On Wednesday, Planned Parenthood confirmed it is opening a new clinic in Seaford, although that was a very poorly kept secret.
Abortion opponents have been protesting the new clinic for months, piecing together evidence of the plans from online job postings and Sussex County building permits.
The clinic is going into a new building at 800 Health Services Drive across from the post office in Seaford, not far off Herring Run Road. Protesters have been meeting weekly holding signs for passing traffic like “Abortion is not health care” and "Honk if you’re pro-life." On a recent Thursday evening, in the heart of conservative Sussex County, a number of passing drivers did just that.
The facility will be the fourth Planned Parenthood of Delaware site and will begin taking patients in September, according to a press release from the organization. It will be the only Planned Parenthood clinic in Sussex County and joins the Easton, Maryland clinic as the second site south of Dover.
“When you provide easily accessible, low-cost birth control, people have choices about a birth control that works for them, and you reduce the rate of unintended pregnancy," Planned Parenthood of Delaware president and CEO Ruth Lytle-Barnaby said in a statement. "The southern part of the state didn’t really have the same access as the rest of the state did and we felt it was really important to provide those services to everyone in the state of Delaware."
Competing narratives and what the statistics show
While Planned Parenthood has been emphasizing all its health services for women in its statements, opponents are laser focused on abortion procedures.
"I would be absolutely supportive of moving any funding toward those services that help families flourish, to offer true health care and true options to women," Nicole Theis, president of the Delaware Family Policy Council, said. "But ... we can't support a business model like Planned Parenthood," which she said was centered on abortion.
“Abortion care is a piece of what we do,” Lytle-Barnaby said. “But it’s not the only thing we do. And it’s not the main thing we do.” She repeated Planned Parenthood’s contention that it, more than anyone else, is responsible for helping prevent unplanned pregnancies in Delaware through providing birth control and counseling.
Statistics about how much of Planned Parenthood’s operations are dedicated to abortions are a little unclear, but a 2015 fact-checking article from the Washington Post rated as misleading a commonly cited number of 3 percent of services being abortions while also debunking statistics offered by some abortion opponents.
Numbers in Planned Parenthood’s annual reports indicate that the organization does a significant number of abortions, but that they are far from the majority of the medical services it offers. The 2011-12 report, for example, says the organization served about 3 million patients nationwide, and performed 333,964 abortions. The numbers are imprecise, but that’s about 11 percent of patients who got an abortion.
In 2015-16, the report indicates Planned Parenthood performed 328,348 abortions, and served about 2.4 million patients. That’s close to 14 percent. In the 2019-20 report, it was 354,871 abortions and still about 2.4 million patients, for closer to 15 percent.
Some opponents say Planned Parenthood’s numbers show an organization offering more and more abortions and fewer and fewer of other services. While these statistics do indicate a modest increase over the years, however, they still show a large percentage of Planned Parenthood’s patients not receiving abortions but getting other health care.
That’s not likely, however, to make abortion opponents feel kindly toward Planned Parenthood. For them, abortion is the issue that overshadows all others in the debate. They believe that abortions kill human beings, and are upset to see that coming to Seaford.
"When you know that those (aborted) babies are going to be collected, right in your community, right at the back of Planned Parenthood with a truck that comes a couple times a week to pick it up, that is really deeply troubling," Theis said.
Melissa Froemming, president of the fledgling Delaware chapter of the National Organization for Women, said it's fine for people to disagree with abortion on moral grounds, but Planned Parenthood is a legal business.
She compared it to desegregation of schools, which many people opposed even though it was the law of the land.
“If you have a problem with something, I absolutely respect that you can disagree with me on that issue. But as long as it’s legal, blocking something that is legal is … where I take issue.”
“Legal does not equal “moral,” Theis countered, also drawing on a historical analogy of racism. “Slavery was once legal too. Abortion dehumanizes the most vulnerable in our society.”
Froemming emphasized a need for low-cost health care and for abortion services in the area.
"Bringing the services into those communities where women are being disproportionately affected by poverty is really critical, because you could have legally the choice, but if you can't actually access choice, then it's restricting women's abilities to break barriers related to economics, as well as the gender barriers they face."
She tied access to abortion to economic empowerment and reproductive justice for women. Planned Parenthood specifically meets needs for those women who are disproportionately impoverished, she said, who don’t have access to transportation or affordable care.
Health care for women in southern Delaware
The new Planned Parenthood clinic, the organization says, will offer services like general wellness exams, screenings for breast and cervical cancers, birth control and family planning, the HPV vaccine, colposcopies, testing and treatment for sexually transmitted disease, emergency contraception, pregnancy tests and hormone therapy, along with abortions.
That health care, Planned Parenthood contends, is filling a need for timely health care in southern Delaware. It cited a Department of Health and Social Services statistic that the average wait time for someone living in Sussex and trying to see a primary care doctor with whom they do not have a pre-existing relationship in 2018 was 28 days, twice as much as in 1998.
“If you look at some of the data around underserved areas, Sussex County … pops up pretty strongly,” Lytle-Barnaby said. “And that isn’t just for reproductive health; it’s also for some of the primary care services that we provide … the need is greatly there.”
Some abortion opponents say there are other options. Leslie Dean, a nurse from Salisbury who has had abortions in the past and now campaigns against them, pointed to the availability of public health clinics, and she’s not alone in raising that point about numerous such clinics around the country. And Theis mentioned hospitals like Bayhealth and Nemours, and also La Red health system, a federally qualified health center that serves Sussex County. On its website, La Red listed many of the same services Planned Parenthood offers, including a sliding payment scale for low-income people. La Red did not respond Wednesday to a request for comment on the level of need in southern Delaware.
If health care services for women weren’t sufficient without Planned Parenthood, Theis said, she would support moving funding to other services.
“Sussex is an absolute health desert,” said Emily Hauenstein, a professor of nursing at the University of Delaware who has focused on health care issues for both rural and impoverished women. There are services, and there are accessible services, she said, which are two different things. Both Kent and Sussex counties meet federal standards for being classified as having a shortage of primary care, she said. And there are other important factors, like money.
“Even with insurance, you’ve got to have some money to pay for health care services.”
She praised the health care that Planned Parenthood brings and agreed with its assessment that there’s a need for better care downstate. Department of Public Health clinics, she said, have struggled in the past to get enough staff, paying nurses far lower than other care providers or even school systems. “There’s no nurses to be had these days.”
With regard to federally qualified health centers that do not offer abortions, Hauenstein, who has worked for two such facilities, said their funding has been flat for years and that they have a terrible time attracting and keeping physicians.
“Keeping physicians in rural areas is very, very difficult … they have to be dedicated to rural health, and many physicians are, it’s just not enough for rural populations.”
Froemming, with Delaware NOW, mentioned barriers faced by undocumented immigrants, a large population in southern Delaware, and beyond that, women who can’t afford to take off an entire day to travel for an abortion and then take the time to recuperate.
“Having something local is absolutely essential for access. Because if we don’t have access, in effect, we’re taking away the choice that we say we’re providing women in the state of Delaware.”
Undocumented immigrants, Hauenstein said, often won’t seek services during pregnancy. They have language barriers and financial barriers, “which are some pretty steep ones.” And they also may have fear of being turned in by someone and deported.
In answer to a query about the availability of health care in southern Delaware, the Department of Public health said in an emailed statement that its public health clinic at Shipley State Service Center in Seaford provides a wide range of reproductive and family planning services, such as contraception, counseling, birth control methods, emergency contraception, STI testing and treatment, and services are offered to everyone. Undocumented clients are not excluded from receiving services, the department said.
“DPH has been able to meet the demand for the population it serves, which includes both uninsured and underinsured persons,” the department said, but added, “The addition of the Planned Parenthood site will help provide more options to Western Sussex County’s most vulnerable populations.”
Health care for women is such an important issue, Hauenstein said. “My view is that it’s about access to health services for poor women. And I can tell you, in my experience, over years and decades, that (impoverished women’s) access to health care of any stripe … is really circumscribed.”
Planned Parenthood, she said, provides easily accessible care and people can get it without having to identify themselves to a health care system, and without having insurance. “And if they don’t have to go to Dover to get it, you know, I think it’s well worth putting the clinic in without taking any stand on abortion.”
An issue that sparks deep emotion
One of the protesters near the clinic site was Rebecca Jones of Seaford. She spoke passionately about her opposition to abortion as someone who once had one. She gave the exact date — December 19, 1990. “If you ask most women who have had an abortion, the date they had it, they’ll be able to tell you.”
“They (abortion providers) don’t tell you what you’re going to feel, they don’t follow up with you,” she said. “Beforehand, there’s all the wonderful platitudes, all the wonderful words.”
“What I did, I know, wasn’t right,” she said. She asked herself, “Why can’t I speak up and say something and be a voice?”
Dean, the nurse who said she had two abortions, said she had them because she went to clinics where she was told what was inside her was just a blob of cells.
Later on in life, she said, coming to terms with what she had done, she was suicidal. During a later pregnancy, “seeing my first child’s sonogram at the age of my abortion, I realized that that baby was alive, it had arms and legs and a heartbeat, and it almost destroyed me.”
The tension around unplanned pregnancies can be huge for women. For her part, Lytle-Barnaby of Planned Parenthood gave another side to that.
“What our patients say to us is, whether they’re here for birth control or STD or to have an abortion is that they really like the non-judgmental care and the support that they get from us. And that we’re able to really talk through options with them … without any kind of shaming about their sex life.”
With one camp believing that abortion takes the life of a child, and another camp holding that it’s a personal decision for a woman about her body, there might seem to be no room for agreement.
But advocates on both sides in Delaware said there could be common ground among the disparate camps when it comes to health care, although the divide could be seen even in those comments.
"We can all agree our common ground here is that we all are pro women's health," Theis said. "... I think that you can be very committed to women's health care and not be for abortion."
Froemming cited bipartisan work on prison reform that passed during the Trump administration as an example of how people can come together and compromise. “Focusing on the services that are being provided, the expansion of services for women, I think is where the beginnings of common ground happen.”
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