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Cover Story: Right to a Private Life

Momeyer retires as Planned Parenthood CEO, proud of her role in promoting health and responsibility in politically charged times

By Stephanie Dunlap · March 8th, 2006 · Cover Story
  Right To A Private Life
Right To A Private Life

For its place in an organization that draws so much controversy, Sue Momeyer's neatly-kept space on the third floor of the Planned Parenthood office in Mount Auburn is surprisingly warm and serene.

For that matter, so is Momeyer.

But then Planned Parenthood provides much more than the abortion services that have made it a symbol of either women's reproductive freedom and health or of society's greatest moral failings.

In spite of her calm, or perhaps more accurately because of it, Momeyer has seen Planned Parenthood through two mergers, countless protests, funding cuts, lawsuits, death threats and mailed deliveries of fake anthrax and a small explosive device wrapped in Christmas paper.

Momeyer, 64, plans to step down as president of the Planned Parenthood Southwest Ohio Region as of May 1.

She cashed her first paycheck from Planned Parenthood in 1973. That was the same year the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion in Roe v. Wade, citing the right to privacy contained in the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution.

She retires at a time when some conservative factions are mounting the most widespread and carefully orchestrated challenges to Roe v. Wade in the ruling's 33-year history.

It's no secret that President Bush and other conservatives have long sought to stack the U.S. Supreme Court in favor of overturning Roe v. Wade. In the past year Bush has appointed two new justices, both known conservatives.

That new Supreme Court has agreed to rule on the constitutionality of a 2003 federal ban on the so-called "partial birth abortion" procedure. Last week it unanimously ruled that anti-abortion demonstrators can't be prosecuted under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act.

Meanwhile, a number of states, including Ohio, are attempting to pass various types of legislation banning abortion in hopes that one will make it to the Supreme Court and trigger a wider re-hearing of Roe v. Wade.

On March 6, South Dakota's governor signed a bill banning nearly all abortions.

"I think we thought for a while, 'OK, the struggle is over,' but clearly it isn't," Momeyer says.

'A very strong woman'
Momeyer's career trek to the head of Planned Parenthood wasn't traditional or even really intentional.

"I never thought I would end up here," she says.

Born and raised in Meadville, Penn., in a family she describes as very close, she says she's sure some of her Planned Parenthood values started there. The males on her father's side were all Methodist ministers except for her father, a chemist who spent his life on crutches after contracting polio at age 3.

"I learned from him every day what courage is," Momeyer says. "He lived with a disability before there was any real accommodation. I think one of the gifts that I got from my father was he helped me believe in myself and taught me I could be who I wanted to be."

Her mother was a Southern-bred woman educated in the private schools her father ran. She and Momeyer's aunts were the only females in all-male schools.

"She talked and had the graces of a traditional Southern lady, but she was also a very strong woman with her own ideas," Momeyer says.

Momeyer studied English at Allegheny College and earned a master's degree in English from Stanford University. She taught high school English for five years in the suburbs of Seattle and Chicago.

Eventually she moved with her husband, Richard, to Oxford, Ohio, where he took a philosophy professorship at Miami University while she earned a second master's degree, this time in counseling.

She's been married for almost 41 years now. She says her husband, who still teaches philosophy at Miami, is particularly interested in biomedical ethics.

"So in that sense our fields overlap a bit," she says.

They have two daughters and three grandchildren. Momeyer's sister, a teacher, died as a young adult.

"There are nine Planned Parenthoods in Ohio," she says. "At one point the CEOs all realized they were the first-born girl."

Momeyer first became involved in Planned Parenthood in Oxford, not long after her own first daughter, Alison, was born.

Momeyer says Miami University students then were prohibited from having cars. At the same time the school health center didn't offer gynecological services and there weren't any private OB-GYNs in Oxford.

"So it was a real quandary for many Oxford residents," she says.

Momeyer was among the half-dozen activists who started Oxford's first Planned Parenthood clinic. She began her second career in 1973 as manager of that health center.

In 1978 she become executive director of the clinic's parent affiliate, Planned Parenthood Association of Butler County. When that affiliate merged with Planned Parenthood Association of Cincinnati in 1995, she assumed the role of chief operating officer. When the CEO stepped down three years later, Momeyer experienced a "sort of moment of truth -- do I want to throw my hat into the ring or not?"

That's how in 1998 she became president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Cincinnati Region.

Last year her role grew once again as she helped usher through the second merger of her tenure, this time with Planned Parenthood of Greater Miami Valley.

Planned Parenthood Southwest Ohio Region now encompasses 13 health clinics as far west as Oxford, north as Troy and east as Springfield.

In addition to the mergers, Momeyer says a highlight of her career was receiving the Ruth Green Award in 2001, annually given to a Planned Parenthood affiliate CEO for exemplary leadership. She's proud because her board nominated her and five past recipients chose her from the 125 CEOs of Planned Parenthood's affiliates nationwide.

Among lowlights for Momeyer might be the recent lawsuit alleging that Planned Parenthood provided an abortion to a 14-year-old girl without proper parental consent.

Momeyer won't comment on the pending litigation. But as the organization's spokeswoman, she repeatedly stresses that Planned Parenthood provides many services, of which abortion plays only a small part.

She says the newly merged entity serves 35,000 patients with about 60,000 medical visits yearly. Ninety percent of those visits are for core preventative health services such as annual exams, screening for breast and cervical cancer, sexually transmitted disease testing and treatment, pregnancy tests and contraception.

Planned Parenthood also provides surgical procedures to prevent cervical cancer in women who have abnormal PAP smears. There's a prenatal clinic at the Hamilton branch.

Of the Southwest Ohio Region's 13 health clinics, abortions are performed at only one of them, the Mount Auburn location in which her office is located.

"Reproductive health care is broad," Momeyer says. "Most of it is not newsworthy."

But offering abortions is one of the reasons Planned Parenthood is a strong mobilizing symbol for anti-choice activists nationwide.

Among the artwork on her salmon-colored office walls is another locally controversial symbol of sexuality: a close-up photograph of an iris by Robert Mapplethorpe.

'Contempt for women'
The first birth control clinic in the United States opened in 1916, four years before women won the right to vote. Planned Parenthood's services weren't quite so controversial back then, Momeyer says.

"In the really early days it was telling people about diaphragms and condoms," she says.

"That was it."

The first Cincinnati clinic opened in 1929. Since then Cincinnati has been a hotbed of anti-abortion -- or anti-choice -- activism.

In 1985 the Margaret Sanger Center, a Victorian mansion that once housed Planned Parenthood, burned to the ground; John Brockhoeft served seven years for firebombing it, on top of other attempted arson convictions. Operation Rescue and other anti-choice groups often targeted Cincinnati's Planned Parenthood.

"In the late '80s, early '90s, it was out of control," Momeyer says. "There were mobs who trespassed, who laid down in the driveway, blocked the entrance, et cetera."

That let up a bit after Congress passed the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act and the city of Cincinnati tightened its trespassing laws, thanks to volunteer Courtwatch activists who documented how protesters were carted off to jail, slapped on the wrist and released to come right back, Momeyer says.

One of the biggest changes she identifies during her time at Planned Parenthood is a shift in the nature of protest.

"Family planning historically has been a nonpartisan movement and highly valued by Republicans as well as Democrats," Momeyer says. "I think that's changed, certainly around abortion, but it spills over into family planning."

The first federal family planning program was promoted by former President George H. Bush, then a Texas congressman, and signed into law by then-President Richard Nixon.

In 1969 Bush had this to say: "We need to make family planning a household word. We need to take the sensationalism out of the topic so it can no longer be used by militants who have no knowledge of the voluntary nature of the program, but rather are using it as a political stepping stone. If family planning is anything, it is a public health matter."

But as president, the senior Bush followed in Ronald Reagan's footsteps as he sought to chip away at women's access to abortion abroad and stateside.

Since then government funding for family planning programs has been increasingly slashed, often by the very same people pushing to outlaw abortion.

Momeyer notes that U.S. Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Milford), former head of Cincinnati Right to Life, managed to slash $1.7 million in state family planning funding as a state representative. Kentucky State Rep. Addia Wuchner (R-Florence) has proposed a bill to outlaw abortion in that state.

"The irony is (Wuchner) was also one of the people who led the effort to get the Northern Kentucky Health Department to drop their birth control services," Momeyer says.

That makes little sense, according to Lyn Marsteller, vice chair of Planned Parenthood Southwest Ohio Region.

"It's convoluted thinking if the true desire of people who oppose abortion is to reduce the number of abortions," she says. "They need to step up and make it apparent what they oppose, because it seems they're opposing more than just abortion."

Momeyer contends Planned Parenthood does more every day to prevent the need for abortion than any other organization. She cites studies and articles showing that countries banning abortion have some of the highest abortion rates. Conversely, countries where abortion is not only legal but subsidized by government health programs see some of the lowest abortion rates. That's because there's often a correlation between the availability of abortion services and the availability of contraceptives.

Momeyer admits that making abortion illegal might deter some women.

"There's no doubt about that, because it's a huge risk with any illegal procedure," she says.

Like a good spokeswoman, Momeyer's smile doesn't waver when a reporter asks when she thinks life begins. But she does blink, very slowly.

"I think the important question for me is, when does personhood begin?" she says. "I think it evolves. It's about the status of the fetus, it's about the life of the woman. Roe v. Wade, I think, got it right when the justices wrote that the state's prerogative to interfere in abortion changes as pregnancy progresses."

But as for partial birth abortion -- aside from the observation that it's not a medical term -- Momeyer points out that late-term abortions are usually performed under dire circumstances.

"Typically, it was a very wanted pregnancy and something went terribly wrong," she says.

Abortion and contraception are correlated in another way: Many anti-choice activists are also those who most actively oppose contraceptive services and comprehensive sex education.

Momeyer says that connection is more pronounced than it used to be and chalks it up to a "rather deep contempt for women or a fear of women who have autonomy."

Birth control has been recognized as one of the major public health advances of the 20th century, she says. The ability to plan and space the births of children has provided enormous health benefits to women and to children who typically are born healthier if they're spaced apart -- not just for women's health but women's lives and the choices they have in terms of work, according to Momeyer.

"I think most reasonable people celebrate these advances," she says.

No sex for the poor
Not surprisingly, State Rep. Tom Brinkman (R-Mount Lookout) isn't a big fan of Planned Parenthood. He's the primary sponsor of House Bill 228, which would outlaw all abortions in Ohio and make it a felony to seek them across state lines (see "Brinkman vs. Roe," issue of May 11-17, 2005).

"I guess I don't like their mission and oppose what they do," he says. "I think they hide behind their other aspects of what they say they provide, but I think their number one goal is to provide abortions."

He admits he doesn't know why that would be a goal.

"I don't know why anyone would want to kill innocent human life, but some people obviously do," Brinkman says. "I can't understand it. I can't comprehend it."

He also opposes contraceptive use, though he says that's not something he would ever attempt to legislate. Similarly, he's not a smoker but doesn't support a smoking ban.

"People can be personally opposed to something," he says. "I'm not for contraceptives. I've never used contraceptives. I've got six kids. But that's my personal choice."

A low-income woman who can't afford six kids shouldn't have sex, Brinkman says.

"She should practice abstinence," he says. "She should not have kids."

For Brinkman, it comes down to a belief that the government should not condone poor decisions.

"People make poor decisions about not getting up out of bed in the morning and going out and getting a job," he says. "At some point people need to be held responsible."

Anti-choice activists try various ways of accomplishing that. On Feb. 25 about half a dozen men, women and children stand on the sidewalk outside Planned Parenthood's 8-foot-tall iron gates. Some carry signs with images of Mary and Jesus bearing the caption, "Behold a child is born." One man holds a bullhorn.

This group comes from St. Gertrude the Great Church in West Chester one Saturday a month, as they've done for many years, according to Gerry Keaveney.

"We're praying the rosary in reparation for abortion," he says.

Abortion isn't the only beef this particular group has with Planned Parenthood. They also oppose the dissemination of birth control.

"That's just another way of preventing birth, so, yeah, we're against that too," Keaveney says.

The only contraception they condone is natural family planning, also known as the "rhythm method" or "when a woman watches her cycle," Keaveney explains.

When that fails, there's always adoption. But parishioner Bernie Brueggemann says the U.S. government makes adoption too difficult.

"You probably are not familiar with the red tape people have to go through to adopt a child," he says. "We know firsthand. One of our parishioners had to go to Guatemala (to adopt). Back in the good old days there were Catholic orphanages galore."

Brueggemann also tells a female reporter how young and pretty she looks.

Bulletproof vest
It's never a good time for a nonprofit to lose funding, but as the number of uninsured Americans rises, Planned Parenthood gets hit on two fronts. One challenge passing to Momeyer's successor will be treating increasing numbers of uninsured patients, who are often young women in entry-level jobs.

"Our typical patient is a woman in her twenties who is employed but does not have health insurance," Momeyer says.

She also notes that Planned Parenthood sees as many women over 30 as under 18.

"We are the primary health care provider for a lot of women in their reproductive years," she says.

As costs rise but funding does not, Planned Parenthood must work hard to balance its books while still charging fees on a sliding scale based on income and family size.

Maureen Pero, whose term as chair of Planned Parenthood Southwest Ohio Region ended in December, thinks the biggest challenge to Momeyer's successor will be growing Planned Parenthood's services in the hostile local political climate.

"A lot of our customers and clients rely on Medicaid and other types of government funding to help with their health care, and it just keeps getting cut," she says.

Part of the trick will be appealing to higher-income clients.

"We do provide very high-quality medical services," Pero says. "The reality is that everyone who can pay and uses Planned Parenthood helps another woman who can't."

Another change since Momeyer began at Planned Parenthood is the explosion of contraceptive options: There are umpteen varieties of the daily oral birth control pill; long-lasting Depo-Provera shots; the once-a-month, insertable time-release NuvaRing; the cervical cap; and the female condom. There's the politically charged Plan B, which can be taken up to 72 hours after a possible impregnation, and the even more controversial mifepristone, also known as RU-486, which non-surgically induces abortion before a fetus is nine weeks old.

Then there's AIDS, for which Planned Parenthood started testing in the early 1990s. That effort has raised Planned Parenthood's male clientele to about 10 percent as well as raising awareness about condoms and the need for prevention.

Teen pregnancy has also declined since the early '90s, Momeyer says, and there are fewer abortions now, which she'd like to attribute to people being more careful about family planning and birth control.

"It's possible that it's also because there are fewer abortion providers," she says.

One reason is increasing regulation of abortion services, which led to the 2005 closing of another local provider of abortion services, Cincinnati Women's Services (see "No Abortion Mill," issue of Sept. 28-Oct. 4, 2005).

Another deterrent might have been the rash of violence against physicians and workers providing abortion services in the mid-'80s and early '90s. A handful were killed, including Dr. Bernard Slepian, who was shot dead as he stood in his Amherst, N.Y., kitchen near his wife and kids.

"You have to have an extraordinary commitment to women's health care to be willing to provide that service," Momeyer says.

Momeyer carried a bulletproof vest in her car for a time, though she says she put it on only briefly.

"I really don't want to be too melodramatic about this because it's not my style," she says.

In the summer of 1998, Operation Rescue took on the Mount Auburn Planned Parenthood clinic. She said it wasn't a mob scene, just about 30 people trespassing. But for brief moments before the group complied with police orders to leave, "it was sort of a face-down and a standoff," Momeyer says.

"I was stunned by their willingness to invade private space, both literally and metaphorically," she says. "I could see their fervor, and it was sort of unbelievable to me that they would think they could impose that on others."

As for Brinkman, she'll only say that he's entitled to his own belief system and his own practices in his marriage.

"I think it's very disturbing that he would want to impose his own religious views on others," Momeyer says. "We have never told people what to do. That distinguishes us, I think, from some of our opponents, who seem to want to control what women choose."

Nothing more important
Momeyer was raised in a Unitarian church, where she attended Sunday school and sang in the church choir. These days she likes to characterize herself as more spiritual than religious.

"Sometimes people have the impression that the anti-choice movement has the corner on religion, and that has not been my experience," she says.

Planned Parenthood's board members and donors are often religious, she says.

"Their commitment to Planned Parenthood is part of their value system," Momeyer says.

Another part of her value system is a commitment to feminism.

"To me, being a feminist means women have a place at life's table," she says. "Equal treatment, equal opportunities, respect -- it's not complicated, and it's not some of the stereotypes that people use."

But the strictures of feminism have loosened even since Momeyer's day. Her daughter Alison has more career choices than her mother enjoyed.

"Our generation was supposed to all have careers," Momeyer says. "(Today) women are choosing careers and women are choosing to stay home with children, and those are all valued."

Alison Momeyer, a freelance writer, is sick of hearing the "privileged white women staying at home and throwing off feminist expectations of their working mothers" slant.

"Yes, I'm very privileged to be able to take time out to spend time with my babies," she says. "It's true that it was a choice where my mom didn't feel she had that choice. But I don't see myself as any less a career woman for having taken a few years off to raise my kids."

Alison remembers the bulletproof vest and sees her mother as very brave, especially for her determination to stay in Cincinnati in spite of offers to go to other Planned Parenthood affiliates located in friendlier political climates.

Alison says attacks against her mother for hating children are a great irony, because Momeyer dotes on her three grandchildren. They laugh about that, too, because Alison had planned to have just two. Instead she has a 6-year-old daughter and 4-year-old identical twin boys.

So much for family planning as an exact science.

After May 1, Sue Momeyer plans to be nothing more than a volunteer for Planned Parenthood. She doesn't want any special status or to join the board.

"I'm going to slow down a little bit and plant flowers and read books and play with my grandchildren," she says.

She'll continue singing alto in the Oxford Choral Ensemble, as she has for more than 20 years.

Marsteller, who has worked with Momeyer since 1991, slips a sly challenge into her interview.

"Many people might not realize that, in all likelihood, she would like to be a cabaret singer," Marsteller says. "While I've not heard it, I suspect she'd be about to belt out a good torch song from the '40s."

Both Marsteller and Pero highly praise Momeyer's ability to communicate and build partnerships.

Momeyer thinks many of the people who see her as reasonable might be surprised by her passion for her work.

"I just don't think there's anything more important than determining to bring a child into the world," she says. "In my own life, it was one of the best things I ever did -- two of the best things I ever did. And I know what it is to grow up in a very warm and loving and nurturing family, and I would like everybody to have those experiences. Part of how that happens is actively choosing to bear children and wanting to do that."

When Momeyer gets discouraged about external events, she visits one of Planned Parenthood's health centers.

"I am very inspired by our patients who are trying to be responsible," she says. ©



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