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Sharing the Gospel of Reproductive Rights : Planned Parenthood Leader Promotes Cause With Missionary Fervor

November 27, 1987|PAULA SPAN | The Washington Post

When Faye Wattleton preaches, a cadence inherited from two generations of fundamentalist ministers echoes in the rhythmic rise and fall of her voice.

"In 1987 we will not be stopped, because we are stronger and healthier and more vigorous than ever," she declares. More than 400 people listen raptly in a Chicago hotel ballroom.

Most of the time, the public sees a cooler Faye Wattleton. Shortly after she became president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America nine years ago, she hired one of those media training firms that teach executives to appear poised and personable on television. Wattleton had vowed that Planned Parenthood would aggressively counteract the gathering assault on legal abortion, an assault that seems to be intensifying as time runs out on the Reagan Administration. It's a battle waged on "Donahue" and "Today" as well as in Congress, and it does not do to sound like a preacher on "Donahue" or "Today."

But when she is out among those who already believe, speaking to local Planned Parenthood affiliates across the country--Chicago's imported her for its 40th-anniversary dinner--her childhood years in church seep into her delivery. "Let us go forth with a great determination that we will win," she exhorts, her voice surging, "that what we have won we will defend and preserve and what we have not won will come to us in time."

No Rest Until the End

Now her alto quiets dramatically. "We will not rest until it is so, for our work will not be done. . . ."

Wattleton, 43, is the daughter and granddaughter of ministers whose calling affected not only her oratory but, in ways they could not have foreseen, her articles of faith. She grew up in the Church of God, a denomination whose prohibitions include drinking, dancing, cursing, smoking, movie-going, "all the don'ts," she says.

"The doctrinaire approach to religion and life--as I grew up and I became educated and I was able to see a broader world --became very frightening to me," Wattleton says, recalling the evolution of her college years. "When I saw you had to conduct your life in a certain way or you were unworthy of a life hereafter; when I saw people sometimes weren't able to live up to those standards; when I saw that life isn't always so straightforward--it had a lot of influence on my coming to hold the views I've come to hold."

The Rev. Ozie Wattleton, who at 72 still preaches at the East Atlanta Church of God, dreamed that her daughter would put her nursing training to godly use as a missionary. And in a way, Faye Wattleton is a missionary. At banquets and at press conferences, on Capitol Hill and on campus, in the flesh and through direct mail, she preaches the message of Planned Parenthood.

That gospel came to include, as Wattleton was arguing from coast to coast this fall, the assertion that Judge Robert Bork's record on "reproductive rights" made him "an unfit candidate" for the Supreme Court. She was not surprised that the Senate Judiciary Committee agreed. This was the first time the 71-year-old organization that Margaret Sanger founded had opposed a judicial appointee, but it was a step consonant with Wattleton's insistence that Planned Parenthood rediscover its activism.

"We will triumph over repression!" Her voice sails ringingly through the hotel chandeliers. "We will continue to prevail!"

At the time of her appointment, Wattleton was something of a controversial choice to lead Planned Parenthood. Now, even people in the organization have trouble remembering who the group's president was before she became its youngest in 1978, when she was 34. It's the oldest, largest, best-financed and most powerful single advocate for and provider of contraceptive services in the country, and Wattleton has been a particularly visible and telegenic leader during a period when the organization frequently found itself dueling in public. She's Ms. Family Planning.

No one like her had ever led the venerable Planned Parenthood Federation before--no one who was female, no one who was black, and no one so determined to lead the charge on abortion. And Faye Wattleton, then executive director of Planned Parenthood in Dayton, Ohio, was by no means a unanimous choice for the post.

"There was considerable discomfort among some members of our own board of directors," remembers Dr. Louise Tyrer, Planned Parenthood's vice president for medical affairs. It was a time for the organization to lie low, to quietly provide health-care services through its local clinics and not court controversy, went the minority opinion.

But there were also Wattleton partisans who believed that "the federation was in danger of becoming irrelevant," says David Andrews, now its executive vice president. "It had lost its sense of direction."

"I know there were people who swore they'd never give us another dime," Wattleton says. "I figured, for every one we lost we'd get two or three who'd say, 'I'm glad to see Planned Parenthood standing up.' "

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