Wattleton's Vision

January 14, 1992

When Faye Wattleton took the helm at Planned Parenthood in 1978, the organization was a white-gloved charity. In the 14 years since, it has grown in stature and scope -- into a vital political force with a powerful lobbying presence in Washington, strong grass-roots support and an extensive program of litigation.

Ms. Wattleton, who announced her resignation last week, gets the credit. The first black and the first woman to head Planned Parenthood, she came to the task with a vision inspired by founder Margaret Sanger, who saw reproductive rights as universal and inalienable. At her first press conference, Ms. Wattleton shook up the status quo by announcing the organization would no longer be a "safe" charity for genteel suburbanites. It would become a strong advocate of choice.

In her 14 years as president, Ms. Wattleton has turned her vision into reality. The number of women served by the organization during her tenure has nearly quadrupled -- from 1.1 million in 1978 to 4.1 million in 1990. Despite the antagonism toward Planned Parenthood by the Reagan and Bush administrations (which culminated in a cutoff of federal funds if its clinics so much as mentioned the word abortion), the number of women who received abortions at Planned Parenthood facilities in 1990 (130,000) remains low compared to the more than 3 million who got birth control, prenatal care and pregnancy tests that year.

Nonetheless, while Ms. Wattleton leaves Planned Parenthood politically stronger, the Reagan-Bush assault has cost the organization tens of millions of dollars in desperately needed money. Private donations don't fill the gaps. More than that, the political heat is being turned up: The Supreme Court could be poised to rewrite its landmark Roe v. Wade abortion ruling. Another fight against the "gag rule" for federal funding is in the making, and the U.S. has fallen behind European nations on access to new birth control methods. Whoever succeeds Faye Wattleton must have the same political savvy and deeply felt commitment toward reproductive rights that has brought the organization this far. The last thing Planned Parenthood needs now is a change of course.

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