It is one of those scenes frozen in time; my father, Len Rapaport, his angry bulk bearing down on the Dean of Students of Hobart & William Smith Colleges where I was an editor of the school weekly, The Herald.
It was parent’s weekend 1973 and Dean McKean had the panicky side to side glance of a cornered gerbil. He had seemingly run through his entire repertoire of suitable Parent’s Weekend pleasantries, none of which seemed to have the desired effect of getting a very large, very angry parent to stop waving a newspaper under the Dean’s chin, and demanding to know, “Is this true?” IS THIS TRUE?”
This particular query had to do with a decades-old scandal, a conspiracy between the college administration, local doctors and the Catholic Church to keep Planned Parenthood from setting up a clinic on Hobart & William Smith’s Finger Lakes New York campus.
It made sense to Herald editors that a generation of parents with the wherewithal to send their kids to an expensive East Coast liberal arts college would want them to have access to the sensible ministrations of Planned Parenthood. Our stunt, running the piece on Parent’s Weekend, turned out to have had the desired effect.
Planned Parenthood was duly installed in the infirmary, replacing Dr. Pratt, the aging local medico. It was Dr. Pratt’s firmly held belief that a painful urinary tract infection was God’s way of punishing the promiscuity that was an established part of life on American college campuses in the ‘70s.
The story had actually begun several weeks earlier when anti-abortion crusader, Dr. Charles Willkie had appeared on campus to denounce the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision. His act included setting up his soon-to-be-infamous display of fetuses-in-a-bottle in the storefront of a sympathetic local “right-to-lifer.”
Having seen my screed taking on the just-slightly-less-than-deranged Dr. Wilkie, several progressive faculty wives approached the paper with a challenge: Uncover the anti-Planned Parenthood conspiracy on campus, and help move birth control and other family planning programs out of the shadows or at least out of the dark ages.
The Planned Parenthood story was a sensation. At least enough to get me invited to watch the good work the organization was doing across a region that was like Appalachia minus the coalmines. I saw how Planned Parenthood gave a 20-year-old mother of four the option not to become a burnt-out 28-year-old mother of eight. I watched while staffers instructed a t13-year-old newly-wed how to avoid becoming a mother at 14 and grandmother at 30.
A year later, I was in Washington D.C. on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, and watched while Connecticut Senator, Lowell Weicker, faced down a mob of 50 right-to-lifers who were determined to storm his office because he favored what would become known as “a woman’s right to choose.”
If Weicker was a hero, future President, George Herbert Walker Bush, was something else again. From a family that had helped fund Planned Parenthood for decades, Bush could not shift his position fast enough in response to the baying from the fundamentalist Republican Right. It similarly became clear that, had she been a man, Margaret Sanger, the mother of family planning in America, would have been Time Magazine’s “Person of the 20th Century.”
Now, so many year’s later, it is simply part of my internal historic clockworks to periodically check into the American culture wars, particularly as they relate to the battle over abortion. The result is a scorecard for America’s seemingly never-ending social struggle with itself.
It was thus early last winter, that I read about Golden Gate Community Health, previously known as Planned Parenthood, Golden Gate, . Living in these dangerous times meant that there would be no slack for Planned Parenthood even after having faithfully serving family planning needs in San Francisco since 1923 as well as operating satellite centers in Oakland, Hayward, San Mateo, Redwood City and San Rafael, cities where family planning is desperately necessary.
You would think that at very least, with over 80 years of dedicated service to the Bay Area, an understanding could have been reached about the positive role Planned Parenthood and family planning has and can play.
If we can celebrate both sides in the American Civil War shouldn’t we also be honoring the heroic pioneers of family planning? These were men and women like Margaret Sanger who risked prison and worse to overcome the damage caused by a male-dominated political realm so snow-blind as to be unable or unwilling to distinguish between pornography and the dissemination of clinical and medical information about family planning and birth control.
Yet if you look at the untoward celebration by modern day opponents of family planning, birth control and abortion over the temporary shutdown of Planned Parenthood in the Bay Area, it feels like we are reliving the late 19th Century. Do we really mean to honor what was a dark age in which bluenose enforcers like New York’s public “censor-in-chief,” Anthony Comstock, were able to ban the mere mention in print of abortion, masturbation, menstruation and other sex-related topics?
What became known as “Comstockianism” was there to rear its ugly head, when, in 1916, Margaret Sanger opened America’s first birth-control clinic in the impoverished Brownsville section of Brooklyn. For her troubles, she was immediately arrested and put on trial.
How little things have changed since. Consider that with the recent closure of the Redwood City Planned Parenthood Clinic, an Orange County consortium of Catholic lawyers calling themselves the St. Thomas More Society sought to put what they though were some final nails in the Planned Parenthood coffin. Their tactic was to file suit to reverse the decision by Redwood City’s City Council that allowed the Planned Parenthood office on El Camino Real to reopen.
The motion by the St. Thomas More Society attacked what it termed “a use which under the most generous of terms is a necessary evil, but which in reality is considered by a growing majority as an anathema.” Considering that opponents of women’s rights have now spent more than a century and billions of dollars on right to life propaganda, protests and electioneering. And what has been accomplished except perhaps in putting some minor dents in Margaret Sanger’s powerful pro-choice armor?
The proof? Planned Parenthood quickly replaced its closed San Rafael clinic with a new facility in Mill Valley and is revving up in the rest of the Bay Area as well. Would Margaret Sanger and Len Rapaport be happy or sad? A little of both I think but both spoiling for a fight.