When Betty Nichols joined the Montgomery County Planned Parenthood staff 21 years ago, the friend that found her the job said, "There's only one thing - I think you'll be bored to death."
Nichols, who recently retired, was anything but bored during her 21 years heading the county program. In a recent interview at her Woodside Parkway home in Silver Spring, the 65-year-old grandmother told stories that included:
The woman who was referred by a public health nurse five times to Planned Parenthood, each time after the birth of a child. When the woman finally came, it was after her twelth child. When asked why she didn't come sooner, the woman replied that she thought birth control meant she would "go to the hospital and be cut."
The woman who gave her birth control pills to her husband to take in her place because the pills made her sick.
The woman who sent an "unmother's day" card to Planned Parenthood. It said, "This is the first Mother's day I haven't been pregnant in five years."
The mother of five who got a diaphram from Planned Parenthood and was told by Planned Parenthood that if the diaphram tore, she could get pregnant. When it was time for the woman to return for a checkup, Planned Parenthood was told the woman couldn't make it. She was in the maternity ward after sewing a patch on her diaphram.
When Nichols joined Planned Parenthood, her title was "executive secretary." In reality, she was the person in charge of the Montgomery County operation, a fact acknowledged a few years later when her title was changed to director.
The office was on the second floor of a building overlooking an alley on Georgia Avenue and the paid staff consisted of Nichols, a secretary and a social worker. About 30 volunteers, many of whom were on the Planned Parenthood board, did volunteer work. About 200 patients were treated in the clinic each year.
Now about ten clinics a week are held in three locations and more than 4,000 women visit the clinic each year.
Part of the increase was due to Nichols who says that when she first started working with the organisation, "it was dull in that we weren't that busy all the time. That bothered me. So I set out to do more."
That meant contracting agencies that dealt with poor women who could not afford to get birth control information from privated doctors. At that time, the department of public welfare would not give birth control information to clients, Nicholas said.
"Birth control was not acceptable," she explained. "It was controversial. I think public agencies were not willing to put themselves out on a limb." When she started working with Planned Parenthood, the majority of the patients were poor. Now most patients are young, including some who are in their teens.
Nicholas says that one of the most controversial practices of the organizations is the dispensing of birth control to minors, a practice that is legal under Maryland law. "I have been called a 'dirty old woman, by some of the conservative groups in the country,' she said.
"I've never felt that I was, or anybody on Planned Parenthood was, in the business of trying to make moral decisions. It takes a lot of guts to walk into a Planned Parenthood clinic when you're 14 and say, 'I think I'm pregnant.' what she doesn't need is a moral lesson. What she needs is a kind, listening, helpful person.
Although Nicholas is retired now, she said she intends to keep working with Planned Parenthood.
"It isn't only a job with me. It's a cause," she said, forgetting for a moment her retirement.