Staffers and volunteers are still moving tables, stocking the bar and positioning promotional materials. It's the kind of organized chaos you expect during the run-up to a celebration at the Botanical Garden in City Park, but this particular soiree is being hosted by Planned Parenthood of Louisiana. Boosters will gather here soon to toast a planned 7,000-square-foot health clinic on South Claiborne Avenue, for which $3.8 million has been raised and $4.2 million overall is needed.
The clinic won't open until late 2014 or early 2015, which leaves plenty of time to raise more cash. The pace already is picking up; roughly $1 million has been donated over the past six months. Those who manage the organization inside and outside the state express confidence the goal will be reached.
When Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America since 2006 and the daughter of former Texas Gov. Ann Richards, arrives, she's treated like the political royalty she is, at least in left-leaning Democratic terms. Hugs all around, firm handshakes, talking points from an aide, a quick photo shoot, an interview with a reporter.
From cable news talk shows to the Democratic National Convention, Richards is a political player with major creds, plus some roots in New Orleans — she lived in the city for a short spell, met her husband here and also worked with organized labor in the region.
As construction progresses and Planned Parenthood moves its operational hub from Magazine Street to South Claiborne, Richards says she'll be in the city more often to meet with supporters and help oversee the transition. "We have outgrown that facility and we need to expand our services," she says. "A lot of people in the health care community are excited that someone is coming here to expand care, especially for women who aren't otherwise able to afford it. And a lot of women here need it. That's what we do. That's what Planned Parenthood represents."
As afternoon stretches into evening, Kermit Ruffins appears across the street, leaning against a massive pickup truck while rubbing down his trumpet with a rag in anticipation of playing for the people starting to trickle in wearing cocktail attire. The folks from Planned Parenthood have spared no expense on the party.
"Kermit!" a group of young women scream before crossing the street. Ever cool, "All right, now," is all they get in return from the trumpeter.
It's early October and the otherwise serene Crescent City setting stands in stark contrast to the groundbreaking held for the planned clinic last May. That's when several hundred protestors showed up on South Claiborne, according to press reports, some with their children joining in the protest and many more holding signs that read, "More Planned Parenthood = More Abortion" and "Abortion Is Murder!"
The NOLA Needs Peace Coalition, which includes many local religious and community leaders, is leading the opposition ground game with notable names like Mary Matalin, a renowned Republican consultant; Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood director and author; and New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond, who has taken on a front-and-center role. "A Planned Parenthood abortion facility in our community will take us further away from the peaceful future New Orleans needs," Aymond said in a prepared statement. "Violence is violence, whether on our streets or in the womb."
Despite the abortion controversy, Richards insists the move to South Claiborne is strategic. The new location is near the heart of the city's medical community — many supporters see an opportunity to build a partnership with Ochsner Baptist — and the construction plan allows for future growth. But what stands out most about the new clinic for some is that it will be the first Planned Parenthood facility in Louisiana to offer abortion procedures onsite, as opposed to referring women to other clinics.
Richards says it's part of a larger trend nationally to expand services. "The decision to do that was made collectively by folks here. The Magazine center was not meeting the demand," she says. "Across the country, it amounts to a relatively small amount of the care we offer. It's less than 10 percent of the services we provide overall. We provide abortion services in addition to a host of other services."
New Orelans Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, in whose district the new facility is located, says the issue centers on those "other services." To her, it's about access to cancer screenings, contraceptives, tests for sexually transmitted diseases, counseling, prenatal care, reproductive care, breast exams and even adoption services, all of which Planned Parenthood offers — for both women and men, when applicable.
"Citywide we are leading the nation with four times the amount of chronic illnesses, heart disease and lung cancer," Cantrell says. "We are also No. 3 for HIV and AIDS. I know this facility will help us begin to address those needs and the health care disparities in the area."
Cantrell and others point to a new study released by the Center for American Progress called "The State of Women in America," which ranked Louisiana second-to-last among other states in terms of health care access for women. The study also found that only 21 percent of the publicly funded contraceptive services needed in Louisiana are being met by publicly supported providers.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services also has noted that Louisiana has the sixth-highest teen pregnancy rate in the nation — and, compared to the national average, New Orleans teens are twice as likelyto have sex before the age of 13. "In our schools we cannot give out contraceptives because it's illegal, according to state law. So we need a place where our young people can go to get real information and help," Cantrell says.
Despite those "other services" offered by Planned Parenthood, the debate always comes back to the same topic — abortion — which makes it a big deal in the Louisiana Legislature. For example, state Rep. Frank Hoffmann, R-West Monroe, has sponsored bills and resolutions over the years to dry up Planned Parenthood's funding. Even if a facility is using public money for cancer screenings, Hoffmann argues it indirectly helps Planned Parenthood deliver other services, such as abortions.
A resolution authored by Hoffmann earlier this year suggests that Planned Parenthood has a "corporate scheme for maximizing clinic profits" and advises employees how to "fraudulently bill government programs." The House passed the resolution, which asks that various state agencies make sure the organization is in compliance with all laws. Hoffman, however, was unable to provide an update on that effort. "There were a lot of red flags that merit a looking into," he says. "I'm not opposed to Planned Parenthood in particular. I'm sure they do a lot of great work. They don't provide abortions in Louisiana right now, as you know, and I wish it would stay that way."
Melissa Flournoy, Louisiana state director of Planned Parenthood, says the group didn't testify on Hoffmann's resolution this year because it "wasn't pertinent or factual."
Gene Mills, president of the Louisiana Family Forum, a Christian political advocacy group, says state lawmakers are taking a closer look at Planned Parenthood's operations in large part because the organization eventually agreed to pay $4.3 million to settle a federal civil suit — while denying any wrongdoing, according to The Wall Street Journal — for fraudulent Medicaid bills that originated at some of its Texas clinics over a seven-year span.
"That's what is prompting legislative action," Mills says. "Some of those earlier investigations on that had legislators second-guessing the group's mission."
Conservative lawmakers also tried to defund Planned Parenthood through the state budget this year, although there were no such line items in the spending bill. Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, was the organization's biggest champion in the upper chamber. "I've been a consistent advocate for women's health concerns throughout my career in public service," Peterson says. "With our critical public health care infrastructure under assault from Baton Rouge, it's important that we support Planned Parenthood's mission in New Orleans to provide women's health care to those who need it most."
Richards echoes that theme, especially as Gov. Bobby Jindal refuses to expand Medicaid programs or implement other portions of the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. She says Planned Parenthood's services are made all the more important by these decisions and are the reason why some women may see only one physician in the coming years — the one they meet in Planned Parenthood's South Claiborne Avenue facility. "There are a lot of folks who could qualify. It's perplexing to me and Louisiana certainly deserves better," Richards says. "People will end up not getting preventive care, which is bad for taxpayers. It's shortsighted. [Jindal] is putting politics ahead of health care needs in the state."
And even though Planned Parenthood is often at odds with groups like the Louisiana Family Forum, Richards says it has many faith-based partners that are proud to stand by its side. "There were clergy members at a Baton Rouge event I just attended," she says. "A lot of the clergy I get to talk to are deeply concerned about teenage pregnancies in their congregations and sex education for young people. They want the young people in their communities to have the opportunity to finish high school, get a job and be able to support a family. This is where we have enormous common ground."
On that policy front, the Legislature this year adopted a resolution from Rep. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge, to create a task force to study the effectiveness of sex ed programs in Louisiana and other states. In the past, she has tried to get sex education curriculum on the books, but groups like Family Forum and others have opposed the concept, arguing sex ed needs to happen at home instead. "That's just not happening," Smith says of the Family Forum's alternative. "Abstinence can't work by itself. Teen pregnancy has dropped across the nation, but not here, not in states with abstinence-only education."
For Cantrell and others, that's just another reason why Planned Parenthood's services are needed in New Orleans. But more than that, Cantrell says, studies and statistics show women in the Crescent City are increasingly unable to access affordable health care and are, in the long run, costing taxpayers more money. That should be a part of the abortion debate as well, she argues. "I know that not every woman or couple that comes into Planned Parenthood pregnant is going to leave with an abortion," Cantrell says. "It's about all these statistics that we keep hearing about for teen pregnancies and cancer and STDs. The numbers for all of these are very real. They can't be ignored."
Something else that cannot be ignored is the determination of abortion foes to continue their opposition to Planned Parenthood's new facility. The debate — and the protests — will probably continue long after the organization has wrapped up fundraising efforts and officially opened the new clinic.