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The Big Four-Oh

news_plannedparenthoodPlanned Parenthood celebrates 40 years in Santa Cruz

When the first family planning and birth control clinic opened in Brooklyn in 1916, it operated for nine days before its founder, Margaret Sanger, was arrested for breaking laws that prohibited the distribution of contraceptives.

It was one of many controversial actions the early sex educator and Planned Parenthood progenitor took to push for women’s reproductive rights.

“That was a very conscious civil disobedience. She was trying to provide services and change the law,” says Cynthia Mathews, a former Santa Cruz mayor and the first executive director of Planned Parenthood in Santa Cruz. Sanger’s earlier rebellions meant that by the time Mathews and a committee of 15 or so colleagues brought the organization to Santa Cruz in 1971, it was hardly a contentious arrival.

“It was a convergence of cultural factors and community resources and a perceived need” that brought Planned Parenthood to town, says Mathews, noting the arrival of UC Santa Cruz and the still active women’s movement as catalysts.

The reception was warmer then, she recalls, than it is now, as Planned Parenthood celebrates its 40th anniversary in Santa Cruz. The milestone will be recognized, and its original founders honored, at a celebration on Wednesday, Nov. 30.

“Oddly enough I would say the political climate was more broadly accepting at that time than it later became,” Mathews says, adding that the federal government even issued a family planning postage stamp in 1972. “If you can even put your head around such a thought these days,” she says.

Planned Parenthood, as a whole, enjoyed a fairly hospitable environment until the mid-80s, when “you had the conservative social agenda that made it more divisive,” says Mathews. And in the years since then? “It’s only gotten worse,” she says.

But despite attracting occasional pro-life picketers (among the reasons the location of the Nov. 30 event isn’t being advertized), Planned Parenthood has become a Santa Cruz healthcare mainstay with broad community support and devoted patients. What began as a referrals only operation run out of Mathew’s kitchen (she estimates that she received less than 1,000 calls in that first year), had 22,511 patient visits between July 2010 and June 2011.

Gail Michaelis-Ow began volunteering at the Santa Cruz Planned Parenthood in 1973 while attending nursing school at Cabrillo. Roe v. Wade legalized abortion that same year, and a center called Selective Termination of Pregnancies (STOP) opened in Santa Cruz. Along with giving referrals, the fledgling local Planned Parenthood provided patient advocates, like Michaelis-Ow, to accompany women to STOP. After finishing nursing school and a program at UC San Francisco, Michaelis-Ow helped Planned Parenthood open its own health clinic in 1976. She was the center’s first nurse practitioner—a title she still holds at the Westside Planned Parenthood today.

“There were six of us on staff when we put the clinic together, and everyone worked far and above what they were paid to do,” Michaelis-Ow remembers. “I think that’s still true here: most of us could make more in the private sector but we choose to work here because we feel passionate about the mission and we want to work with people who are underserved.” That first clinic was open a total of nine hours a week; today, the Westside location is open six days a week, some days until 8 p.m. “The magnitude of how’s it grown is pretty incredible,” remarks Michaelis-Ow.

The clinic grew with the times, adding education and outreach programs, AIDS prevention and education in the 1980s, and expanding to offer primary care services in the 1990s, when they merged with Planned Parenthood Mar Monte, a regional affiliate that includes 32 Planned Parenthood centers. In 2005, the Westside Santa Cruz clinic became one of the first providers of transgender healthcare in the area. Planned Parenthood family practitioner Jennifer Hastings, MD, led the charge. “One of our staff began her [sex] transition and she said, ‘Jennifer, there is nowhere in Santa Cruz to get this healthcare,’” Hastings says. “I didn’t have any training or experience with it, so I said, ‘OK we’re going to learn.’ The two of us went to a conference in San Francisco, and I began seeking out mentors to learn from.” Hastings now has more than 200 transgender patients and teaches about transgender care around the country. The Planned Parenthood Federation of America took note of the local chapter’s work in this arena and enlisted Hastings to help write protocol.

Hastings, who came on board in 1998, is proud to be helping Planned Parenthood celebrate 40 years in the community.

“When I began working here it was immediately apparent to me that this is a very special clinic,” she says. “It’s very unique; a mixture of incredible people who work here.”

For Michaelis-Ow, her nearly 40-year tenure at the center has also been about the loyal patients: “I’m seeing the third generation now,” she says. “I’m seeing the granddaughters of women I saw back in the ’70s. That’s pretty special to me.”


The 40th anniversary celebration for Planned Parenthood in Santa Cruz will be held from 5-7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 30. Appetizers and beverages at 5, speakers begin at 6 p.m. For location information or to RSVP, email This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . plannedparenthood.org/mar-monte

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