in what they are doing.”

Jacobson hopes her unorthodox path may prove useful for women and girls as they face similar obstacles.

“I don’t expect thousands of girls will want to be fighter pilots,” Jacobson said. “But if they want to, I think they should be able to.”

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