New Planned Parenthood president welcomes challenge, promises change

February 17, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

After 12 years on the outs in Washington, the abortion-rights movement finds that having a powerful new ally in the White House is both a blessing and a curse.

Without a president threatening to help make abortion illegal, the movement is struggling to raise money and redefine its mission.

Enter Pamela Maraldo, who took over yesterday as president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, a leading abortion-rights group and the nation's largest provider of birth control and other gynecological services.

Now that abortion rights are more secure, Ms. Maraldo wants to broaden the organization's focus to larger concerns about women's health care. "Abortion is a surgical procedure that is better not to undergo," she says.

It will be a marked contrast from her predecessor, Faye Wattleton, who stood at the center of the tumultuous debate over abortion.

Ms. Maraldo, 45, a former nurse, breaks the mold of an abortion-rights leader: She's never been on the front lines of the abortion wars and is a churchgoing Roman Catholic.

Even before she begins her job, her religion has stirred controversy.

"The implication is that her views represent mainstream Catholics or the church when they do not," says Wanda Franz, president of the National Right to Life Committee. "It simply isn't true. Catholics do not want abortion used as a means of birth control."

But Barbara Radford, a Catholic who is executive director of the National Abortion Federation, a coalition of abortion providers, says Ms. Maraldo "represents Catholic women in this country. They don't listen to the church when it comes to reproductive health services."

Indeed, the abortion rate among Catholic women is very close to the national average, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a New York reproductive-rights research organization.

Ms. Maraldo says her religion "makes a statement, that the moral high ground does not belong to the anti's. People in the pro-choice movement are upstanding leaders in their community with high moralvalues, and many of them are very religious, as well."

She adds, however, that "I did not take this job to enter into hand-to-hand combat with the Catholic Church."

She plans some big changes and faces big challenges in running the 77-year-old organization:

* Trying to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies and abortions in part by mounting a public education campaign.

* Dealing with in-house tension about de-emphasizing abortion-rights advocacy. "All of us have had to worry about the possibility of having an abortion, but in terms of day-to-day life, most women are concerned about other things, like supporting children and economic and professional matters."

* Pushing to ensure that any new health insurance program adopted by Congress fully covers women's health needs, from mammograms to abortions.

* Expanding Planned Parenthood's 922 clinics, which now serve 5 million people a year, to offer comprehensive health services. Women would get throat cultures and general physicals, as well as Pap smears and AIDS testing. (About 100 clinics now perform abortions, accounting for 132,000 of the nation's 1.6 million abortions each year.)

* Reviving fund-raising. In December, a month after President Clinton's election, donations dropped 25 percent from the previous year. Recently, about 40 people, one-quarter of the New York headquarters staff, lost their jobs.

* Grappling with increased clinic bombings and blockades. "There's going to be a frenzy on the part of the anti's because they feel they're losing ground," she says.

* Starting a cable TV network to raise money and promote reproductive health rights. "Why should Pat Robertson be the only one?" she asks, referring to the TV evangelist's Christian Broadcasting Network.

Ms. Maraldo, an open, fun-loving woman with an easy laugh, says she inherited an independent streak from her father, an Italian-American. She got her belief in abortion rights from him, too.

"He thought it was easy for the church to talk about having lots of children when people would have to come home and feed hungry childrenwithout means of support," she says.

He was a mushroom farmer; her mother an insurance agent. Ms. Maraldo chafed at the conventions of life in Kennett Square, Pa., a town of about 4,700 near the Delaware border.

"When my sister got married, I was kind of put off because they wanted me to serve cookies. I was older than my sister, and it was humiliating," she recalls.

She was told that her sister would reciprocate at her wedding one day. When she protested that she might not get married, "they said, 'Oh, you're going to get married, and you're going to live the way the rest of us live.'

"I remember running upstairs and crying and saying, 'No one is going to make me do what I don't want to do.' "

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