Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis Region celebrates 75 years, looks to the future

As the organization marks 75 years of providing reproductive health care service "no matter what," Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis has launched the $12 million Now Campaign to help ensure longevity of service in the Memphis community.
On a warm summer evening in the Bible Belt hundreds of guests passed protestors to enter the parking lot of the Hilton Memphis on Ridgelake Blvd.  Men and women in jeans and flip flops carrying suitcases merged with those wearing cocktail  dresses and suits as all headed towards the revolving front door of the hotel. Down an escalator and past the check-in table more people with after-five attire laughed and clinked wine glasses with each other as the announcer asked everyone to be seated. 

Teenagers, lawyers, activists, state representatives and Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis Region (PPGMR) staff all shared memories of helping shape the organization over the past seven and a half decades.

It was a love story of overcoming obstacles, starting programs, securing funding and battling local and national government to ensure women the right to do what they wanted and needed with their bodies and for their health. 

For months it was advertised that feminist icon Gloria Steinem would attend the Annual James Award Celebration and 75th Anniversary of Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis as the keynote speaker, but the stories from local heroes stole the show.

People wiped away tears as they read their programs and saw videos capturing the stories of community leaders. The stories captured the dedication of individuals like Tamara Hendrix, one of the Volunteer of the Year Award recipients, who traveled with PPGMR to Nashville to help lobby legislators on anti-reproductive health bills, or Ema Wagner, one of four teen volunteers that formed Knowledge, Empowering Youth (KEY), working with PPGMR’s professional educators to develop lesson plans and then teach to other teens.

The crowd was full of energy by the time Steinem began her address, telling the crowd how lucky she felt to have been invited and how the reputation of PPGMR proceeded it. She talked about everything from intersectional feminism, race, and gender, to equal pay, the Republican Party, global warming and child marriage. She ended her 20 minute speech by reading the dedication and thank-you letter in her book, My Life on the Road. It was dedicated to Doctor Sharpe of London, who illegally gave 22-year-old Steinem an abortion under the two conditions that she promised not to tell anyone his name and that she would do what she wanted with her life.

Celebrating life was the theme of the night.  Shaping life has been the theme of Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis for the past 75 years.

Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis began in 1938 as the Memphis Birth Control Association (MBCA) to provide contraceptive counseling to women of limited means. Three years later, MBCA was officially chartered as the Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis, though contraception and abortion was illegal. Today, because of social and legal strides PPGMR is open six days a week, providing preventive care and helping people plan their lives.

Within nearly three decades of its charter, Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis grew. Between 1941 and 1968 it changed location three times, but has been at 2430 Poplar Ave. since September 11, 2010. Board chair Judy Scharff successfully led the efforts to affiliate PPGMR in 1966 with the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and in 1968, Kay Modine was hired as an Executive Secretary and the first paid staff member. In the same year, PPGMR’s first Executive Director Dan Pellegrom arrived with his wife from California.
?Board chair Judy Scharff successfully led the efforts to affiliate PPGMR in 1966 with the Planned Parenthood Federation of America
“It was an interesting time in my life,” Dan said. “I had worked at the national Planned Parenthood for a while. I was the youngest Planned Parenthood director (25 years old) in the United States.”

He was offered the job after a visit to Memphis. Judy Scharff drove Dan to the airport and asked him to consider coming back to the city to be the executive director.

“I was surprised,” he said. “It didn’t occur to me to take it seriously. I talked about it with my wife and two weeks later, Sally said—you keep talking about it. If you want to go, I’ll go with you.”

When Dan and Sally arrived in Memphis from New York, they had to adjust to the culture, having come from a tiny apartment in New York to a bigger space in the south. But, a neighbor embraced them and made them feel at home as Dan got situated at work.

“In Memphis it (PPGMR) was a small educational affiliate, which was not unusual in the 1960s,” said Dan. “For instance, consider Massachusetts and Connecticut. In one state it was illegal until the late 1960s for a woman to request contraception and in another it was illegal for a doctor to offer it.”  

Dan said they were laws that were broken all the time and that anybody that was a private patient with a private physician could get past that. When he arrived in Memphis in 1971, contraception had only been widely available in Tennessee for a couple of years. 

“Until 1968, if a welfare patient went to a private doctor’s office she may be turned away but if she went to the health department she would be told it was too controversial to receive contraceptive services,” he said. “Her ability to get contraception was essentially non-existent.”

In Dan’s first few years in Memphis, PPGMR referred people to get family planning services by going out into the community and counseled people who needed help determining whether they wanted to continue a pregnancy. Abortion laws, Dan said, had changed in places like New York, DC, and Hawaii so women could safely get an abortion in those states.

“We were referring in some months as many as 300 people to abortion services out of the state. In New York it cost approximately $150 for a first trimester abortion plus transportation. We had a small pool of money that if women could not pay for the procedure, we would call the clinic in New York and try to get a partial fee or free (of charge). It was either that or the women would end up having to go somewhere and get it done illegally,” Dan said. “I had a couple of staff members that all they did was abortion referral, which included how to find the clinic, and get there safely to not be mugged. It was expensive and it was intimidating. We quickly after that decided we should start doing clinical services beyond talking about contraception and pregnancy testing.”

After Roe V. Wade in 1973, PPGMR began providing abortion services instead of sending people across the country. (“Why today do people think there were a bunch of liberals on the Supreme Court in 1973? That was not the case. The Supreme Court saw 17, 19 and 30 year olds getting on busses and going to a city like New York to get an abortion—scary stuff,” Dan said.)

Dan and a young lawyer, Ed Kaplan, worked to secure Title X funding—money specifically dedicated to family planning and preventative health services for low-income individuals— to help provide the services. Ed is a Memphis native that joined the board of directors of PPGMR in the 1960’s, with encouragement from the president at the time, Judy Scharff. In the 1970’s he served two terms as president of the board. After the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ed was a member of a group of lawyers who volunteered their services to run a pilot program that resulted in the establishment of federally funded legal services in Memphis and Shelby County.

In 1974, Dan and Ed met with a representative from the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to find out why the government denied Title X Funding to PPGMR. The government official said the funding would be released if PPGMR agreed to stop providing abortion services. Ed called the bluff and threatened to hold a press conference announcing that he had just been offered a bribe by the US government. By the end of the day, PPGMR was alerted that they would receive the funding and continued to offer abortions. At that time, the procedure cost about $125 for women in Memphis.

Since the 1970s, women have continued to make strides for their reproductive rights, with some setbacks and opposition. Yet, PPGMR has remained resilient and open. 

Ashley Cofield, the current President and CEO of PPGMR, is a native of Hot Springs, Ark. who first became acquainted with PPGMR as a patient while she was a student attending Rhodes College in Memphis.

“I was astounded by the care that I got and how non-judgmental the environment was,” she said. “I was so pleased with it, that I became a volunteer in education and advocacy.”

Around the mid-1990s Ashley became a donor and from 2001-2010 she was a board member. In 2013, she was hired as CEO.
Ashley said there are cultural barriers to sexual health in Memphis that propagate discomfort and fear. Still, she said there is a highly sexualized climate in Memphis that coexists with that repressive culture.  Providing care at PPGMR “no matter what” is important to Ashley.

“Our goal at Planned Parenthood is to provide affordable, non-judgmental health care. So, we work very hard to make our services accessible to people in our region,” she said. “It’s met with hostility, but despite the opposition we will always be here to provide the full range of reproductive services including abortions.”

Ashley said that PPGMR’s resiliency is what she thinks has helped with funding for the $12 million Now Campaign so far.
The Now Campaign is a strategic growth campaign to ensure that PPGMR’s mission is sustained for another three-quarters of a century and beyond. At the Annual James Award Celebration and 75th Anniversary of PPGMR, it was announced that nearly $10 million of the campaign has already been raised.

The Now Campaign has four strategic priorities to tackle these problems. The first priority is healthcare expansion. PPGMR wants to invest $4.5 million to build a new health center to complement the existing location on Poplar. Currently, the organization serves more than 7,000 patients, gives approximately 4,400 HIV and STI tests, and more than 3,300 medical and surgical abortions, among other services. With Now Campaign funding, the non-profit plans to increase the number of patients it serves by 50 percent. 

The second priority is education, which will be a $750,000 investment. PPGMR currently provides 173 classes on sexual health topics for people of all ages and 569 HIV counseling and tests in different locations throughout Memphis. The funding will provide a 25% increase in adult sex education and help train 100 area health professionals on sexuality and reproduction.
The need for education is obvious in the local statistics. The syphilis rate in Memphis is 10 times the state and national rates and gonorrhea is double the statewide rate. The city also has highest chlamydia rate in the state, which is double the statewide and national rates. In Shelby County, 300-400 new HIV cases are reported each year and the teen birth rate in Shelby County is higher than both the state and national rates.
The third priority is a $750,000 investment in advocacy. PPGMR has 40 active volunteers and wants to increase that number to 500 annually. 

The final priority is sustainability, with the largest investment of $6 million, which will be used for program expansion for scholarships, staff positions, advocacy, facility maintenance, equipment and supplies, and more.

“While Planned Parenthood has evolved in amazing ways over the last 75 years, our core mission – providing care no matter what – has remained constant,” Ashley said. “The idea of providing compassionate, quality care in some ways remains as controversial today as it did 75 years ago. Even as we celebrate this milestone, we know that there are many in this community who would seek to eliminate our funding, terrorize our patients, and attack our facilities. The Now Campaign is about committing ourselves to building a fearless, empowered community of advocates and healthcare practitioners for the next 75 years. A new era of Planned Parenthood in Memphis begins now.” 

Read more articles by Erica Horton.

Born and raised in Memphis, Erica Horton is a freelance journalist that loves to learn and write about almost anything. Email her story ideas here
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