Lexington's Planned Parenthood is celebrating 75 years of quietly serving thousands of women, men and teens in the Bluegrass, despite federal funding cuts and calls from members of Congress to have the organization totally cut out of the federal budget.
But controversy is nothing new for the national organization that got its start years earlier by providing birth control to women as early as 1921.
That organization has been the target of flak since its founder, Margaret Sanger, opened her first clinic, offering diaphragms to women who had no other means of delaying pregnancy.
Sanger founded the American Birth Control League in 1921, and she was prosecuted and jailed for offering that service.
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Although volunteers were no longer prosecuted by the time Irma Rosenstein became one at Lexington's Planned Parenthood in the 1950s, she said women who sought services were intimidated by their husbands or boyfriends, who thought their manhood was tied to the number of children they produced.
"We had to be very careful," Rosenstein said, "because the men involved were very much against it.
"I felt strongly it was important to help these women to understand they could have sexual relations and not have a baby," she said. "We helped them understand that if you plan your family, you will have children who are wanted and who you can help educate and help grow into strong, wonderful adults."
That passion and commitment to empowering women remains the driving force behind the work of volunteers and staff.
For more than three decades, the Lexington branch operated out of shared quarters in the basement of Good Samaritan Hospital.
In 1970, the organization moved into rented offices, and then into its present home at 508 West Second Street in 1976.
"At this point in my life, it is very tough to think about a time when Planned Parenthood was not around," said Rosenstein, who was the Lexington board president in the early 1960s.
All are welcome at the clinic, including the uninsured. Services are provided on a sliding fee scale.
One in five women have used Planned Parenthood at some point in their lives, said Shirley L. Jones, president and chief executive of Planned Parenthood Kentucky, which began when the Louisville and Lexington offices merged in 2008. "So that means someone you know — a sister, a mother, an aunt, a daughter, or your wife if you are a male — has relied on Planned Parenthood," she said.
There were 2,000 un duplicated visits to Lexington's clinic last year for cancer, sexually transmitted infections, HIV screenings, pregnancy testing and family planning. The center also offers relationship counseling and information through a community outreach and education arm to help parents talk with their teens.
"In Kentucky last year, we reached 12,000 individuals through education and community outreach and life-saving cancer screenings," Jones said. "We talk with parents and teens about the importance of talking to one another. It builds trust between parents and teens, so when questions do arise, there is the opportunity to talk with a trusted adult."
Planned Parenthood "does more to prevent unintended pregnancies than any other organization," she said.
Rosenstein said that if some congressmen were better informed about Planned Parenthood's services, they might change their tune. Patients continued to come because of the trust the organization has established through the years. Its reputation is spread by word of mouth, Jones said.
Some of the backlash is triggered by Planned Parenthood's mission to provide safe medical options to women seeking information or help with unplanned pregnancies. That includes abortion or emergency contraception if need be.
"The federal government decided 30 years ago that federal funds cannot be used for the termination of unplanned pregnancies," Jones said. "But the law of the land allows a full scope of reproduction services. We trust people to make the decision that is right for them. But it is always important for people to have access to care that is quality care in a safe medical environment."
To celebrate more than 75 years of service in Lexington, Planned Parenthood Kentucky is hosting the Birds & Bees in the Bluegrass gala and raffle, 6 to 8 p.m. Oct. 1 at the Keeneland Clubhouse.
A video, Planned Parenthood of Kentucky ... Yesterday, Today, Always ... We're Here!, will premiere at the gala. It features a young Lexington woman who says she was empowered by the non-judgmental counseling offered by the organization when she experienced an unplanned pregnancy. She is shown with her 1-year-old daughter.
And that is the reason for Planned Parenthood's staying power, Rosenstein said.
"There are always going to be people who frown on any kind of change to begin with and who can't stand any ripple and want everything to be just as it was 100 years ago," she said. "I have lived through a lot of that.
"But at the same time, there are others who feel as though there are people in our community who — and I feel strongly about this — who may not be able to take care of themselves. This is just another area where we have to help our fellow man."