Written by: Laura Cannon
As you saw from the video of Representative LaBruzzo of Metairie promoting a program paying women to voluntarily sterilize in my last blog, Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast is a very progressive organization operating in a region known for its extremely conservative values. I will begin this post by talking about sex education in Louisiana and my meeting with Planned Parenthood Health Educator, Lila Arnaud, before I move into the “Personhood” movement and the vote in Mississippi.
This South Park video clip (recommended to me by Ms Arnaud) captured the essence of my sex education in junior high school, but my class lacked any mention of condoms (except to say how often they failed), and we had to repeat an abstinence pledge. High school was even less illuminating. Here’s an anecdote to give you perspective on the state of sex education in Louisiana. I attended a public high school in a conservative town in southeast Louisiana. Sex education was hardly prioritized or standardized. One teacher asked a student to chew on an Oreo and spit it back into a cup. The teacher proceeded to take the cup and ask another student if she would rather have the spit up, already chewed-up Oreo now or wait until the end of class for a pristine, never before touched Oreo. Message received, loud and clear. Not that anyone actually followed it.
I interviewed Lila Arnaud, a health educator at Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast, to hear about her experiences as a sex educator and to use her perspectives to gain a clearer picture of sex education in Louisiana. Several years ago Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast supported a comprehensive sex education bill for public schools in the Louisiana State Legislature, but it failed to gain support. Currently many public schools, like mine, do not teach sex education or only teach abstinence-only sex education. As Ms Arnaud put it, after the failed legislative attempt Planned Parenthood needed to “re-strategize” on how to educate teenagers on healthy sexuality without the conduit of schools. Planned Parenthood utilizes a program called, “Real Life, Real Talk” which targets parents and educates them on how to talk to their children about sex. She commented that mothers, not fathers, comprise most of her audience as women often self-designate themselves as the parent responsible for teaching their child about sex. This pages lists several Planned Parenthood resources on how to talk to your children about healthy sexuality.
Different communities view and receive Planned Parenthood in different ways. In urban areas, such as in New York and Illinois, Planned Parenthood clinics are part of the social mainstream, a fixed institution. Because of my own experience and whom I interviewed I am going to focus on Louisiana, and things are a bit different here. Only two Planned Parenthood clinics exist in Louisiana, and most people in the state will never encounter one. In Louisiana, Planned Parenthood lies outside of the cultural and political mainstream. When you talk to Planned Parenthood officials, they offer optimistic statements, saying that people understand or need to learn all the vital services Planned Parenthood provides. But their opponents know these facts. Ms Arnaud admitted that there are organizations with similar ideals who refuse to work with Planned Parenthood because they fear they will become tainted by association and targeted for budget cuts or politically motivated attacks. In Louisiana, Planned Parenthood has some strong partners such as the Institute for Women and Ethnic Studies (IWES), but the fact remains that many perceive Planned Parenthood to be a left-leaning organization rather than a medical one. Despite all the attacks on women’s reproductive rights in Louisiana, the situation is not nearly as foreboding as its neighbor Mississippi where its fellow affiliate Planned Parenthood Southeast has its hands full with the upcoming vote on the “Personhood” Amendment.
The Personhood movement has gained quite a bit of traction lately. An organization known as Personhood USA pushes constitutional amendments in states that attempt to give “personhood” status to a fertilized egg (All Things Considered story on Personhood USA). The Colorado based organization failed twice in its attempts in its home state, but the organization found a more receptive audience in Mississippi. If the amendment passes, it would have far-reaching consequences such as banning near all abortions, even in the case of incest or rape, many forms of birth control, and could potentially eliminate in-vitro fertilization. The New York Times offers a more in-depth explanation of the events unfolding in Mississippi.
Here is a TV spot that the largest opposition group to Amendment 26,Mississippians for Healthy Families, developed. This advertisement emphasizes medical care and highlights that Personhood USA is an organization from another state and trying to impose its will on Mississippi and portrays the group as an outsider.
The Personhood debate returns us to the question of the effectiveness and efficacy of Planned Parenthood in conservative areas. Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast and Southeast operate as defensive organizations, never sure where or when the next attack will occur. How can organizations such as Planned Parenthood be effective in states where the political and social discourse falls so right of them? Planned Parenthood remains an effective force because whether their opponents admit or not, these clinics offer vital services to their communities (beyond abortion) in places where no other provider exists. The law currently stands on Planned Parenthood’s side. As Ms Arnaud mentioned, Planned Parenthood’s attempt to legislate comprehensive sex education in Louisiana eventually failed, requiring them to come up with more creative means to educate Louisiana youth. Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast helped to prevent a bill this past session that would have banned ALL abortion in Louisiana. While it is proving difficult to create progressive changes, these affiliates work hard and to a certain extent succeed in preventing the further rollback of women’s reproductive rights in a social and political climate that appears to be demanding it. Education and lobbying stands as their most effective tools which hopefully will win out when Mississippians go to the polls on November 8th.