Binghamton is a small (50,000) upstate city tucked around the confluence of the Susquehanna and Chenango Rivers which flow through endless rolling hills. Those of you who have followed the Reproductive Rights movement for some time may immediately associate the city with one of its more infamous citizens, Randall Terry of Operation Rescue fame. Randy started his harassment and terrorist campaign in 1984 right in the city at the office of Dr. Salomon Epstein.
But Binghamton has an organization with a far longer and immeasurably prouder history - Planned Parenthood of Broome and Chenango Counties, which has served thousands of residents for over 50 years. It may come as a surprise that a small city in a generally conservative area would have had access to Planned Parenthood type services from 1940 on, but courage and compassion are found everywhere.
The PPBCC anniversary booklet recounts how Marion Newell Guy and twelve committed women launched the Broome County Maternal Guidance Committee in the Spring of 1940. A $250 note from the Marine Midland bank, the needs of many poor women in the community and the dedication of volunteers combined to offer birth control to married women who could not afford it. With an annual budget of $600 the clinic saw 51 women during their first seven months.
The patient load increased with time, but even at the end of the 50's the agency was not open more than 20 hours per week. Finally in 1966, under a Federal OEO program, PPBCC was able to open full time. In 1970, the agency was incorporated and received New York State licensing and certification as a diagnostic and treatment center qualified to provide family planning, cancer detection and gynecological services.
From its earliest days, the agency was hounded by the self-righteous who were not content to let others make their own private reproductive decisions. 1940's picketers confronted Board members with signs saying, "Murder Inc." and a local priest had a critical and abusive letter printed in the morning newspaper.
Harassment, orchestrated by the Operation Rescue network, has surfaced again in 1990, according the Jim O'Hora, Executive Director. However, dealing with harassers is only a minuscule part of his job. The prime goal is to provide high quality reproductive health care to thousands of patients in Broome and Chenango Counties. Since PPBCC won the Fairchild Award for excellence in 1989, the staff has certainly been doing their job.
Mr. O'Hora, interviewed at his Binghamton office, talked of his experience as Executive Director for the last 10 years, the current agency situation and hopes for the future.
This agency started with a $250 dollar note and an all volunteer staff. What does your budget and staff look like today?
We just for the first time went over 1 million dollars. In fact, we just added another program in Norwich, so we're actually over a million and a quarter. With the new program, our staff will be about 35 or 36 people. We've grown a tad.
Where do your funds come from?
Anywhere we can find them. Seriously, we get money from the Federal Government through the State of New York as grantees of the Office of Reproductive Health. We also get state funds through the Health Department. The agency is part of the United Way in Broome and Chenango County and the Chenango site gets County money. There is also Medicaid reimbursement.
About 40% of our income is government funds and another 40-45% is service fees and the rest is donations, membership drives, and grants. We are trying to reduce our dependence on government funds and raise money elsewhere, but that is restricted by our membership in the United Way - which is understandable. All member organizations must abide by their rules to not do general appeals.
Your first patients were married women between the ages of 17-41. Who do you serve today?
The majority of our patients would fall between 17 and 24, but they range through the whole reproductive age from 14 to 50's.
Do you offer services to post-menopausal women?
Yes, but it is restricted. When you deal with women in this age group, our medical director says you must have a large referral network because there are many related problems that we couldn't treat. We are exploring that area, but we aren't there yet.
Today all Planned Parenthoods offer birth control to unmarried women. Do you think that promotes sexual activity?
No. I don't think so. The statistics show that young women who come to us have been sexually active for 9 months to a year and they have just been darn lucky.
No one needs to promote sexual activity. It is already well promoted. Just watch a Madonna video or listen to the words of modern songs or look at ads on television. Sex is being thrown at people from all directions and they are having difficulty processing it. As a result, Planned Parenthood is dealing with the real world, while those who are opposed to us think this is a Utopian world and have their head buried in the sand. They don't understand that all this is going on and somebody better be helping these people.
Planned Parenthood has experienced controversy from its earliest time. Are you under any pressure today from some elements in the community?
We are under constant pressure. The latest move is more of an indirect approach by a group set up by Tom Hranek. They are attempting to get us defunded in whatever way they can.
They have met with United Way officials in Broome County and in Norwich in Chenango County they tried to stop our funds from the county government. They orchestrated a presentation at a public hearing and the Catholic Church was lining up petitions against us.
At this point the United Way is solid behind us because they recognize that we are a viable, necessary agency meeting three of the top ten community needs identified in a survey a few years ago.
In Norwich the Board of Supervisors has held solid, but it gets tougher each year. A few people say they don't want their tax money spent on this, but they have to realize how much we save taxpayers. As for abortion, we don't offer abortion services, so their tax dollars will not pay for abortions.
The real issue is these people don't like birth control or family planning. Their real colors are showing - just like 50 years ago.
Have you ever had any picketing here?
Once, when I was out of town. Tom Hranek and his crew wanted to picket American Express because they donate to Planned Parenthood, but there was no local office. So they used their anti-American Express signs and walked up and down in front of the office.
People didn't understand what was going on. It was very confused and rather funny.
You were raised Catholic. Have you had any problems being Catholic and Executive Director of a Planned Parenthood?
A few. I laugh and hurt at the same time. One can be Catholic and believe in choice and not have any trouble if they keep their mouth shut. But if you voice your opinion in the public arena you set yourself up to be censored or disciplined by the Church.
I'm very vocal. The job demands it and my beliefs demand it too. Consequently, I was told by my local priest, who I respect, that I can't receive the sacraments in his parish. It hasn't gone beyond that but it could if the Bishop got involved.
I've had many other offers from other ministers (and a Rabbi) to participate in their services and I miss church. But when you are a "cradle" Catholic its hard to go anywhere else.
Your agency receives Title X funds. Faye Wattleton has said if the Supreme Court rules against us, Planned Parenthood can not operate under the new rule. Where will you go for money?
The affiliates are not sure what the best approach is. Some think that if it is possible, we shouldn't just relinquish the money but make them come and get us.
Our board will be discussing this, but I remain hopeful that the ruling will be in our favor and we can continue to let doctors talk to their patients. One way or another, we will be prepared.
Tell me about the North Atlantic Region Conference you are hosting in April.
That's going to be exciting. There are about 44 affiliates in this sector and we have really promoted this conference in Binghamton. Some people don't even know how to pronounce the city where Operation Rescue was spawned, so we are using a lot of humor to get people to come. We warned them we don't have a lake (the last conference was in Burlington). We just have good down home country flavor and friendly people.
On the serious side, we want a large pro-choice presence here because we have had so much anti-choice activity. The state Right-to-Life convention was here, Joe Schiedler was here and Randy Terry has held all kinds of rescues and trainings here.
This may be the largest North Atlantic Region meeting in some time. Most of the 21 New York State affiliates will send representatives for starters. This is the first conference in New York State since I have been director. It was a big coup and I am really excited.
The conference is closed, but the pro-choice message and support of the community will be evident throughout the events.
Are you expecting any trouble?
Yes. The Knights of Columbus are having a conference here at the same time. I'm going to have my pin on. I was a proud Knight. It is an excellent fraternal organization which was set up to offer insurance to protect families.
Just recently have the Knights gotten into the political arena on the choice issue. I'm not demeaning the Knights. I enjoyed being a Knight. I'm just upset by their activities around this subject.
What is the greatest challenge you face as Executive Director?
Maintaining one's sanity! Not exactly - but there is some truth to that.
There are a lot of challenges. Keeping up with technology, expanding services, dealing with the constant pressure of rulings that reduce peoples' access to birth control, funding and constantly educating a community propagandized by the opposition.
That's why I stay with Planned Parenthood. There is nothing boring about this job. You are always center stage and on the front line, which can get wearing at times.
However, most every one you run into says what a great job the agency does. It's the longest I've ever stayed any where. Maybe I'm masochistic, but I love the job.