New era for Planned Parenthood

January 09, 1995

In Maryland and elsewhere, Planned Parenthood has served as a lightning rod for reproductive rights. When Jim Guest came to Planned Parenthood of Maryland five years ago, the challenges facing the organization were largely political. On the national scene, there were worries among abortion rights advocates that the Supreme Court might overturn Roe vs. Wade, putting abortion rights in jeopardy. In Maryland, abortion debates tied the legislature in knots virtually every year.

Now, as Mr. Guest leaves the organization for new challenges, the political issues have receded and others have taken their place. The Supreme Court refused to back away from Roe and, in 1992, Maryland voters approved a ballot question that would keep abortion legal in Maryland even if the Supreme Court changed its mind. Except for thorny questions like Medicaid funding for abortions, that referendum came as close as possible to a democratic resolution of this deeply divisive moral issue.

At the moment, Planned Parenthood and other groups that focus on reproductive rights and health for women seem to be under siege. The violence against clinics providing abortions and other services claimed two more lives last month. Some commentators, like David J. Garrow who writes on the Other Voices page today, say that this violence represents the last gasp of a dying movement. Other observers are less optimistic, pointing to a pervasive climate of hostility against reproductive rights and against the new roles women are playing in society.

Yet the violence surrounding women's health clinics is in many ways a side story. The larger challenge facing groups that provide reproductive care has more to do with the shifting grounds of the health care industry. Like other providers, Planned Parenthood is finding itself operating on a new and highly competitive playing field. The women who once depended on its clinics for everything from Pap smears to birth control pills or other contraceptives are now being vigorously recruited by HMOs. To survive, these clinics must adapt.

Political challenges to abortion rights may not die away completely, but the next director of Planned Parenthood of Maryland -- like his or her counterparts around the country -- will face questions perhaps even more vexing. Should its clinics sign agreements with HMOs? Should they try to compete as stand-alone facilities? Should the organization take on an advocacy role to help ensure that in the new managed care environment women don't face undue delays in access to routine services like birth control? It's a brave new world, and abortion-related issues are only part of the story.

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