Vernita Gutierrez is the director of community engagement for Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest, San Diego County. She has worked in a variety of positions for Planned Parenthood since 1989 and leads the organization’s faith-based outreach, trainings, clergy organizing, community education and engagement, advocacy campaigns, and more. Vernita is also the treasurer of the Faith Based Action Coalition, co-chair of the San Diego Refugee Forum Health Task Force, and an advisory board member for the Hadassah Project.
Sally Steenland: Much of the work you do at Planned Parenthood is at the community level, especially with faith communities. One of the things you focus on is health care issues, and that includes reproductive justice. In the years you have done this work, what’s the most important thing you have learned?
Vernita Gutierrez: Well, that reproductive justice is a human rights issue. That you cannot do some of it without doing all of it. In other words, we have to take a holistic approach to sexual and reproductive health and address the intersections with classism, sexism, racism, and all the other “isms” in order to foster self-determination for individuals, families, and communities.
SS: Let me ask if anything surprised you when you started this work—if anything that you expected did not show up, or did.
VG: The level of support from the faith community has been a bit surprising, although I think the support has always existed. But thanks to the work of the Center for American Progress and other organizations that work to elevate the voices of progressive clergy, I think there is an increased comfort level that allows faith leaders to speak openly in support of reproductive justice.
SS: That is a really important thing you just said. In the public debate, we so often see religion on one side and reproductive rights and justice on the other side. It sounds like you are saying that the reality on the ground is different. Can you talk about that a little bit?
VG: Well, most people of faith, like the majority of Americans overall, support access to contraception, sexuality education, and reproductive health care, including abortion. I come from a home where faith was very important, and I still retain many of the values instilled in me through my faith tradition.
I believe we have to allow personal decision making for important life decisions, like when and whether to have a child. Each woman’s circumstances are different, and if someone is struggling just to get by, to get a better job, or take care of the children she already has, we need to ask ourselves what we can do to support her to raise a child, if she makes that decision—or to end a pregnancy if she decides that she needs to.
Faith communities can support women and families as they face a difficult decision, and offer compassion and tend to their spiritual or moral needs while allowing each individual to follow his or her own conscience. Many progressive faith leaders share a commitment to reducing health inequities and a dedication to elevating women’s health. Their voices are a powerful force that is crucial to this conversation, and their willingness to speak out for women and families is a moral foil to those who would limit a woman’s access to important health care services.
SS: Thank you so much for saying that. That’s really important to hear. I want to ask you about the work you have been doing in African American faith communities within San Diego County. What are some of the urgent health issues in these communities?
VG: Nationally, African Americans are disproportionately affected by a number of reproductive health issues. Those inequities are reflected in San Diego as well. For example, in San Diego County, African American women have the highest rates of infant mortality, about three times as compared to all other ethnic groups. And African Americans are only 5 percent of the population, but accounted for 13 percent of new HIV infections in San Diego County in 2012. Also, African American women are more likely be uninsured or underinsured than white women and are often forced to delay care because they lack the resources to pay for it. As an African American woman, these facts are deeply concerning.
SS: What are some of the things you are doing within the community both in terms of service and advocacy? You are right—these are justice issues and health issues. What are some of the things you’re doing with Planned Parenthood?
VG: Well, we are trying to work more with the faith community, which is a very big piece of the African American culture, particularly in San Diego, and other communities as well. We are trying to really take a holistic approach to reproductive health and work with schools. We’re providing education in several classrooms; we are working with other organizations to help promote comprehensive medically accurate sexuality education; we’re working with our local legislators to ensure that women have access to services. Those are some of the things that we are doing here locally.
SS: That’s important work. There are very high rates of HIV in San Diego County, where you work, as well as teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. If you listed that for someone, they would say, “Those are health issues.” But, as you were talking earlier, you’re talking about human rights and about these as justice issues as well. Connect the two for us.
VG: Just to give you a little bit of background on the sexually transmitted disease rates in San Diego County: The Centers for Disease Control recently released their STD Surveillance Report for 2012, and it indicated that the percentage increase in the rates of sexually transmitted diseases reported in San Diego County was higher than those reported at the national level.
To [answer] your question, individuals have multiple identities that intersect: their race, gender, sexual orientation, physical and mental ability, immigrations status, age—just to name a few. And all of these intersections are inherently connected to the struggle for social justice and human rights. So all of them have to be considered in order to effectively address an individual’s reproductive and sexual health and rights, including changing society’s power structures and inequalities that affect their autonomy and their ability to live full and healthy lives.
SS: You said earlier that African American women were more likely to be uninsured, less likely to be able to afford to go to the doctor to get the health care they needed. I want to ask about the Affordable Care Act, or ACA, which is now the law of the land. I know that a lot of faith communities have been working on enrollment and Medicaid expansion. We know that California has expanded health care in terms of Medicaid. Have you seen that impact in terms of more people being able to get health insurance at an affordable rate, more people having access? Have you seen a real difference?
VG: For almost a hundred years, Planned Parenthood has been providing women with health care, and that’s not changing. Whether someone has health insurance or not, they can still come to us for the care they need, when they need it. The Affordable Care Act has been a blessing to millions of people who would not have otherwise qualified for health care coverage.
I live in a state that, for the most part, understands the importance of the Affordable Care Act. We opted to create the health insurance exchange and to expand Medicaid, or MediCali, as it’s referred to in California, for its residents. There’s a sense among health care providers that Medicaid expansion will place a strain on resources and access. And there are still people who, for whatever reason, will fall through the cracks or who do not qualify for coverage under [the] ACA because of their immigration status, which makes the role of safety net providers like Planned Parenthood even more important. Ninety-nine percent of sexually active women have used birth control at some point in their lives, so contraceptives are a tremendously important part of the coverage under the ACA.
SS: You said Planned Parenthood will always provide health care for women, whether they have insurance or not. That’s an important thing to say because I’m not sure a lot of people know that. Planned Parenthood, in the public debate among some conservatives and right-wing opponents, has been stigmatized. Can you just say that again and explain the basic health care that millions of women get in this country because of Planned Parenthood?
VG: Sure. Well, as I said, Planned Parenthood has been providing health care to women and families for almost one hundred years, regardless of one’s ability to pay. Whether or not they have health insurance coverage, Planned Parenthood is here for them. They can come to us for the care they need, when they need it. We provide vital cancer screenings and other preventive services to women and families, and that’s not changing.
SS: You are a basic health care provider. That’s wonderful work. My last question, Vernita, has to do with the Faith and Reproductive Justice Leadership Institute here at CAP. You are an active member of the Leadership Institute. We are so honored and proud that you are with us. Faith and reproductive justice are often seen as opposed. But clearly in your life, in your work and in your mind, they’re not. So how do faith and reproductive justice connect for you?
VG: Well, reproductive justice is about creating healthy and safe families and communities. Faith leaders have always supported families and communities facing challenges. The faith community is deeply rooted in social justice. So reproductive justice and faith are connected to the acknowledgment and understanding that our faith can inform our sexuality, and that by addressing the spiritual needs and the daily realities facing our communities, we can make a positive impact on the lives of women and families.
SS: And that is what you do every single day! You make a positive impact on the health of women and their families. Thank you so much, Vernita, for talking with us today and thanks for the work that you do.
VG: Thank you.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. You can learn more about this project here.