How Roe V. Wade Advanced Women’s Lives Beyond Reproductive Health

As the mother of triplet teenage girls, Dawn Laguens jokes that there was no way she couldn’t be working for Planned Parenthood. But she has spent her entire life fighting for social justice, from campaigning against David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan in her home state of Louisiana to working for environmental protections and same-sex marriage, gender equity, and education. Since 2010, she has served as executive vice president and chief brand officer of Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund (PPAF).

“All of my work before Planned Parenthood was about creating a world where all people are free and equal,” she says. “Planned Parenthood was founded on the belief that your body is your own, and if it’s not, you cannot be free and you cannot be equal. At its most basic level, freedom is bodily autonomy.”

At the “For the Future of Public Health” Gala on November 1, the School of Public Health will present a Beyond Health Award to Laguens on behalf of Planned Parenthood.

Ahead of the gala, Laguens discussed working to defend and advance reproductive rights during the Trump presidency, and how she learned to run “a lemonade factory.”

What are you most proud of in your work with Planned Parenthood?

I’m proud, first and foremost, of the care that we provide. In January of 2017, Paul Ryan promised that he would send the president a bill to “defund” Planned Parenthood within 30 days. That was 20 months ago.

Every day since, 8,000 people have walked through the doors of Planned Parenthood health centers across the country to get care—birth control, cancer screenings, STI testing and treatment, and safe and legal abortion—and millions more find care and information through technology, whether that’s telemedicine or our apps or our website. I’m proud that at a time when political attacks create barriers to care, we’re finding ways to leapfrog those barriers and protect access for all people.

We’re also using technology in new ways to shift the culture and create empathy for the people we serve. Along with some really great partners, we created a virtual reality experience called Across the Line, which puts viewers in the shoes of someone walking through protestors to get care. It won a bunch of awards—but even better, our initial research shows that it can actually shift people’s attitudes and make them more willing to take action.

Sexual and reproductive health should not be treated any differently than other kinds of health care. We’re working to make sure that for future generations, it isn’t.

What lessons have you learned at Planned Parenthood?

I had the great privilege of working with my friend Cecile Richards, who was president at Planned Parenthood for 12 years until she retired earlier this year. If you know of her, you know she’s a big fan of making trouble. But you may not have heard of how passionate she is about investing in the next generation. Really, for Planned Parenthood, they’re not “next”—they’re now, because so many of our patients and activists are young people. We need to invest in their leadership, and give them the tools and training they will need to fix the world. And if we’re going to continue to be there for them as a healthcare provider, we have to meet them where they are, or even get ahead of them and be waiting for them when they get where they’re going—whether that place is a new app or an underserved neighborhood that needs a health center.

I’ve also learned how to run a lemonade factory. Politically, Planned Parenthood has been given a whole lot of lemons—from then-congressman Mike Pence’s original attempt to block access to care at Planned Parenthood back when I first started, to the last election and everything that is coming from it. Every one of those fights made us stronger. We are truly unstoppable.

What do you see as the biggest threat to reproductive rights today?

There is no doubt that the shift in the Supreme Court is the biggest threat at the moment. Right now there are 14 cases about abortion one step away from the Supreme Court, and Brett Kavanaugh, if confirmed, will tip the balance of the court. He has ruled against abortion rights before, and we believe he will do so again whenever he has the opportunity.

Even when Roe v. Wade is the law of the land and abortion is a constitutional right, there are far too many people for whom abortion is simply out of reach. Some have to drive hundreds of miles to get to their nearest abortion provider because of the onerous and medically unnecessary requirements placed on those providers by politicians with an ideological agenda. Others have “waiting periods”—essentially government-mandated time-outs—and for folks who have kids or who don’t have flexible work schedules, this is a burden. Others simply can’t afford an abortion, because of the discriminatory Hyde Amendment or because their insurance doesn’t cover it. And now, the Trump administration has proposed a gag rule that would silence health care providers in the Title X program—which is the nation’s only program for affordable birth control and preventive care—from giving their patients full information about their health and options.

Our right to control our own bodies is being eroded, and Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court threatens to shatter it.

What makes you hopeful?

There are so many reasons to be hopeful. We just named a new president for Planned Parenthood, a brilliant doctor and fierce advocate for public health, Dr. Leana Wen. We have 12 million supporters, and 2 million joined just since Donald Trump was elected. More people than ever are sharing their abortion stories and talking about what reproductive health has meant in their lives—on social media, in the press, with their families, and even with their US senators! Corporations are recognizing that they must care about and stand up for gender equity just as they have for other issues. More women are running for office than ever before. Our culture is changing for the better as women demand equality in the workplace and in our public policy.

I also want to give a shout out to some of the incredible innovations happening at Planned Parenthood right down the street from BU. Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, which has a health center right on Commonwealth Avenue, also has a terrific physician at the helm of its local work: Dr. Jennifer Childs-Roshak. She’s laser-focused on building sexual and reproductive health equity across the state and expanding PPLM’s health care services to better meet community needs. For example, just this summer, PPLM began providing gender affirming hormone therapy for the transgender community.

On top of that, their advocacy arm is leading the charge to protect reproductive health and rights in Massachusetts—no matter what happens nationally. They’ve passed state legislation to defend and improve access to no-copay birth control, to repeal archaic abortion laws, and supported a coalition in passing one of the most progressive paid leave policies in the country. Now, more than ever, we need states like Massachusetts to show the rest of the country what protecting our health, our rights, and our freedoms really looks like.

—Michelle Samuels

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How Roe V. Wade Advanced Women’s Lives Beyond Reproductive Health


How Roe V. Wade Advanced Women’s Lives Beyond Reproductive Health

How Roe V. Wade Advanced Women’s Lives Beyond Reproductive Health


How Roe V. Wade Advanced Women’s Lives Beyond Reproductive Health

How Roe V. Wade Advanced Women’s Lives Beyond Reproductive Health


How Roe V. Wade Advanced Women’s Lives Beyond Reproductive Health

How Roe V. Wade Advanced Women’s Lives Beyond Reproductive Health


How Roe V. Wade Advanced Women’s Lives Beyond Reproductive Health

How Roe V. Wade Advanced Women’s Lives Beyond Reproductive Health


How Roe V. Wade Advanced Women’s Lives Beyond Reproductive Health