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Family-Planning Leader Speaks Out for Choice

January 28, 1985|DOUG BROWN | Times Staff Writer

Even though her face was etched with pain, the 17-year-old girl's natural beauty was still evident as she lay dying in New York's Harlem Hospital from a bungled, home-induced abortion, recalled Faye Wattleton in describing the numerous deaths of women from illegal abortions she witnessed in the mid-1960s while working as a nurse in one of the nation's worst slums.

Nearly 20 years later, abortion continues to be a traumatic subject for Wattleton, who today is national president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. As she entered the Newport Harbor Yacht Club last Thursday night to address a dinner commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Orange County chapter of Planned Parenthood, she was confronted by placard-carrying anti-abortion demonstrators shouting "Don't kill babies."

Yet as Wattleton--who is the first woman, first black and, at 41, the youngest person to head the nation's largest voluntary family-planning organization--made clear during an interview two days after last Tuesday's series of nationwide demonstrations by anti-abortion forces protesting the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 decision legalizing abortion, she will not be dissuaded in her campaign to assure that women retain the legal right to an abortion.

Missionary Zeal In the face of picketers, death threats against Planned Parenthood personnel and firebombings against Planned Parenthood clinics, including an attempted firebombing at the family-planning organization's Santa Ana clinic two days before Christmas, she retains the missionary zeal of her minister mother.

Indeed, Wattleton finds it ironic that she has been thrust into the role of being a national spokeswoman for the "pro-choice" side of the abortion controversy, considering that relatively few abortions are performed at clinics operated by the 70-year-old Planned Parenthood organization, the nation's oldest family-planning agency. It has 190 affiliates throughout the United States, an annual budget of $180 million, 250,000 donors and 20,000 volunteers and staff.

"Those who try to discredit Planned Parenthood call us the 'biggest purveyors of abortion' in this country," Wattleton said during an afternoon interview in Newport Beach at the Big Canyon home of Shelley Klein, who earlier had hosted a luncheon in her honor. "The truth of the matter is that of the 3.3 million people we saw last year, only 80,000 women received an abortion at one of our clinics--this was 80,000 abortions out of the 1.5 million that were performed in this country last year.

"Abortion is not our major service. (Fewer than one-fifth of Planned Parenthood's clinics perform abortions; none of the five in Orange County do so.) Our programs run the gamut of reproductive services: contraceptive care for women, sterilization for men, sex education to prevent teen-age pregnancies, cancer screening, pregnancy tests and counseling.

"I think what really upsets our opponents is that we don't shrink from taking a strong pro-choice position"--a position Wattleton has espoused since taking the helm of the New York-headquartered organization in 1978.

Wattleton's deep commitment to individual choice in family-planning matters, she said, is a reflection of her upbringing as a minister's daughter and her professional training, which showed her how to "alleviate hurt and human suffering."

'Raised in Religious Family'

"I was raised in a very religious family where we went to church four and five times a week," said Wattleton in recalling her upbringing in a working-class neighborhood of St. Louis, the only daughter of a factory-worker father and a mother who was a seamstress and minister of the Church of God.

Growing up in the home of a minister who stressed service to others, Wattleton said, shaped her decision to go into nursing and, later, into family planning.

"I don't remember ever not wanting to be a nurse," Wattleton said, commenting on how simple the decision had been for her. "My mother had a vision of me becoming a missionary nurse.

"Those were the days when missionaries would come back from Africa and talk to our church about the 'saving grace' they had extended to the 'heathen in the dark continent of Africa.' I didn't go off to Africa, but I brought this missionary spirit that was instilled in me as a child to my work with Planned Parenthood."

And her upbringing, in an ironic way, taught her the need to show tolerance for others when it came to issues of morality.

"My parents, and the members of our church, were religious fundamentalists who were very strict on moral issues," said Wattleton.

"But even as a child I saw people in our church who were unable to conform to the very rigid moral standards they were supposed to live up to. Yet, they they pretended that they were doing so. I guess you'd call them hypocrites.

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