Over 60 years ago, Margaret Sanger, founder of the birth control movement, watched a woman who had been refused contraceptive help by a doctor die in childbirth. The experience spurred her crusade.
Faye Wattleton, the first woman since Sanger to head her organization, which grew into the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, had a similar experience. When she was a midwife student, Wattleton cared for a 17-year old who had attempted a home remedy abortion.
"She was alive when she came to the hospital but she died in a few days," said Wattleton, during in an interview recently.
Wattleton, at age 34 the youngest, as well as the first female and black, to head Planned Parenthood, doesn't at first glance appear to be the rebel the times demanded of Sanger, though she easily admits, "Some of the same forces are at work today."
At the turn of the century, Sanger was jailed and called both obscene and pioneering.
Times have changed some. Wattleton probably wouldn't be jailed today. But in the last 14 months, planned Parenthood offices have been firebombed abd picketed. Some of the policies of Planned Parenthood have been criticized as genocide by Wattleton's fellow blacks.
Over a poached egg breakfast, Wattleton appears reserved too demur for the combat. Yet she wants to change this organization she calls an "Eastern establishment agency" into an activist body and she points out very forcefully she is prepared to fight.
"In my own way which is reasonable," said Wattleton. "I have been on a number of call-in talk shows and have been confronted by Right to Lifers or similar groups. What I want to do is avoid personality battles while articulating the reasonableness of our positions. The value of individual choice is an important one for this country."
Recently, the Right to Life movement, which holds that abortion is morally wrong, campaigned for a tough abortion ordinance in Akron, Ohio, and won.
That fight, as others pitted the antiabortionists against Planned Parenthood, which believes that abortion any kind of fertility control, is a matter of choice. It also pitted Wattleton's point of view against that of another black woman, Mildred Jefferson, a surgeon who is president of Right to Life, which claims 11 million members. "Abbortion is not just another surgical procedure. It is a medical hybrid with its own advertising and sales campaign," said Jefferson, who has never met Wattleton. "Abortion is not just a public nuisance. It is a public health menace and it should be treated as such by all responsible agencies."
In her life, one of her main motivations has been, said Wattleton, to keep a "sense of caring about other people." Her mother, she explained, lived this creed in church activism. Wattleton grew up in St. Louis and earned a degree in nursing from Ohio State University in 1964. To put herself through school, she worked as a fashion model. At 5-10, she resembles a tall Diahann Carroll.
For a brief time she taught nursing in Dayton, thenearned a master's degree from Columbia University, and worked in public health before becoming the executive director of the Planned Parenthood facility in Dayton 71/2 years ago.
She has had to decide about family planning . When she married Franklin Gordon, a social worker and parttime jazz pianist, six years ago, they decided to delay having a family until Gordon finished graduate school. They have a daughte, Felicia.
At the New York offices to Planned Parenhood, Wattleton will earn $70,000 oversee a budget of nearly $100 million, and supervise the 189 affiliates that serve 1 million clients.
The changes she wants to bring to the organization are substantive but undramatic: to develop a strategy for reducing the escalating incidences of teen-age pregancy, and to assure low-income women access to safe abortion funds have been cut off.
"We are not going to become rhetorical . . . But I do want to make Planned Parenthood's position known as the representative of one million women and some men."