April Cover Story
Local Planned Parenthood celebrates 50 years of service
Moving ‘from a provider of last resort to a health care facility of first choice’
What health care organization in Southern California employs more than 400 people, has a string of 19 health centers across the region, an annual budget of $56 million and a legion of supporters and detractors? That would be Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest, an organization that has grown from a one-room office in Balboa Park in 1963 into the second largest Planned Parenthood affiliate in the nation.
By its own count, the local Planned Parenthood provided more than 300,000 patient visits to nearly 150,000 people through its 19 health centers in San Diego and Riverside counties last year. Under the leadership of President and CEO Darrah DiGiorgio Johnson, the organization also provides educational programs in these two counties, as well as Imperial County.
Though most people think of Planned Parenthood as a provider of contraception, DiGiorgio Johnson says the organization offers much more. “We provide life-saving cervical, breast and testicular cancer screenings,” she says, noting that as a cancer survivor herself, she knows firsthand the importance of early detection. “Planned Parenthood also offers STD testing and treatment, Rapid HIV testing, permanent birth control like vasectomy, tubal ligation and Essure. We also offer abortion care.”
According to the agency’s annual report, abortions represent 6 percent of the regional Planned Parenthood services. The vast majority of its services — 95 percent — are made up of cervical cancer screenings, contraception, gynecological visits and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases. In 2011, patient visits to Planned Parenthood facilities amounted to 318,707.
Do people who oppose a woman’s right to choose ever discourage DiGiorgio Johnson? “Not in the least,” she replies. “The vast majority of Americans believe that these highly personal and often complex decisions should be made by a woman.” She says that while the primary goal of Planned Parenthood is to reduce the rate of abortion by preventing unintended pregnancy, “women know that we will be here for them no matter what.”
Planned Parenthood reports that last year, its contraception programs prevented 486,000 unintended pregnancies, thereby averting 204,000 abortions nationwide. It states that, “Education and prevention are our primary goals.”
Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest was founded in San Diego in 1963, 47 years after Margaret Sanger, her sister and a friend opened America’s first birth control clinic in Brooklyn, the genesis of the modern Planned Parenthood organization.
The local Planned Parenthood is celebrating its half-century of work this year, an organization that most supporters believe is a comprehensive health care provider for both women and men. A May 9 gala is planned (See sidebar).
DiGiorgio Johnson has spent the last 18 years in the Planned Parenthood family.
“As a recent college graduate in the mid-90s, I taught elementary school for a short time but quickly realized that I wanted a career in the social services field because of my passion to help others in need,” she says. “I was thrilled to come across a position as a community educator at a Planned Parenthood affiliate in New Jersey and it clicked. I was very passionate about the mission of providing reproductive education and health services to women, men and youth.”
DiGiorgio Johnson, who holds a master’s degree in counseling, ultimately moved into administrative roles and became CEO in New Jersey five years after joining that affiliate. She was in her fifth year in that role when Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest recruited her for the San Diego post.
The local organization traces its roots to a visit that an Episcopalian minister made to a female parishioner in a hospital in 1963. The woman had recently delivered her fourth child and asked the minister for family planning guidance. The minister, the Rev. Arthur Elcombe, discussed birth control with the woman, but she informed him that nurses at the county hospital were barred from dispensing contraceptives. This was the case at most medical facilities.
The lack of access to birth control alarmed Elcombe, who knew that several women were injured or killed in illegal abortions each year. Determined to help women prevent unintended pregnancy, Elcombe began researching family planning resources in San Diego and found that, while there was a great demand for services, there were few places for women to turn for birth control. the one-room office in Balboa Park was the result of that discovery.
Planned Parenthood is one of the nation’s leading advocates for reproductive and sexual health, says DiGiorgio Johnson. “We are tireless defenders of access to contraceptive care and a woman’s right to choose, and we do this through a multifaceted, highly sophisticated public affairs program that works with elected officials, and engages and develops young leaders.”
As an example, she cites programs like Teen Capitol Day, the Youth Leadership Academy and Healthy Neighborhoods Outreach. “The Healthy Neighborhoods Outreach program is a program where we send highly trained volunteers door-to-door to discuss reproductive and sexual health with residents in areas that traditionally have had limited access to services,” she says. “This is modeled after our Promotoras Program, which is something we learned about through our sister organization MEXFAM, in Mexico.”
DiGiorgio Johnson says Planned Parenthood has a strong tradition of innovative programs aimed at reaching people who typically have the least access to care. “We reach out to farm workers at their work sites,” DiGiorgio says, explaining that the voluntary program is extremely popular. “Planned Parenthood also has programs that provide life skills and support for teen mothers who wish to delay a second pregnancy until their education is complete. And we recently began offering anatomy and physiology classes to residents at Juvenile Hall.”
What might surprise some is the number of male patients who visit Planned Parenthood. In 2011, men represented 11 percentof the agency’s patient base. Between 2008 and 2011, the number of male patients increased by 35 percent. “Many of our male patients discover Planned Parenthood through their girlfriends and wives, and a significant number find out about us through the LGBT community,” says the CEO. “Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender patients come to Planned Parenthood because we offer sexual health services that are caring, non-judgmental and culturally appropriate.”
Asked to explain why the local Planned Parenthood affiliate has been successful over the past 50 years, DiGiorgio Johnson offers a couple of reasons: “First, our communities are extremely supportive in terms of volunteerism and financial support. They know we care — no matter what. In fact, one in every three San Diego households has a current or former Planned Parenthood patient. Second, the state of California has the most successful family planning program in the nation, offering residents low and no-cost services. This program, the Family Planning Access to Care and Treatment (FPACT) and the state understand that for every dollar invested in family planning, more than nine dollars are saved in future medical and social service costs.”
DiGiorgio Johnson says the impact of this program has been that the teen birth rate dropped to a record low in 2010, according to the California Department of Public Health. Health experts credit this record decline to the state’s comprehensive sex education, evidence-based teen pregnancy prevention efforts, and to increased access to contraception through the Family PACT program.
The CEO says that many Planned Parenthood patients do not have health insurance, but more and more, there are those who do. “Women and men may have discovered Planned Parenthood in their 20s before they had a job with health benefits, but they continue to come to our centers because of the high level of expertise and care we provide,” she says. “In our 50 years in the community, our reputation has transformed Planned Parenthood from a provider of last resort to a health care facility of first choice. We are very proud of the trust the community places in us.”
Planned Parenthood Gala
May 9, Hilton San Diego Bayfront, One Park Blvd., Downtown San Diego.
Time: 5:30 reception; dinner and program at 6:30 p.m.
Theme: Celebrating 50 Years Strong
Special Guests: Cecile Richards, president, Planned Parenthood Federation of America; Sarah Weddington, attorney, professor and women’s rights advocate who successfully argued the landmark Roe v. Wade case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973; Jessica Valenti, feminist and author, founder of Feministing.com.
Event Chairs: Nora Taylor Jaffe and Kathleen L. Strauss.
Tickets: 150. Visit www.plannedparenthood.org/pacific-southwest.