Until recently, the philanthropic works of Orlando attorney Sally Blackmun have been largely uncelebrated, especially in terms of connecting her with her famous father, the late Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, responsible for the momentous Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. But every day, fresh links to published national stories pop up on the Internet, mostly quoting Blackmun about the historical release in March of her father's papers. Now Blackmun is also in the national limelight in her own right, having written the introduction, a personal story about her own unplanned pregnancy, to The War on Choice by Gloria Feldt, a scathing indictment of the people and the politics calling for the reversal of Roe v. Wade. A role model for a successful family/career woman, Blackmun, now in her mid-50s, balances her role as senior associate general counsel for Orlando-based Darden Restaurants Inc. with her nonprofit activities, including sitting on the board of the Orlando-UCF Shakespeare Festival and Planned Parenthood of Greater Orlando, in addition to being a wife and mother of two daughters. I talked with her about the role she assumed in May as chair of the PPGO board, and the organization's imminent plans to move into bigger and better facilities, thanks to a $3 million capital campaign.
Do people in the community know who you are?
I never know who knows that I am the daughter of a U.S. Supreme Court Justice. I don't advertise the fact. Some people know and some people don't. Who I am is generally known within Orlando's legal and judicial circles.
What made you decide to write the introduction for War on Choice?
I first met Gloria Feldt in November of 1996 when I went to Planned Parenthood Federation's annual conference to accept their annual Margaret Sanger Award on behalf of my father, who was unable to attend. Gloria's and my paths crossed from time to time thereafter, particularly after I became involved with Planned Parenthood in Orlando. We invited her to speak at one of PPGO's annual meetings. I invited her to attend my father's court memorial service after his death in 1999. And coincidentally over dinner with a small group of people, when I was in New York for a book signing event for Gloria's first book, Behind Every Choice Is a Story I told her my personal story. Gloria continually urges people to get out and tell their personal stories because behind every choice there is a story. When Gloria was writing The War on Choice she asked me if I would write the introduction. Why she selected me and not somebody else, I don't know, but I was honored that she asked me. It was also an opportunity for me to tell my story to a broader public audience.
As you step more into the public eye, do you anticipate any changes in people's perception of you? Are you worried about people thinking you're a "liberal"?
Not particularly. My passion for Planned Parenthood and the services it provides were born out of my pro bono legal work as a Court-appointed guardian ad litem for the Orange County juvenile court. I have been doing this work for over ten years. I generally am asked to represent the best interests of drug-addicted newborns who have been turned over to the Department of Children and Families because of neglect, abuse or abandonment. So I have seen firsthand how many unwanted, unplanned pregnancies there are in our community; how unavailable reproductive and prenatal health services are to many of these women; how difficult it is to find good foster parents to keep these children and, down the road, willing and suitable relatives to provide long-term care for these children or suitable families to adopt them. Many of these children are placed with their grandmothers, who themselves have had unplanned pregnancies out of wedlock and who live close to the poverty level. So, unless our young adults are educated regarding responsible sexual actions and pregnancy prevention, the cycle continues. And this is where the critical services provided by Planned Parenthood come in, particularly for low-income and uninsured people in our community. PPGO is a community family-planning clinic providing gynecological exams, treatment of abnormal pap results, testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases, a male-only clinic, mid-life treatment and service and pregnancy prevention and family planning counseling. PPGO's educational programs also touch more than 12,000 teens annually in our community.
What's the most frightening statistic in Orange County?
The one that bothers me the most is that a child under 14 delivers a baby every 10 days in Orange County. So many of these babies are born prematurely, they often spend weeks or months in a neonatal hospital unit, and they are often born with considerable medical, physical and developmental issues.
What accounts for this?
Orange County is in large part a service community, which employs a high number of lower-income persons, many of whom have no access to health insurance, contraceptives and family-planning services.
What are some of the other statistics that bother you?
Florida's teen pregnancy rate ranks sixth in the nation. Florida ranks 45th in the provision of contraceptive services to women in need. Florida ranks 41st in the percentage of uninsured children, with 18.8 percent of children under 19 not covered. One out of five Floridians or almost 2.8 million adult residents lack health insurance. Central Florida ranks second in the state for the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases. And Central Florida ranks fourth in the state for HIV infections. Those horrifying statistics are ones that Planned Parenthood is trying to address and reduce.
Tell me more about Planned Parenthood's new facility.
We started a $3 million capital campaign about 18 months ago. We got off to a great start because we received a $600,000 matching grant from the Genius Foundation. We recently met that match with a $17,000 educational grant from Disney. PPGO was also recently approved for a $140,000 HUD grant through the city of Orlando, which will be used to provide a teen sexual health education program and meeting place at the new facility. PPGO has also been encouraged to start a prenatal clinic, which it hopes to do in the new facility.
The current PPGO clinic/administrative and educational offices are housed in a 2,000-square-foot converted house, with six parking spaces. With the success of the capital campaign, PPGO has now purchased a 4,500-square-foot building on Tampa Avenue. We should be under construction within the next six to eight weeks, with probable opening in early 2005. If PPGO meets its $3 million campaign goal, it also plans to open satellite clinics in the other counties this affiliate serves Brevard, Osceola and Seminole. And if we're really lucky, we'd like to end up with sufficient funds to create an endowment to secure the future of PPGO.
Are the minds and pockets opening up to understand how important it is to have these facilities here in town?
Given PPGO's $700,000 total campaign contribution from the Genius Foundation, the Disney grant, the HUD grant and generous contributions from many individuals in our community, the critical services of Planned Parenthood are finally being recognized in Central Florida. I am co-chairing the capital campaign with Rita Lowndes. She's a former chairman of the board of PPGO and she was very instrumental in helping us get the Genius Foundation grant. We've come a long way in the last 18 months, but we still are hoping to raise another $1.5 million before the campaign is over.
How do you respond to Bush's attack on the right to choose?
My father felt very strongly from the moment he wrote Roe v. Wade until he died in 1999 that a women's right to choose was a necessary step toward the full emancipation of women in this country. And for me, choice means not having the government, or somebody else, telling me what I can, will or should not do with my own body. The fact that one has a choice does not mean that she has to choose an abortion. Many pro-choice advocates likely would not choose that option. Everyone is given the option to make her own decision based on her own personal, religious or moral beliefs.
The men who are most vocal about choice have never and will never be pregnant. For me, I can't imagine going back to pre-Roe days. The younger generation who did not live through the years prior to Roe need to understand and appreciate what they could lose. One of Gloria's main messages is that the younger generations need to become involved, need to become informed and need to become active. A great place for them to start is by reading The War on Choice.
What is your greatest concern about the outcome of the next presidential election?
I am very concerned that President Bush is so focused on overturning Roe v. Wade, either through legislation or through court appointments. I think the President would be better advised to focus his time and energy on matters more critical to the stability and well being of this great country of ours, rather than upon restricting and ultimately removing a personal freedom that has existed for over 30 years.