Janet was the founder and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Central North Carolina and the Planned Parenthood of Central North Carolina Action Fund, a 501(c)4 organization engaged in political work in the state. She retired from Planned Parenthood in 2016.
Janet currently serves on the Board of Democracy North Carolina. In 2013, Rewire News named her one of the Top Pro-Choice Heroes of 2013 for her part in North Carolina’s Moral Monday Movement. She has a B.A. in anthropology from Duke University and an M.S. in public health from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
What did you think the first time you heard about abortion?
Even though I spent more than 30 years working for Planned Parenthood, I was not born supporting the idea that women should be able to make their own intensely personal decisions about motherhood. However, I was born with a strong sense of fairness.
The first time I ever heard about abortion was about 1960. I overheard my mother talking about a neighbor who had been exposed to German measles when she was pregnant. I wasn’t quite sure how women got pregnant, but I did know that German measles in pregnancy could cause all kinds of problems. Luckily, she knew someone who worked at a hospital in Washington, DC and was able to find two physicians who would testify that she needed the abortion for her own health.
That was the first time I ever heard about abortion. It seemed right under the circumstances, but what I really remember was thinking that it was really not fair that it depended on who you knew.
Shortly after that, the country was rocked with the story of Miss Sherri, of Romper Room. Some of you may remember Romper Room – it was the Baby Boomer version of Sesame Street. Sherri Finkbine was kind of like Bert or Ernie, except she was a real woman and the show was in black and white.
Miss Sherri unwittingly took thalidomide for her morning sickness when she was pregnant with her fifth child. When she found out that the pills she had been taking caused severe birth defects, Sherri decided to seek an abortion. She ended up having to go to Sweden for the procedure and losing her job.
I was 9 at the time – and began to understand that even people who love children, maybe especially people who love children, could make the decision to end a pregnancy. I wondered whether it was fair that she lost her job. I knew it was not fair that she had to leave the country. And it seemed completely wrong that such a personal decision was splashed across the newspapers.
I was in high school in the late 1960’s. One friend got pregnant and had to drop out of school. Another one got married under mysterious circumstances. Every day on my way to the bus stop I walked by a home for unwed mothers. I called Planned Parenthood and was told I couldn’t get birth control without one of my parents agreeing. The women’s movement was making news and the abortion debate was beginning in earnest.
I was ambivalent, but it made sense to me that there would always be women who sought abortion – and I agreed that abortion should be safe and legal. But, I thought that I would never have one.
About ten years after Miss Sherri’s decision, my ambivalence changed. My story didn’t involve German measles or thalidomide. It involved Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. Believe it or not, I had only one beer. (A friend told me once that I was not a “cheap drunk.” He said I was a “free drunk.”) It was the first time I had sex without using birth control. It was the last time I trusted my body to a man who said, “Don’t worry. I’ll be careful.”
I was lucky. Roe v Wade had been decided only months earlier. I was living in North Carolina and drove to Richmond for my abortion. And to this day, I don’t drink PBR.
Not everyone who has an abortion struggles with the decision, but I did. It was hard. Today I am 66 and I can say that, yes, it was one of the hardest decisions I’ve made. It was also one of the best. And I can truthfully say that I have never regretted it.
Instead, like almost every woman who has an abortion I was overwhelmingly relieved afterwards.
I also felt strong. It was the first time in my life that I made a decision that could not be unmade and that would determine the path of my life. I felt a sense of what sociologists call “agency.”
Agency is the capacity of people to act independently and to make our own free choices.
I think agency is what makes us human. And for women, taking control of our reproductive lives is an act of agency, if not downright revolution.
Years later, as CEO of a Planned Parenthood affiliate here in North Carolina, I was proud when we made the decision to become an abortion provider. It was a privilege to share my experience of being able to control my life with thousands of other women – including those who made the decision not to have an abortion but to become mothers. It’s not the abortion that gives you agency, it’s the decision.
In the face of increasing restrictions on abortion, including here in my beloved state, I want to honor all the women I’ve known who have taken control of their lives with the decisions they’ve made – including my neighbor, and Miss Sherri, and all of you reading this who have done the same.