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Inner turmoil rocks Oregon’s Planned Parenthood affiliates at key political moment

FILE: Clinic staff listen as then-Gov. Kate Brown holds a joint press conference with Planned Parenthood Columbia Willamette, reaffirming Oregon’s commitment to abortion access, Aug. 25, 2022, at the Hillman East Portland Health Center.
Kristyna Wentz-Graff
FILE: Clinic staff listen as then-Gov. Kate Brown holds a joint press conference with Planned Parenthood Columbia Willamette, reaffirming Oregon’s commitment to abortion access, Aug. 25, 2022, at the Hillman East Portland Health Center.

New leaders at two affiliates want to dissolve the advocacy group that has fought to protect abortion access in Oregon.

The two new leaders of Oregon’s Planned Parenthood affiliates are pushing to dissolve the political arm of their organization in a move that has blindsided some long-time advocates and has them worried about the future of reproductive rights in the state.

While states across the country are restricting access to abortion and other reproductive health care in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade, Oregon has been able to expand abortion access, sending millions of dollars to health care providers and opening a new health clinic in Ontario.

Jennifer Williamson, a former Democratic state lawmaker and former interim leader of Planned Parenthood Advocacy of Oregon, said there is a reason for that: the political arm of Planned Parenthood has long been an influential voice in Salem.

“At this point in time with this much on the line with reproductive health care, this infighting is ridiculous,” Williamson said. “We worked so hard in this state to get where we are with reproductive health care, the protections are taken for granted.”

Oregon has two Planned Parenthood affiliates. They provide reproductive health care, including abortion access, but do not engage in political work such as lobbying or campaigns.

Dr. Sara Kennedy was recently hired to oversee Planned Parenthood Columbia Willamette, which operates clinics in the Portland metro area, Salem, Bend, Ontario and Vancouver, Washington. Kennedy is still currently in the process of moving from California to Oregon. Amy Handler oversees Planned Parenthood of Southwestern Oregon, which has clinics in the Eugene-Springfield area, Grants Pass and Medford.

Neither Kennedy nor Handler returned an immediate call for comment.

But on Friday, Kennedy and Handler sent a letter to the two groups’ political advocacy arm. They informed the lobbying group’s governing board that they plan to dissolve Planned Parenthood Advocates of Oregon and restructure the organization to focus more on “health care and advocating for the needs of the Planned Parenthood affiliates and their patients.”

The letter continues, “We are not dissolving our commitment to advocacy in Oregon. Instead, we want to realign Planned Parenthood’s advocacy with our critical mission of delivering quality, equitable, and accessible sexual and reproductive health care.”

The two affiliates fund the full budget, outside of grants, for the political advocacy arm. Kristi Scdoris, a spokeswoman for the two affiliate clinics, said the groups have a plan to focus more on reimbursement rates for their providers, saying right now their group’s goal is keeping their health care provider doors open. The two affiliates together send more than $700,000 to the lobbying arm annually, according to Scdoris.

Planned Parenthood Columbia Willamette brings in about $36 million in annual revenue, with total expenses at about $31 million, according to its 2022-23 financial impact report.

Members of the political group’s advocacy board quickly responded to the news in writing to the board members of the affiliates, saying they are concerned the new leaders are making a “rushed decision based on inaccurate information about what Planned Parenthood Advocates of Oregon is, what it does, and what it has accomplished.”

The letter goes on to detail the role Planned Parenthood Advocates of Oregonplayed in convincing lawmakers to pass the Reproductive Health Equity Act in 2017, codifying the right to have an abortion into state law and expanding access to reproductive services.

It’s the advocacy arm, the letter argues, that has the infrastructure and the relationships to quickly defeat anti-abortion measures as they did in 2018 with Measure 106, a ballot measure that would have restricted access to abortions.

“For years, PPAO (Planned Parenthood Advocates of Oregon) has intentionally and strategically built a network of staff, donors, volunteers, and board members who have the personal and professional relationships needed to win campaigns and pass Planned Parenthood’s legislative priorities,” the letter continues. “Because of this work, this organization (and its staff, its board, its volunteers, its alumni) has deep connections and relationships with critical allies in the fights we know are ahead of us. "

The letter warns the new leaders they are “seriously miscalculating the impacts of this rushed path forward” and notes that after the nonprofit Pro-Choice Oregon dissolved last year, they are the only advocacy organization remaining in the state.

“And now, at what is potentially the most critical time for abortion rights that this country has ever seen, this short-sighted plan to force dissolution over a matter of days would leave Oregon, formerly a national leader in this space, with zero abortion rights advocacy organizations,” the letter reads, and continues to warn of the inability to meaningfully impact elections, endorsements or messages in a pivotal election year and lose momentum heading into the 2025 legislative session.

U.S. Rep. Val Hoyle, D-Eugene, said she’s signed on to a letter along with 100 other people urging the two leaders to reconsider.

“Why the leadership of the two Planned Parenthood health care clinics decided to eliminate the advocacy arm of Planned Parenthood in Oregon without any process, any partnership or any transparency five months before the most consequential election of our lifetime when reproductive health care is on the ballot is baffling to me,” Hoyle said.

The advocacy group’s board, which includes 19 people, including the two affiliate CEOs and 10 people they have appointed, was scheduled to vote on the decision to dissolve the political effort Tuesday night.

This story may be updated.

Copyright 2024 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Lauren Dake is a JPR content partner from Oregon Public Broadcasting. Before OPB, Lauren spent nearly a decade working as a print reporter. She’s covered politics and rural issues in Oregon and Washington.