The first thing that greets you when you step off the elevator at the Planned Parenthood in Brooklyn is a metal detector. "I didn’t necessarily expect it," a first-time patient told me. "But as soon as I saw it I was like, 'Oh yeah, that’s right, that makes sense.'"
Many Planned Parenthood clinics across the country rely on security measures like these. The services provided by these clinics—specifically, abortions—have long been at the center of a raging political debate in the U.S. But it's not very often that we hear from the people who rely on these clinics for health care.
Over a number of days this past winter and spring, we collected interviews at the Planned Parenthood clinic in downtown Brooklyn. Patients volunteered to talk with us while they were waiting for their appointments. They were there for STD tests, pap smears, birth control prescriptions—no one seeking an abortion talked with me on the days we were there. But for many of the people I met, abortion was an important part of their history with Planned Parenthood.
"Here it was just very reassuring," a patient named Sarah, who was at the clinic for her annual exam, told me about her abortion three years ago at Planned Parenthood. "No one wants to do it, but life, you know, happens."
We also talked with some of the abortion protesters who stand outside the clinic every Saturday, rain or shine. And I interviewed several staff members and volunteers at Planned Parenthood—like Rhea, who greets patients as they walk in the door downstairs. "If you’re wondering if this is the right choice and you’re there and you’ve made the appointment and you’ve been thinking and you’re like, crossing the line...somebody being a jerk to you could totally just melt you down," she told me. "Or, somebody with a smile and somebody who holds your hand, could just make you feel calm and make you feel good. At a time where maybe you don’t feel good."
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Jihan Perez: Usually when you press the number six on the elevator, you get like the side-eye from people. Like, Planned Parenthood equals abortion, baby killers, like, I don’t know what people think goes on in here.
This is Death, Sex, and Money.
The show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot...
...and need to talk about more.
I'm Anna Sale.
The clinic’s in a nondescript, old office building in downtown Brooklyn. Next to a drugstore. A Starbucks is across the street.
You enter a dusty lobby, go up six floors in a small elevator...and arrive at the Brooklyn Planned Parenthood clinic.
There's the, almost like the airport security that you have to walk through.
This man is here for an STD test, after a partner tested positive for chlamydia. He asked us not to use his name.
Put your metal objects and anything in your pockets in the tray and then walk through. I didn't necessarily expect it, but as soon as I saw it I was like, "Oh yeah that's right, that makes sense."
Particularly after a gunman entered a Planned Parenthood in Colorado last year. He killed three people, and injured several more. After security, the waiting room in Brooklyn looks like a typical doctor’s office. Depending on the time of day, the lobby’s chairs can get packed with patients.
You know, I think I might be the oldest person in that room.
AS: And how old are you, if you don’t mind -
52. And still sexually active. Thank you.
AS: Yeah! You should... (laughs)
Yeah. And still making dumb mistakes. That’s probably the worst part of it.
Over a number of days this winter and spring, we collected interviews at this Planned Parenthood clinic in Brooklyn. It’s one of five in New York City, and one of more than 600 clinics nationwide.
What happens inside Planned Parenthood clinics has long been at the center of a raging political debate in the US. And recently, the scrutiny has been particularly fierce. Federal funding for Planned Parenthood has nearly caused two government shutdowns. And about a dozen states have cut Medicaid funding for Planned Parenthood in the past year.
But for as loud as the debate about Planned Parenthood has gotten, we don’t often hear from patients who use their services. So we wanted to collect some of their stories. I interviewed people who volunteered to talk with me while they waited for their appointments at this Brooklyn clinic. I talked to some staff members too.
The patients came in for a number of reasons—STD checks, annual exams, birth control pills. No one was seeking an abortion on the day I talked to them. But for the people I met, abortion was often an important part of their history with Planned Parenthood.
Treasure: I’ve been coming here basically my whole adult sexual life, since I was 16 and now I’m 38.
This patient asked for me to call her Treasure—she also didn’t want to use her real name. She was here for a Pap smear and a check-up.
Treasure grew up in Brooklyn. She still leaves here. Her mom had her when she was 15, and her dad was incarcerated when she was growing up. Treasure says Planned Parenthood is where she learned about sex.
AS: Why did you first come here when you were 16?
T: Everybody was just talking about sex or whatever, and my mother used to talk about sex too but she’d be like, “Oh you gotta get yourself checked out! You don’t want to be having sex! You don’t know what’s wrong with you. These people is dirty.” And I didn’t know what she really mean by that, you know, “People is dirty.” So I just came here. And, you know, they explained sex to me. There’s diseases. And the outbreaks. You know, just to be careful. Use condoms. Use birth control. Everybody’s so nice. They answer—no matter what question it is, you may think it’s dumb, no question is too dumb and too silly.
AS: Were you sexually active when you first came here at 16?
T: Yeah, I’m not gonna lie. I was having sex. One boyfriend and that’s it! (Laughs)
AS: Have you ever been pregnant?
T: Yes, I have. Yes, I have.
AS: Do you have kids or did you choose not to have kids?
T: No, I don't have any kids. I always chose abortion. I always chose abortion cause I always felt I wasn’t ready. I never really had a stable partner 'til now. It’s just hard to have kids in New York and you a single woman.
AS: And how old were you when you had your first abortion?
T: I think I was 19. To this day I still think about the kids I abort. And it hurts me but I knew I wasn’t in a place to take care of them.
Through her mid-20s, Treasure didn’t regularly use contraception. After her first abortion at Planned Parenthood, Treasure had a second abortion, then a third and a fourth. One in a hospital, and two at another women's health clinic.
T: When you’re young sometimes - like they say, “Young, dumb, full of cum.” So you’re just like, “Oh my god, it’s not going to happen to me!” I didn’t use condoms. I was having all these abortions. I started, like, losing a piece of me. And I didn’t want that to happen. I didn't want to keep having abortions. I didn’t want to keep just killing babies. I felt like that's not, it's not, we're not gonna do this.
And that's when I really got grounded with Planned Parenthood. Because I said you know, “Please help me. I’m having all these abortions. And I don’t want to keep having them, you know?” And that’s when a counselor spoke to me. And she was like, “You know what? We have different things." So that's when I started trying the Depo, and that’s when I started just coming in every three months. Getting my shots done. And it was like - it was cool. It was cool, you know. I felt like I was on the right track with handling my life. Like, I want to have a kid when I’m ready.
AS: Are you on contraception now?
T: No, I’m not.
AS: And are you trying to have a kid? Are you trying to get pregnant?
T: Right now I’m finally trying to have a kid. Finally. Finally! Congratulations to me. I’m finally trying to have a kid. Finally after all these years, I feel like I’m in a place, you know? I finished school. I have a nice job. I feel like I can take care. I’m not going to be the best parent. I’m not rich! But I’m going to make sure they eat and (laughs), and have a roof over their head. And give them lots and lots of love.
AS: What are the hard days like for you?
Helene Gross: The hard days are I guess if I see patients that really seem to be stuck in their lives and making unfortunate decisions for themselves and they’re unhappy.
AS: What do you mean by that?
HG: Well, women who keep having a lot of unwanted pregnancies and, um, seem to not really think ahead about protecting themselves from it. Or maybe they’re in relationships with men who might even force them to do things but the patient isn’t telling me those things.
Helene Grosse is a midwife and nurse practitioner at this Planned Parenthood clinic. She graduated high school in 1973, the same year as Roe v. Wade. She’s worked here for more than ten years.
AS: Have you been a patient at Planned Parenthood?
HG: I haven’t been a patient at Planned Parenthood. But I have terminated a pregnancy a long time ago. And I have no regrets.
AS: Do you feel comfortable telling me about that?
HG: Sure. It was in the mid-'80s. And I remember feeling nauseous when Live Aid was on. I actually remember when I got the results of the pregnancy test because it felt like somebody slapped me in the face. I was just so shocked because I just – I think because I had never been pregnant before and it just sort of didn’t seem possible. And I just knew I didn’t want children. I went to my regular gynecologist and I had the termination there.
AS: How do you remember feeling afterward?
HG: Relieved. Relieved and tired.
AS: Do you tell your patients that you’ve had an abortion?
HG: Sometimes I do when it seems to fit the situation. I guess especially if I feel like I want them to know that I’m not judging them.
Over and over again, patients told me that coming to this clinic feels different than other doctor’s offices. More comfortable, less judgmental. But still, when you walk through the door...
Sarah: Everyone turns and looks at you, which is fine, but you know people are like, "What are you in for?"
I met Sarah at this clinic as she waited for her appointment for an annual exam.
S: Everyone’s like, are you knocked up?
AS: Have you ever been pregnant?
S: I have, yeah.
AS: Do you have any children?
Sarah is 32, and she told me she’s had two abortions. Her second was three years ago at Planned Parenthood. Her first was at another clinic in New York.
S:The other place I went to was...not fun. I mean, it's not fun anyway, but it was way worse than being at Planned Parenthood.
AS: What was different?
S: Um, it was the staff. And the price. They charged me a lot more at the other one.
Sarah remembers paying several hundred dollars for her abortion at the other clinic. She had insurance that helped her cover her second one at Planned Parenthood. She says in addition to the better price… she also remembers a different feeling.
S: Here it was just very reassuring. And also I kind of bonded with the other people in the waiting room. It was this one young girl and an older lady that was married that had children. She just, you know - it's all different kinds of people. And she was really nervous. And I think I was like - I tried to calm her down. 'Cause this was the second time for me. And I was like, "It's fine, it'll be over before you know it. Like, it's terrible and it's painful and you'll have, you know, lots of different emotions about it. But it'll be over in a - you'll be fine. You'll be okay. And you'll get through it and you'll survive. I've done it and a lot of other people have done it." So.
AS: I love that idea, of like a little conversation in a waiting room that's about something so deep and personal.
S: Yeah, yeah. And no, we had - we all - I saw them later as I was leaving and I don't know if we high-fived or hugged or something. We were like, "We can do this," so.
Coming up, I hear about the protesters who gather outside this clinic regularly.
Mary: I’m here because we are praying against the killing of babies.
And I hear about the Planned Parenthood volunteers who stand right beside them to greet patients.
As we were doing these interviews at Planned Parenthood, we heard from a listener with another abortion story. Josh in Brooklyn sent in this voice memo when we asked for stories about near death experiences.
J: My mom sat me down and decided that it was time that I know that while she was pregnant with me, I was very, very close to being aborted. I was 30 minutes away, my mom was 30 minutes away from going to the clinic for the appointment that she had. She was 19 at the time, she was in her first year away at college, she met my dad. They got pregnant, they weren’t married, and her parents were very insistent that the best thing for her do to was to have an abortion.
But Josh’s mom decided, right before the appointment, that she didn’t think abortion was the best thing for her. And when Josh was an adult, she felt like she needed to tell him.
J: And in that moment, I’m 22, 23 years old, hearing this, and it was a very humbling thing to hear, to know that I’d lived all these years not knowing that they almost didn’t happen. That I had no control over my life.
Josh’s story came into our email inbox, at email@example.com. That's also where many of you sent messages for the woman we called Susanne. After our recent update with her, we received almost 100 notes that we forwarded on to her. Some were personal stories about addiction and leaving abusive relationships. Others were just notes of encouragement and care. Susanne responded, and said that reading them made her feel better. She wrote, “It’s hard to be in a situation like this and feel like you deserve care or concern.” So thank you so much to all of you who took the time to write in.
On the next episode, Tituss Burgess. The actor plays a character of the same name on The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. And he tells me about coming out to his mom as a college freshman…and about what their relationship looks like now.
TB: Having me as a son has caused all sorts of augmentations in her.
AS: An augmentation. You mean, you’ve complicated the way she sees life?
TB: I have challenged the way she sees life. I don’t want to say "complicated."
This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I'm Anna Sale.
The abortion rate in the United States is declining. Still, about 30 percent of American women will have an abortion by the time they’re 45 years old, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
But the stigma surrounding abortion is very real. A recent study of women who’d had abortions found that more than half felt like they needed to keep it a secret from close friends and family. And a third said they were concerned about what other people thought about their decision to have an abortion.
AS: Um, can I have you introduce yourself? Tell me your first and last name?
Shani Fintoni: Sure! My first name's Shani...
Shani Fintoni came into this Planned Parenthood clinic to get a lump in her breast checked out. She says she felt the stigma surrounding abortion 13 years ago. She was 28, she’d recently broken up with her boyfriend, and she found out she was pregnant.
SF: Um, well I was coming out of a long-term relationship. You know how you do those three months of, “We’ll still keep sleeping together to make the pain less.” No? And then it happened then.
After her positive pregnancy test, Shani went to her regular gynecologist in Manhattan to get an abortion.
SF: I had to sit in a waiting room with expectant moms. Visibly pregnant. Wanting to be pregnant. Big giant engagement rings. Love moms! I have four godchildren. Children are fantastic. But there's just that thing that there’s something slightly, “What’s...." Either, “What’s wrong with you?” or “You’re definitely different from me.” And it’s not - it’s not the funnest.
AS: When you told the doctor you wanted to terminate your pregnancy, do you remember using the word "abortion"?
SF: I don’t think anybody used the word "abortion." No. Nobody used it. It was so bizarre. The whole thing was just bizarre. It was like, no—I don’t have plans of continuing this pregnancy. 'Cause that’s basically how he posed the question: "So what’s the - you know, should we set you up for a follow-up appointment, three months, duh duh duh, prenatal meds," and I was like, “Woah, woah, woah. No.” And um, no, no one used the word "abortion" at all.
AS: When you think back on that time when you were 28 and choosing to get an abortion, how do you think about it now?
SF: I'm happy - I'm happy and just grateful that it was an option for me. Um, you do the math, for a while. To check in, I think. I think, you know, check in, make sure you’re not a bad person. Like, emotional cutting would be the term. The date was a date for me for a while, for sure. And then I was fine until probably around like 36, 37, definitely 38. You know, you’ve now reached the age where this decision’s real. You’ve made plans to not have children. But I never regretted having the abortion. The only thing that I would cry about after, later in those years, was at thinking I was never going to find a man that would be okay with the fact that I didn’t want to have children. Or that you find a man at 38, cause they say that statistically that’s impossible.
Shani’s 41 now, and she got married just over a year ago. She and her husband are both peace with not having kids. In fact, Shani’s last appointment at Planned Parenthood before the visit where I met her was to get an IUD.
There are plenty of mothers who come to Planned Parenthood. Jihan Perez is one of them.
JP: I have three girls.
AS: How old are they?
JP: Ten, twelve, six.
Jihan comes to this clinic every three months for her Depo shot. She told me for her, birth control should be called uterus control. She has endometriosis, and being on birth control helps ease the symptoms.
JP: I get really painful cramps and I just can’t deal with that. Like, my world shuts down. Like, I don’t eat, I don’t drink, I don’t get off the bed. Unless it’s to go change, like, a soaked pad or something. Like, I don’t—it’s—yeah, it immobilizes you, so. Yeah, I couldn’t do that anymore.
AS: Have you had your shot yet today?
JP: Not as yet.
AS: And how do you pay for it?
JP: Um, well, fortunately, I don’t make enough money, so I fit into the sliding scale and I have insur- um, Medicaid and it helps me out, so yeah.
AS: And then do you have to pay some cash?
JP: I don’t.
AS: It’s all covered?
AS: Has it always been that way when you’be been getting shots?
JP: Um, no. At one point I was paying for it, when I was working full-time. But now that I’m back in school, yeah. I’m a student. I’m poor.
Half of all Planned Parenthood patients are on Medicaid, like Jihan. According to its annual report, Planned Parenthood received more than 500 million dollars in federal and state money last year, from Medicaid and family planning grants.
Jihan started getting Depo shots after her third daughter was born. Reliable contraception is an added benefit.
JP: I actually got pregnant because I was irresponsible with the pills. So, yeah.
AS: Did you have a moment where you thought, “Do I wanna have this kid?”
JP: I did. I did. I had a lot of moments like that. And I don’t ag- I don’t—I don’t touch the abortion topic too much because I went to Catholic school. But I don’t believe everything I read, either, so. I think it’s a personal decision, so.
AS: And for you it felt right to become a mom.
JP: Yeah, I had to do it.
At this clinic in Brooklyn, there are regular protesters who oppose abortion. They gather at least once a week, usually on Saturdays, beside the building’s entrance on the street.
Mary: We are here to pray. We’re not here to persecute anyone, we’re not here to cast any blame or any judgments, we’re just here to pray.
This protester, named Mary, is a middle-aged Catholic woman from Brooklyn. On the day met her, she stood alongside two men. They all held rosary beads. Mary said they recite prayers like the Our Father and Hail Mary as women walk into the clinic.
M: 90 to 95 percent of the women I see go into this clinic are African American and I think that’s a genocide. I was talking to one black woman who told me, she was in her 40s, she said she and every one of her friends has had an abortion. That to me is a tragedy. That’s a major major tragedy. How many people have we lost because of that?
Stationed right beside Mary and her fellow protesters were two Planned Parenthood volunteers wearing pink vests. They welcomed patients walking into the building.
Rhea: We are glorified door greeters. We stand outside of the clinic, open door, smile a lot as people come in.
I talked with one of these volunteers. Her name is Rhea.
RB: This particular group is not—they’re better than other protesters. I mean, I had—there was a guy who used to yell sort of racist things. As people were coming in the clinic.
AS: Like what?
RB: "Don’t let them take your black baby."
AS: And if someone is, if someone is walking up to the building, appears flustered, upset, by seeing or hearing the protesters, what do you do?
RB: Usually they're confused. I get a lot of confused looks like, "What's going on?" Like the squint like, "Huh, what's going on?" - and we just smile at them. We smile and we say, "Oh", you know, "Welcome, come on in", we grab the door for them. I think usually just that initial smile breaks whatever discomfort they're feeling, but I know that sense of discomfort. I've had that personally coming into the clinic for myself.
AS: Have you ever had an abortion?
RB: I have. At Planned Parenthood.
AS: Do you want to tell me about it?
RB: Well, I'm happy that I did it. I would’ve not -- I don’t -- I don’t have kids. I wouldn’t -- I don’t really -- I don’t really tell anyone, ever.
AS: Why not?
RB: I don’t know. I should. Because that’s stupid. It’s really dumb. One in three women have an abortion. And for all the time that I’ve been involved in Planned Parenthood I never really talk about it.
AS: It feels private.
RB: It is private. I mean, it's not like I had a root canal. But I don't know - mostly - I mean honestly, mostly because, mostly because people make you feel bad about it. Like you're a bad person. They make you feel like you did something wrong. Mostly, I mean, really the driving reason was because I don’t—I did not want to be a single mom. Um, my mom is a single mom and she gave up everything for me. She left me in Trinidad as an infant. She was a nanny for twins for some other—for another family while she left her child. She came back, she was able to bring me over. You know, that was really hard. I see how hard my mom worked. Like, she sent me to private school for my whole life. I know that it took a lot out of her. I don’t think that I could have done that as a single parent. Like, I would not have been able to do that.
AS: Yeah, and you had a very—you had observed the reality of what it is to raise a kid on your own. Very up close.
RB: Yeah, for sure.
AS: Do you remember an interaction with anyone at the clinic when you had your abortion that sticks out?
RB: The truth is is that if you go and you’re making a big decision in your life and you’re in your head and you’re thinking about different things and you’re wondering if this is the right choice and you’re there and you’ve made the appointment and you’ve been thinking and now you’re like, crossing the line.... Somebody being a jerk to you could totally just melt you down. Just—just tear you down and make you feel awful. Or, somebody with a smile and somebody who holds your hand, because I know that someone held my hand, because I do remember that. Could just make you feel calm and make you feel good. At a time where maybe you don’t feel good.
That’s a Planned Parenthood volunteer and patient in Brooklyn named Rhea.
Since I visited the clinic, Shani Fintoni has gotten good news about the lump in her breast—it looks to be a benign cyst, but the doctors where she was referred are still watching closely. The man in the waiting room got a clean STD test back. "I'm glad that I got myself checked out and even happier with the results," he wrote me in an email later. And Treasure says she and her partner are still trying, but she’s not pregnant yet.
Death, Sex & Money is a listener-supported production of WNYC Studios. The team includes Katie Bishop, Chester Jesus Soria, Emily Botein, Cayce Means and Andrew Dunn. Our interns are Carson Frame and Brandy Gonzalez.
And special thanks to Destry Sibley and Anna Hyatt for their help on this episode.
I’m on Twitter @annasale, the show is @deathsexmoney.
And at the end of a long day at the clinic, we did one last interview with Dina, a nurse practitioner. She'd had a packed schedule of patients, but still made time for herself.
D: I actually had my IUD inserted today.
D: Yeah. So I, um, the plan was always to do it at the end of the day, but of course lunch was when we had all this time, so everyone’s like, "You’re still here? I guess you’re - and you’re doing okay?" And I’m like, "Yeah, I’m fine, I’m kind of like hyper-aware of my uterus but otherwise I’m fine."
I’m Anna Sale, and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.