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Health, Science & Tech

The Pill, Title X And 20th Century Sexting: 100 Years Of Planned Parenthood In Western PA

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Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania
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When the groundwork was laid for Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania in 1916, it was illegal to obtain or distribute any kind of contraceptive. Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger was starting her clinic in Brooklyn, N.Y., and a few dozen Pittsburgh residents were also looking for ways to improve health care for women. A century later, PPWP still faces the near-constant threat of de-funding, but boasts the second-highest volunteer base in the country.

PPWP Public Affairs Director Jessica Semler dreams of the day she doesn’t have to worry about keeping clinics open.

“Right now, vigilance is just a thing,” Semler said. “It would be great just making it so this isn’t something that’s on the table, so women’s rights aren’t constantly on the table.”

Before the western Pennsylvania branch became an official affiliate of Planned Parenthood in 1949, the Birth Control League in Pittsburgh focused on repealing laws that banned family planning.

Semler said the main objective of those groups at the time was combating Comstock Laws. The federal law targeted items considered “obscene” such as erotica, sex toys and sexual letters (precursor of sexting). It also prohibited contraceptives of any kind.

“Women were experiencing multiple pregnancies, many children having lots of high infant mortality rates and just needing a solution to not being able to control their fertility,” Semler said.

By the time Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania was established, World War II had ended and the agency saw significant patient growth. 

“But a lot of the stuff back then was only being able to give information to married people,” Semler said.

The 1960s brought the “Sexual Revolution,” the birth control pill and increased sex education efforts by PPWP. In the next decade, President Nixon signed into law Title X, which allocates federal funds to health care providers like Planned Parenthood.

“Title X is still a really big deal today because this is what allows us at Planned Parenthood to be able to provide people care regardless of their income,” Semler said. “We are able to meet people where they’re at.”

Throughout the subsequent years, PPWP would fight lengthy legal battles over what Semler described as TRAP laws: targeted regulation of abortion providers. Drafters of TRAP laws have argued they’re passed to protect women’s health by requiring things like expensive facility renovations or significant staffing changes. The requirements forced many family planning providers to shut their doors. This summer, in the case of Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt, many of these TRAP laws were ruled unconstitutional.

“Even though we won, it’s still not going to bring back all the clinics that were closed," Semler said. 

In the last decade, PPWP has expanded operations into Greensburg and grown its own facility downtown. It's also navigated its role within the Affordable Care Act and started providing more resources for members of the LGBT community.

Still, the focus is on serving the underserved.

“We really believe that everyone deserves high-quality health care, no matter how much money they make, their race, their income, their religion, their sexual orientation, their gender identity,” Semler said. “It’s not always easy to get health care, so increasing access for people would be great as well.”

Semler said PPWP serves around 20,000 people each year, with most of its patients falling under the poverty line. She said in the next 100 years, she’d like to see Planned Parenthood continue to grow and not operate on the defensive.