On one Thursday night last month, the Long Wharf Theatre was packed. The occasion: to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Griswold v. Connecticut, a landmark Supreme Court case that declared Connecticut’s anti-abortion law illegal and sparked similar change nationwide.
On stage, Judy Tabar, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Southern New England, addressed the packed room. “Estelle Griswold fought hard for women’s access and rights, and we are proud to carry on her legacy,” Tabar said. “Just as those involved in the Griswold case knew they could make a difference, I know that together we have, and will continue to build a future where all women can fully pursue their dreams, wherever they may lead.”
Right outside the venue, the atmosphere was quite different. Over 50 pro-life activists lined up on the curb holdings signs that read, “Stop abortion now” and “Save all the lives.”
In New Haven, home to the headquarters of PPSNE, you can find organizations that span the spectrum of the abortion debate, ranging from a Planned Parenthood health center to multiple crisis pregnancy centers. Even Yale contributes to the dialogue in subtle ways through the Yale Medical Group, which offers abortion services and a residency program for OB-GYNs to train in abortions through the School of Medicine’s family-planning department.
Although 50 years have passed since the Supreme Court ruling on Griswold, the ideologies and practices of both pro-life and pro-choice advocates continue to clash in New Haven, the city that served as an early battleground for the debate.
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New Haven’s Planned Parenthood clinic is located at the far corner of Science Hill, further than most undergraduates would venture. The day that I make the trek up there, the sky is a melancholy gray, and I huddle under my umbrella to avoid the frigid rain. In spite of the weather, two lone individuals stand at the corner. One holds a sign with the image of what I take to be a fetus, while the other holds a stack of pamphlets.
By the clinic entrance on Edwards Street, I encounter three more women with signs. One walks up to me, reminding me in a hushed tone: “They kill babies in there, you know.” I politely apologize as I step around her.
“Well, are you sorry enough to do something about it?” she shouts down the street behind me.
Protestors are a common fixture at the corner, where they seek to dissuade potential patients from getting abortions or even receiving any medical services from Planned Parenthood. Every third Saturday of the month, a group conducts prayer outside of the center, said Roland McNary, chairman of the board of Saint Gianna Center, a pro-life pregnancy resource center in New Haven.
The protesters’ presence increased this fall in response to the video footage of Planned Parenthood staff that was released throughout the summer, according to Sarah Grossman-Kahn ’17, director of New Haven outreach for the Reproductive Rights Action League at Yale. Grossman-Kahn volunteers as a clinic escort at Planned Parenthood’s New Haven health center, where she helps guide patients into the building through the throngs of protesters. In the wake of the videos’ release, the protest crowds grew and began appearing on Wednesdays and Fridays, in addition to their routine presence on Saturdays.
“We’re there to provide a positive presence as the patients are going in,” Grossman-Kahn said of her role. “If the women are going into the clinic, it’s a scary situation no matter what.”
Inside its brick, house-like exterior, PPSNE’s waiting room looks no different from any doctor’s office. After all, Planned Parenthood is primarily a medical facility, said Kafi Rouse, director of public relations and marketing for PPSNE. The New Haven health center, along with the 16 other centers in Connecticut, offers gynecological exams, testing and treatment for sexually transmitted infections and diseases, contraception, abortions and pregnancy tests.
In Connecticut, Planned Parenthood serves around 64,000 patients a year, Rouse said. It receives the most attention for its abortion services, but according to the 2014–15 Annual Report, abortions comprised only around 6 percent of the services provided in Connecticut and Rhode Island. The majority of patients came for contraceptive services or STI/STD screening.
On Planned Parenthood’s sliding-fee scale, the cost for a patient’s visit depends on her income, family size and the services she requires. As a result, the model appeals to many patients who are uninsured or underinsured, Rouse said. They also often hail from minority communities that traditionally face obstacles in accessing reproductive services, she added.
“What we take a look at is disparities [among] racial and ethnic backgrounds,” Rouse said. “We hope those disparities that currently exist for low-income women and women of color will soon be erased.”
These discrepancies are certainly pertinent in Connecticut, where, according to a 2013 report by the Guttmacher Institute, nearly 40 percent of women who are in need of family-planning services are below the federal poverty line. The same report stated that Planned Parenthood clinics served 65 percent of these clients in 2010.
In New Haven in particular, over 60 percent of births between 2007 and 2009 were to mothers reliant on Medicaid or HUSKY Health, which provides state-subsidized insurance for children, the disabled and pregnant women. Maria Damiani, director of maternal and child health at the New Haven Health Department, said that because of the state’s relatively flexible guidelines for qualifying for subsidized health care, pregnant women are often able to find coverage under one of those programs. She has found that the uninsured or underinsured women that she works with often feel comfortable going to Planned Parenthood.
“People hear a lot of press about abortions, but the only role I see [Planned Parenthood] play is as a health care provider,” Damiani said. “I think they provide an incredible amount of health education … they’re incredible caregivers.”
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From Planned Parenthood, I turned left and walked down Whitney Avenue. When I arrived at Saint Gianna Center, I realized that I’d actually passed it many times. The building is located just at the periphery of campus — at the corner of Trumbull and Temple streets, it’s only a block from the Office of Undergraduate Admissions and almost within sight of Timothy Dwight College.
I entered down a flight of stairs into the building’s basement; the furnishings were reminiscent of a nursery. The room had a surprising amount of natural light, despite being underground. This is where clients come for their consultations, said Carolyn Falcigno, secretary of the Saint Gianna Center board who has volunteered there since the center’s inception.
“This is where we bring the mothers when they first come in,” Falcigno said. She pointed to a plush brown rocking chair. “They love sitting in that and just rocking back and forth.”
Saint Gianna Center is a relatively new addition to New Haven; it was founded just under three years ago on Dec. 12, 2012. The date is particularly important, McNary said, because it is the feast day for Our Lady of Guadalupe, the protector of unborn babies — her image hangs on the wall by the front door. The center’s mission is true to its Catholic namesake: St. Gianna Beretta Molla, an Italian doctor who died in 1962 of uterine cancer. When a doctor recommended that she get a life-saving hysterectomy that would result in the abortion of her pregnancy, she refused.
The founders of Saint Gianna Center were originally brought together by their priest. McNary had already been a pro-life minister in his church, and he and his wife often took pregnant women into their home. Now, the center is run by a part-time staff of eight board members and seven additional volunteers. Choose Life at Yale President Elizabeth Tokarz ’17 has volunteered at Saint Gianna, and, given the center’s proximity to Yale’s campus, hopes that more members of CLAY can get involved.
During my visit, Falcigno and McNary were quick to identify as pro-life. Falcigno pointed to a small pin with an image of baby footprints that she wears on her collar.
“That’s the size of a 10-week-old baby [embryo],” she said.
Mothers who come to the Saint Gianna Center are counseled on how to proceed with their pregnancy. Falcigno often connects them with other facilities where they can get an ultrasound, and Saint Gianna hosts classes taught by nurses on topics from childbirth to breastfeeding.
Saint Gianna Center also receives referrals from local community organizations whose clients need help obtaining baby supplies. Alexine Casanova Gaye, director of case management at Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, a refugee resettlement program run by the Episcopal Church in Connecticut, said she refers people to Saint Gianna Center for supplies like baby formula and car seats. Damiani also refers women to the center for services that her department does not offer, adding that it is not a health care organization — rather, it is a social-service organization that is able to help women obtain items they cannot otherwise afford.
Many, but not all patients stay in touch with Saint Gianna Center throughout their pregnancy. Falcigno remembers one woman whom they “lost” when she ultimately decided to have an abortion.
The center’s mission comes from a personal place for Falcigno. She recounted that at 16 — soon after abortion had been legalized — she herself had an abortion.
“I felt lied to,” she said. “It left a hole in my heart.”
Thirty-seven years later, she works with clients going through a situation that she identifies with, she said. Most are referred to the center by churches or agencies; some hear about it through word-of-mouth or see the sign from the public bus that passes by regularly. The center serves five to six patients a week, with an estimate of around 100 a year, Falcigno said.
A report released this summer by the NARAL Pro-Choice Connecticut Foundation indicted crisis pregnancy centers for misinforming patients by exaggerating the risks of abortion, often under the masquerade of being a medical authority. However, Falcigno insisted that Saint Gianna is not a medical institution, and, when asked about the NARAL report and other negative media coverage, she initially expressed her frustration at being grouped with other centers, noting that there is a wide spectrum. She quickly added, though, that pregnancy centers have a shared basic mission.
“We want to show love and care to all moms,” she said. “We can do it in a spiritual way; a medical center would do it differently. At the core, it’s the same.”
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Falcigno and McNary chose Saint Gianna Center’s basement location after months of searching for a viable — and, more importantly, affordable — property.
In fact, the building they chose has played an important role since the earliest days of the pro-choice movement — when New Haven and Yale were at the center of the debate. In the mid-1930s, the Connecticut Birth Control League, led by Yale obstetrics and gynecology instructor Nowell Creadick, was headquartered at the 79 Trumbull St. property.
Three decades later, Griswold, the executive director of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut at the time, would unknowingly choose the same site to open the clinic that would become the basis of Griswold v. Connecticut.
Griswold and Yale professor of obstetrics and gynecology C. Lee Buxton rented rooms on the second floor of 79 Trumbull St. to move the PPLC offices and establish the clinic, where they would provide contraception to local married women. At the time, this was illegal by the 1873 Comstock Law.
The clinic opened on Nov. 1, 1961. It was open for only nine days, and during that time, its patients included a Yale graduate student and a graduate of the Yale Divinity School, who would later be called as witnesses in the trial.
After the clinic was shut down and Griswold and Buxton were arrested as accessories to the crime of using contraception, the case proceeded to court. Four years later, the Supreme Court ultimately ruled in their favor, establishing the right to “marital privacy.”
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Fifty years after Griswold opened (and closed) her clinic in 1961, Saint Gianna Center now operates in the basement of the same building. Falcigno and McNary said they had no idea their building had such a history, although they knew PPLC had a presence on Trumbull Street.
John Zmirak ’86 remembers staging a protest on Trumbull Street nearly 30 years ago. A supporter of pro-life movements since the age of eight, Zmirak had been involved with the Yale Student Pro-Life Coalition, the small pro-life group that existed during his time on campus. On Jan. 22, 1986 — the 13th anniversary of Roe v. Wade — he marched outside Planned Parenthood’s Griswold-Buxton Clinic with a homemade sign. The protest grew to approximately 50 people, encompassing both protesters and counter-protesters.
Now, almost three decades into his post-Yale life, Zmirak is still involved with pro-life activism and remembers that day vividly. Although pro-choice counter-protesters outnumbered the pro-life protesters, he still thinks of it as a “standout day” for the pro-life cause, which he said has always been at the margins in New Haven and at Yale. There were no pro-life crisis pregnancy centers at the time, and Planned Parenthood had always had a dominant presence in the area.
It is just this historical legacy in which PPSNE takes pride. Planned Parenthood has been in Connecticut for over 90 years. Community members trust Planned Parenthood and know people in the health centers that have been there for as long as they can remember, Rouse said, making them a staple in the community.
“I don’t think women’s needs have changed much [over the past 50 years],” Damiani said. “We’re just looking at it more holistically, and there are a lot of great resources in New Haven.”