Planned Parenthood director embraces new challenges

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Sara Stoesz, a Prospect Park-East River Road neighborhood resident, has been president and chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota for five years. She has served on many other community and nonprofit boards, and was a public affairs and political analyst on Twin Cities Public Television’s “Almanac” show and on Minnesota Public Radio from 1994 to 2001. We sat down with her recently to talk about the organization and its challenges.

What led you to get involved with Planned Parenthood?
I’m very dedicated to spending my whole life in social justice. I come from parents who are committed to working for social justice. My siblings, my husband, my in-laws, all of us organize our lives to do this. I started out working as a union organizer with the hotel workers union a long time ago: 1980. Had a number of other jobs like that. Worked on the Governor’s Commission on Poverty, and a number of different jobs that were all about justice. And ultimately by about 1990, was working for Paul Wellstone. He influenced me quite a lot.

What was it like working with Wellstone?
It was the best experience. I learned how to build movements, how to lead. I learned how to inspire. He taught me more than anyone ever taught me about politics. He taught me how to articulate the politics which was about making improvements in people’s lives. It was also about building movements that he understood —to help build a movement that would support social and economic justice.

So that’s what I think about Planned Parenthood. We provide excellent health care; we’re at the backbone of the public health system. We have 23 clinics in Minnesota. We provide free or very-low-cost birth control, basic reproductive health care services, testing for cancer and sexually transmitted infections. And we provide education for people. This is increasingly important for people in an era when the Bush administration is trying to wipe out access to sexuality education.

But most fundamentally, it is to build a movement for human rights. That’s the thing that attracts me the most to Planned Parenthood. The clinics and education are integral to the movement. It is the thing that gives our movement legitimacy at the Capitol and other places.

We have about 60,000 patients a year, and those patients become pro-choice voters, because they understand the value of our services. And they understand they wouldn’t be able to access them if they didn’t have politicians that also support reproductive rights. And I’m not just talking about abortion rights. Abortion is not the core of what we do. We will advocate for it, of course. We will fight to the end for it. We believe in making that service available, but fundamentally what we’re about is empowering women so they can make choices in their lives and control their destinies.

What have you been working on recently?
Planned Parenthood has a 501©4 [tax status organization], which can do political work. That’s called Planned Parenthood Action Fund. We’re also a PAC [political action committee]. So our Action Fund and PAC will be getting ready to make endorsements.

And then there’s the South Dakota political fight, which is also happening simultaneously. We’re focusing intensely on building their political infrastructure so we can win the abortion ban fight in South Dakota. I would say that effort is taking the majority of my time now. We’ll be working on South Dakota legislative races. It won’t help us to win the abortion ban fight if we have the same legislature because they’ll just pass something else, so we need to win.

What else have you worked on?
What has surprised me the most is the extent to which people now oppose birth control. I’ve been on a mission to expand access to birth control. … We just opened a clinic in Woodbury. We’re trying to open clinics in places where historically Planned Parenthood hasn’t had much of a presence, so that we can make birth control available for people who can’t afford it. And believe it or not, there are people in Woodbury that can’t afford it. There’s this myth that people in the suburbs have a lot money. There are a lot of people in the suburbs that don’t have a lot of money. They may have jobs that don’t provide health insurance.

The subsidiary aspect of this is to help people enter into the debate. There’ve been protests at the new clinic in Woodbury; there’ve been some fairly ugly confrontations there. That’s a good thing in the sense that it makes people in Woodbury face the reality of the attack on their fundamental freedom. Now people in Woodbury are having a debate about birth control. That’s really good.

What about rural areas?
We have 16 clinics in greater Minnesota. We have many clinics in very small communities. These small clinics are extremely expensive to run because it’s really hard to find staff and we can’t see many patients per hour because there aren’t many patients who live there. Many times in a rural area there is no physician who will give emergency contraception. There is no pharmacy that will fill a prescription for emergency contraception. And hospitals won’t give it to women who have been raped.

If we didn’t have those clinics out there, women would literally have nowhere else to go. The unintended pregnancy rate would go up, the health implications are profound because people wouldn’t have anywhere to go to get sexually transmitted infections caught and treated and abortion rates would go up because more people would get unintentionally pregnant. And if we weren’t there, there would be nobody to make the case as to why women’s rights are important.

We’ve been in discussions with Target for some time; we had a picket line up for a few days, but they are pretty intransigent at this point. Their view is that a pharmacist’s right to practice his or her religion trumps a woman’s right to guarantee that her prescription would be filled. This is a real problem with emergency contraception. If you have an emergency, it’s an emergency. That’s the definition (laughs).

Who inspires you for your work?
I’m inspired by my mother and my daughter, for different reasons. My mother for what she did to bring social justice as far as she did. And my daughter for what she will have to do to take over when I can’t do this anymore. And how extremely hopeful she is in her life; she’s only 15 so she’s got a great deal of hope and sense of optimism for the future. I want her to be able to maintain that.

I’m really inspired by our patients and our extremely courageous staff. We have staff that work places that are very hostile to Planned Parenthood, like Sioux Falls or Rapid City, some of our greater Minnesota clinics where the community isn’t helpful. For example, our staff in our Brainerd clinic—that clinic was torched and burned to the ground one night, and then just a few years ago it was shot up with shotgun and hollow-point bullets one night.
I’m most inspired by people who are part of the movement. There are hundreds of thousands of them doing things small and large every day. We also have 10,000 people in Minnesota who give us money. That they stand by Planned Parenthood means a lot to me, because I see that that is fundamentally how we’re going to change the world.

Do you see yourself doing this for a long time?
I do, yeah. I feel I’m at the pinnacle of my career. I’m at the heart of what’s important to me, in my life, right now. I’m completely gratified to be here. I get up every morning and I can’t believe how lucky I am to be here, after five years. I’m really lucky.

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