An exit interview with Sue Idtensohn of Planned Parenthood of Greater Orlando 

Idtensohn talks contraception, empowerment and retirement amid the current political attacks on reproductive rights

click to enlarge ROB BARTLETT
  • Rob Bartlett

Sir, we've got a person here that lives in the neighborhood that cuts the heads off babies,” a religious protester says to a passing car. It's July 19, 2011, and he's picketing outside the Titusville home of Sue Idtensohn, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Greater Orlando. In between half-hearted, tuneless songs about the gospel of Jesus, the waving of poster-board images of dismembered fetuses and accusations ranging from profiteering to infanticide (how else could she afford such a nice home?), Idtensohn remains stoic. By now, she's grown accustomed to preaching peanut galleries outside her home and her office, Planned Parenthood's main Orlando clinic on Tampa Avenue. But she's always taken it in stride, facing down the Bible-bearing critics with the same aplomb she faces down the legislators that encourage them.

“All of the noise around me, I've probably gotten a little hardened to it,” she says over a glass of wine at White Wolf Café. “I made the decision a long time ago that if someone was going to do harm to me, they were going to do harm to me.”

But neither Idtensohn nor Planned Parenthood's two local offices have had much harm done to them, despite the fact that some of her clinicians include bulletproof vests in their work uniforms. Since 1998, Idtensohn has led PPGO from a fledgling organization of almost secretive advocacy to a thriving resource for women's health serving 26,000 men and women with basic health care annually.

In January, on the 39th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, Idtensohn, now 66, announced that she would be retiring from her post; her last day is March 29. The timing couldn't be more surreal. The last year has seen attempts by Republicans to shut down the federal government over Planned Parenthood funding, a huge public-relations disaster when the Komen for the Cure Foundation threatened to pull its funding for breast cancer screenings from the organization and unprecedented – even obscene – political forays into wedge issues of contraception and vaginal intrusion. All of a sudden, women – who make up 51 percent of the electorate – are the punching bags of the moment. And this is when Idtensohn decides to walk away?

She says, with some authority, that this is the perfect time, the time for a new generation of activists, leaders and practitioners to step up and defend the rights of women. She's done her job, and now other women – women like her replacement, 28-year-old Jenna Tosh – need to carry the torch.

“I love that I grabbed an organization like Planned Parenthood here in its infancy, and now it's at its adolescence,” she laughs. “Here you go. Here are the keys to the car. I can't think of a better scenario.”

Orlando Weekly : We've talked a lot over the years, and what never fails to surprise me is how you've been put in a position of both running a clinic and looking out for your life and the lives of your staff. Does that happen in any other medical field?

Sue Idtensohn: I challenge anyone [to] tell me what other organization faces the challenges that we face, and it's clearly around women, clearly around women's issues. I don't know any other legislation that's ever been talked about forcing a doctor to show a man what his prostate looks like on a sonogram machine. I don't know any other doctor. There are not people protesting in front of HIV clinics, not people protesting in front of STD clinics. They're protesting in front of Planned Parenthood. Everything we do is all about prevention. We're trying to prevent unintended pregnancies, we're trying to prevent abortions, we're trying to make sure that everybody is healthy. I have always been appalled that someone can come and tell me what I can or cannot do, within reason. Particularly when they come and tell me what I can or cannot do when it comes to my body. They're going to tell me what kind of life I can live, the decisions I'm going to make? I am absolutely determined to tell them that they're not going to get away with it.

To what extent has that constant pressure influenced the last 14 years of your life?

I think you have to put it in the context of your family as well. It's very stressful personally, but I have to make sure that I modulate that stress, so I don't carry it over to my relationships, I don't carry it over to my staff, because I have 35 people that work for me over at that clinic. And if I want to make sure that there's a sane head running this organization, that I put this life into perspective, that you stand up for your principles, that you stand up for your beliefs. I'm one of those people who will stand up for those beliefs, but there are other people who feel as strongly as I do that won't stand on a corner with a sign saying “Support Planned Parenthood.” I do. And I think that has to do with how you view your job and how you view your life. I've always said, ‘I hope that someone knew that I was here.'

The sense of being forthright when you're right, that's got to mean something.

It's very emboldening to me, because I do know that we're right. We're standing on the side of the majority of Americans who feel very strongly about it. Planned Parenthood has an approval rating of 68 percent. Congress has an approval rating of what? I'm supposed to be worried about Congress? The problem we find with confrontational people, and also media people to an extent, is that they like to inflame the topic.

But that inflammation has worked, at least to some degree, in your favor. The Facebook response alone to the Komen decision earlier this year sparked a firestorm. Also, how else would we have heard about holding an aspirin in between your knees as the preferred old-man means of contraception? Women are angry.

They're doing that in a sense anonymously through the social networks, because one out of every three women in this country have had an abortion, and we have asked them to speak up, but in the past most of that was confidential. Now that there's an outlet for women to go ahead and speak up about it, I think it's an incredible development. I think that as Americans we have always wanted to do that. But we've been tamped down by whatever confines we live in, whether it's religious or political. I think it's a terrific move. And I think it's another reason that Planned Parenthood needs to have young people, needs to have young men and young women involved, because they're really going to be setting whatever the charter is for reproductive health, for gay rights, for the environment, for all of the things they're going to be living with for the rest of their years.

What's your take on how a woman's reproductive freedom grew into the political monster it is at the moment?

I think it happened in 2010 when we had this group of people come into elected office, and they came in with specific guidelines about what they wanted to do. Not necessarily what their constituents wanted them to do, but if you remember correctly, they were riding on this wave; the Tea Party came in, banks were being bailed out, the government's spending too much money, unemployment is too high, ‘I'm losing my home.' But coupled with that was kind of this undercurrent of social issues. They always bring up abortion. They always bring up gay rights. Also, the last couple of months, we've had this whole debate on contraception. It's such a silly debate, because it's women's health care. It cuts across all religious barriers, it cuts across all ethnic barriers. They bring it forward, I think, because they can't fix the economy; they can't go ahead and rewrite the tax code so it makes sense; they can't do anything right now about trying to get the housing market back on some kind of even keel. I certainly think they are very upset that there's a Democrat in the White House and they are certainly upset that there's a black man who is president. I think gay rights issues have done very well – there have been a number of states that have passed gay marriage – but when it comes to women's issues, I think they feel like they can get away with it.

To me, I think the complacency we've seen in the younger generation about birth control has been directly challenged. It's been replaced by a digital riot. People want to be involved now.

For example, we had an escort training last week and we had 40 people sign up. A couple weeks prior to that, we had 30 show up. What that means is they're being trained to escort clients into Planned Parenthood. Young men, young women, old men, old women: It was awesome. They said, ‘I am so upset about the attacks. You guys have always been respectful of everyone else's opinion. You have not been out bashing people over the head with signs. You have been quietly competent and intelligent about how you're going about doing your business.'

Do you think that waning so-called radical feminism has allowed this latest round of scrutiny and attacks to sneak its way back in? I mean, if women just climb back into the reproductive closet, don't you just end up with a board of five religious men telling Congress how they think women should be treated? Do you think, in essence, that there's been a correction?

I do. I can see it a lot out at University of Central Florida. At our last event there, many of the people there were men. It's very interesting to me. When you talk to any of those women who are involved in our movement, they're really not into labels so much. They're into the fact that they feel they have the right to determine what happens to them, the right to determine who they want to hang out with, what kind of movements they want to support. It's very difficult to talk to a young woman and say, ‘Listen, abortion may be overturned,' because Roe is 39 years old. None of those women have ever been without the option of having a choice. I think what we did when we grew up, we kind of labeled people, or the media labeled us. They labeled us the feminists or feminazis, and I think they did that because they didn't know how to talk of us any differently. But now we are so part of the fabric of the country.

I think what's happened in a good way is that women are much more of a part of the bylaws of this country. I love to go every year to Olympia High School and I talk about the ethics of abortion, and they bring in a priest as well. But when I look out at that group, I am just so thrilled that they're all from everywhere. Some of them may be WASP conservatives, but if you ask the question if they would be upset if one of their black friends were discriminated against at a restaurant, they all raise their hands. That is progress. When I ask, ‘Would you be upset if your girlfriend got into a university and you didn't; you got into a community college?' They say no, they don't think so. I mean, you couldn't even ask those questions 15 years ago. What happens with real movements is they become part of the fabric.

But then you have what we're experiencing now. Even I, in my wildest conspiracy theories, would never have imagined we'd be talking about birth control as a variable in 2012, and transvaginal ultrasounds. And it's men, many of whom don't know the organs about which they are talking.

It's the same for women. We don't live in your male bodies. We have to make sure that people know that women are the only group that is being intruded upon for medical decisions. You know, who else is? It's a medical issue. The pill is over 50 years old. It's been studied. But because it is wrapped around the culture of the '60s and free love, and for the first time women were able to take a product that would not tie them to having families of eight or 10 kids. For the first time ever, women had an opportunity to do what they always wanted to do, their mothers wanted to do, their grandmothers wanted to do. Now we're living in a time when we're able to do that with this terrific product. And now we're talking about that 50 years later. And it's because we have legislators who are men and that are talking about this stuff, because they want women to get back in the kitchen. It's an attack again on the way that we're living our lives.

It sounds like an attack on evolution.

I don't know why they're so tone deaf to that. Again, I think women are not represented enough. They've been arguing about contraception, they've been arguing about tampons. Again, I think it's because it's about women, and they think we're going to put up with this. As I said before about the young women, I think what we've done as older women is when we've come in contact with them, we've told them, ‘You have a voice. Don't ever let anyone tell you that you don't.' And so that voice is being expressed. It also gets back to the fact that we have to do a better job electing people who represent our voices, because regardless of how you feel about an issue, they're going to forever make legislative rules that are going to affect us for a very long time.

When you came into your position in Orlando in 1998 following an economic development stint with the Gov. Lawton Chiles administration (1992-1996), what did you see?

I found the job out of the newspaper. It was right after I stopped working for Chiles and Jeb Bush had come in. I had worked for Johnson & Johnson, it was my first job ever, and I was the first woman that they hired. I was the first woman who was selling birth control pills in this country. I was absolutely appalled – I've always been appalled, since I was born, about a lot of things; I've spent most of my adult life appalled – I thought wait a minute, why can't they have access to the pill so that they can control their lives. So when I saw this job as the director of Planned Parenthood, that was almost a full circle for me. Because I worked in Asia, I ran an institute in Singapore, I've done a lot of things. I kind of think of myself as a renaissance woman, because I've always thought that you have a limited amount of time, and you need to go for it. So when I interviewed for the job with the board at the time, I said, ‘My resume is very unusual, I've done a lot things. But I really believe that women have not been represented appropriately in this area and I think Planned Parenthood needs to have a presence.'

Was there resistance?

I think there was resistance because they didn't know what they were getting. I said to them, ‘If you want someone who is going to be a force in this community and talk about women's health and make it an important discussion and grow this facility, then you need to hire me. If you don't want to do that, please don't hire me. If you want me to just stay on West Colonial Drive in a little 2,000-square-foot cinder-block house and hand out brochures, please don't hire me. It's an injustice to you and an injustice to me.' They hired me. So I said OK, and I kind of dragged them and changed the board a couple of times. I said, ‘Hey, this is very important and we need to be proud of it.' At the time, this Planned Parenthood was the youngest in the whole federation. Planned Parenthood's 95 years old. There are affiliates around the country that have a long history. They have large endowments left to them. We just don't have that here yet. We will have it, because we've really established our footprint in this community. I tell people all the time that I am not confrontational, but I am very determined. You want to hook up with me, we're going to get stuff done. It is about representing women and families in the community; it's not about me.

So is right now the lowest of lows or the highest of highs for you? Or is it somewhere in between?

It's kind of somewhere in between. I am very proud of what we have done in this community, my staff, the board and me. It is very unusual that a nonprofit after 15 years is thriving and growing every year and being asked to contribute and be partners with other people and groups in the community. It's a hard slog, because Orlando is not a philanthropic community, it doesn't have a broad base of companies that are headquartered here. The two largest employers are headquartered out of California. Most of my donations come from 90 percent individuals that want to help us and make sure that we're here. I think with Jenna Tosh coming on, it's just a terrific transition. I couldn't be happier.

What else has changed since you started?

Women are being personally attacked now. And they're being told what they can and cannot do. That's new within the past five years. People who stand outside my clinic and people who picket my home are absolutely on one track, and that track is to outlaw abortion. It's also about controlling women. There's a segment of this population that thinks we've gotten out of hand. Forty-five percent of women in Florida that are having babies are unmarried. That's a huge comment: ‘I want to be a mom and I think I can handle a child appropriately. I don't need a man. I need his sperm, but I really don't need him.' And everybody on the conservative side of this issue thinks that that's a degradation of family values. I'll tell you what family values are. Family values are not bringing your 8-year-old to Planned Parenthood and protesting with a shirt that says, “I hate gays and you're a baby killer.” So I have absolutely no compunction about ignoring these people. And then we have men out there protesting.

Why does it seem like it's always the men leading the protests?

They tell women that we don't have the capacity to think. We can't make tough decisions. Well, sure we can. The other thing that upsets me the most is that this is a plural religious society. I don't necessarily have to believe in God or Jesus, and you're telling me that I'm going to go to hell? Good, I'll see all my friends there.

It's also a plural gender society. For the first time men are figuring out that women don't piss through their vaginas, apparently. For the first time, men are figuring out that a clitoris is not the same as a uterus.

There's a lot biology learning going on out there. They're not comfortable. We were hoping, maybe blindly, that the legislative men who are in their 50s would have daughters in their 20s, and the daughters would step in and say, ‘Hey, wait a minute dad, what's going on?' I think we're beginning to see some of that, but I do think in Florida we're beginning to have more legislators that are heavily funded by religious organizations, and they vote accordingly. We've got a couple Republicans who will take us behind closed doors and say, ‘We really believe in what you guys are doing. I've got daughters. I have a wife who's on me all the time about this. But I cannot go onto the floor and talk about this, because my peers will not let me have a committee chair, they will not let me be on a bill that I believe in.' It is archaic the way the political system is designed. It's all driven by money.

Somebody asked me today, why are you guys always standing up and being so political? Because the other side has driven the debate. If we don't talk about politics and how it's going to impact women and families, who's going to talk about it? NOW doesn't talk about it, NARAL doesn't talk about it. Planned Parenthood, we're the only one in the state that has a lobbyist in Tallahassee. If we don't talk, who will? If abortion is outlawed and birth control is outlawed and somehow you have to have a full body scan before you can have a termination there, if somebody doesn't go, ‘Wait a minute, you guys can't do that?' We're calling people on what they are doing. We're saying, ‘Explain to me why this is the better interest of Florida. Explain it to me.' We talk with women every day and say this is a very difficult choice that you're about to make and it's confidential. And then we can't say, ‘Oh, and by the way, would you stand up and testify?'

Somehow they think if we really clamp down on abortion, that 45 percent of single mothers giving birth [statistic] is going to come down. Fifty-nine percent of pregnancies in Florida are unintended. The national average is 50 percent. It just blows my mind.

On a personal note, how does your husband feel about the past 14 years?

My husband is one of those unique individuals who fell in love with me 31 years ago and he's never been out of love with me. He tells me every day that I'm the defining moment in his life. He's thrilled. I need about three months to decompress and I don't want to be on anybody's list that I have to show up at places where I don't want to be. We bought some land north of Chattanooga, Tenn. It's in the woods. I've never built a modern home, and I'm very handy. I'm a builder. I like to build things. I have very good feelings about leaving. I have very good feelings about what's going to happen next.

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