During my OB-Gyn rotation, I’ve been working with the great staff of our local Planned Parenthood, and let me just say: Planned Parenthood rocks.
I will admit, fully ignorant of Planned Parenthood beforehand, I thought I’d be doing abortion evaluations. Planned Parenthood equals abortions. That was the extent of my knowledge. I spoke with friends–well-educated, public health-type friends, and that was their same response. “So, did you do any abortions today?”
I was so far, far off base it’s not even funny.* In fact, it may sound ironic, but I’m pretty confident when I say this: No matter what your feelings are about the subject, there would be more abortions performed in this country if Planned Parenthood didn’t exist. Let me explain.
The patients I’ve seen have been, in general, young, healthy women, ages 12 to 26. They come in primarily for three things:
- annual exams (pap smears, breast exams, etc.),
- sexually-transmitted infection (STIs) diagnosis and treatment,
- and birth control.
I see patients of all socio-economic statuses, but most are immigrants or lower-middle class women. Their health knowledge runs the gamut, from the highly educated 12 year-old I saw today, who curiously asked “how exactly do the birth control pills work?” to the 23 year-old who shrugs and answers questions with a dull, empty look on her face. Almost every single one uses some form of birth control.
This makes sense. Over 90% of women of childbearing age use some sort of contraception method. I quickly became aware that my male gender has allowed me to pass through medical school (and life!) totally ignorant of all of this. My patients came in using almost everything–condoms, the pill, the patch, Nuvaring, Depo–and I was left perplexed. What a humbling role reversal–this was one of the first times it’s been so painfully obvious that my patients are more informed about their health and medicines than me. (This also made me realize that I generally assume I generally know more about medicine than my patients.) Not that the pharmacology or physiology is at all complex or difficult–just that the topics had never really come up before. Birth control was birth control was birth control.
I’ve been having a fantastic time at Planned Parenthood–I’m able to perform a number of pelvic exams and get a good sampling of “normal variation,” and probably the harder part–I’m able to talk very candidly with my patients about their sexual health. It’s great practice just to get used to figuring out how to talk about “sexual activity” and “sexual intercourse,” because it certainly takes practice. You have to unlearn (or at least disengage) the typical social cues in your head that encourage you to avoid the subject or the word, especially since almost none of my patients have had any complaints or concerns with their sexual health. It’s great to see patients in an environment where discussing sexual health is the norm, as it also helps bring a level of normalcy to the encounter.
We give out a ton of contraceptives every day. Condoms, pills, patches, rings, shots. And none of the patients I’ve seen are taking these medications for anything other than preventing pregnancy. They are sexually active, almost always with one, monogamous partner, and they do not want to get pregnant. And by enrolling these largely uninsured teens and young women in California’s Family PACT program, we’re able to provide them with free contraceptives and reproductive health services.
55% of pregnancies in the US are unintended, and of these, 43% are live births, 43% are terminated electively, and 13% end in miscarriage.
All the women I see in clinic are sexually active. And most are working or middle class at best by income standards (the average 2 bedroom apartment in the area runs you at least $1400 a month), most are uninsured, and most do not have another source of medical or reproductive care. And none want to get pregnant.
Now just take away Planned Parenthood, add in the costs to see a health care provider and pay for contraceptives, and imagine how many more of my patients would become pregnant. Keeping everything else the same, you’d find many more women in the difficult position of considering an elective termination of pregnancy.
I am far from zealot or activist–as I said before, I knew nothing before a few weeks ago–but I’ve been incredibly impressed with my short time there, and I’m hoping I’ve educated you as to what Planned Parenthood does in your community, since I was woefully ignorant myself.
*Planned Parenthood provides reproductive health services, annual female gynecologic evaluations, breast exams, pap smears (and management and followup of abnormal pap smears), the HPV vaccine, STI testing including HIV, emergency contraception, vasectomies, patient education–the list goes on and on.