COLUMBIA, Mo. – Protest signs floated like flat ships on a sea of pink as guest speakers shouted into a microphone that recent attempts by the University of Missouri to distance itself from Planned Parenthood would not stand.
No one was more vocal than Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri’s President and CEO Laura McQuade.
“Chancellor Loftin, welcome to Columbia,” she screamed through cheers. “You just got here a year ago, and you just made a really big mistake. You thought it would be easier to cave to the political pressure to repress women, we are here today to tell you, you made the wrong decision.
“We are going to turn up the heat on you so far, you’re not even going to know what hit you.”
For the last two months, ever since a series of video tapes released by the Center for Medical Progress alleged Planned Parenthood was selling fetal tissue for profit, the organization has circled their wagons and tried to defend their image – both as a haven for low-cost reproductive health care and as legal abortion provider.
If Tuesday is any indication, both in Columbia and across the nation, Planned Parenthood is ready to go on the offensive.
The day saw rallies across the country as part of a national #PinkOut day to support the embattled health care organization and in part to show solidarity with the national President of Planned Parenthood, Cecile Richards, as she testified before Congress.
In Columbia, hundreds of students, faculty members, elected officials, community leaders and citizens crowded into Speaker’s Circle on Mizzou’s campus.
The issue has become especially contentious in Columbia after the university cut what they called obsolete contracts with the Columbia affiliate of Planned Parenthood and revoked the refer and follow privileges of Dr. Colleen McNicholas, the abortion provider for that same clinic. Revoking those privileges essentially takes away the clinic’s ability to perform abortions.
State Rep. Stephen Webber, D-Columbia, whose district includes the university, was one of the first speakers on the docket.
“I’m here to say to you, that you do have some friends in the Missouri legislature, that we will stand up for you, and we will stand up for women, even when others won’t,” he said to raucous applause. “Study after study, the evidence makes it clear, the key to political development, equality, ending poverty, to economic growth, it’s simple:. it’s the empowerment of women. The empowerment of women must be a priority and a reality here at the University of Missouri.
“The University must respond to the needs of women, not the convenience of political pressure.”
State Rep. Kip Kendrick, D-Columbia, also appeared at the rally, but he did not speak.
The crowd also had a smaller subgroup from St. Louis that chartered a bus to attend the Columbia rally after rallying at Washington University.
State Rep. Stacey Newman, D-St. Louis, a fervent pro-abortion rights advocate, was among that group.
“I’m the proud wife of a Mizzou alum, and I’m also the proud parent of a Mizzou graduate,” Newman said as she spoke to the crowd. “But I’ll tell you what. Today, I am not proud.”
Many of the students who attended the rally shared her belief, decrying Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin and the rest of the administration for appearing to sit on their hands while cowing to political pressure from Jefferson City.
Loftin received much of the criticism. After becoming a popular man on campus when he first came to the university just over a year ago, recent scandals surrounding the university, Planned Parenthood and the student president being called a racial slur among them, have been met with inaction on Loftin’s part, students say.
“I think people see him as the shining figure for Mizzou, someone who represents our campus, and when he does so little or nothing at all to address these issues, it’s really disheartening,” said senior Ellie Busch. “After the initial contract terminations, it was clear action needed to be taken, and once they took away the refer and follow privileges, something needed to be done. We need to rally, we need to show Mizzou that we’re not going to stand for this.”
After the crowd began to disperse, Newman said her major beef of the whole debacle was with what she called the Planned Parenthood “witch hunt” committees in the House and Senate. She serves on the House Children and Families Committee, one half of a joint committee looking into Planned Parenthood. Newman voiced her frustration with the lack of agenda and public information about the House hearings, while also lamenting the lack of progressives in the General Assembly.
“The majority of our Democratic caucus are progressive, which means that we stand strongly for reproductive justice, but we are in the minority,” she said. “I’m just really tired of people, particularly Sen. Schaefer, using women’s reproductive decisions as political pawns. To me that’s unacceptable.”
Newman said those reproductive decisions are legal, but they’re being constricted by government.
“I work very closely with the Wash. U School of Medicine, and our new doctors that we’re training, they’re appalled on how we set policy,” she added. “This is not based on best practices and medicine, it’s based on people running for office trying to stir up the extremists. As you heard today, abortion is not one of the top services that Planned Parenthood provides, but it is a service. And more of us are speaking out.”
Other students added that Planned Parenthood provided cheap, affordable services in a safe environment.
“My support comes from the fact that I was there on Saturday for a cancer screening and for some other health complications,” Grace Shemwell, who studies juvenile law at Mizzou, said. “There are other clinics that weren’t open at the time. I was in an emergency state, but I did not feel comfortable going to an emergency room. They gave me immediate attention, and they were just the most accepting group of people I have ever met.
“As a woman, it’s important to feel safe when you are getting your health care, and in a lot of places, I don’t feel safe, so that was really refreshing.”
Emma Schiermeier, a junior, said that Planned Parenthood is simply a more affordable option than most other places. She would regularly have to pay $45 for three packs of birth control, but through Planned Parenthood, she only spends $18 on the same amount. She also had an exam that cost $500 at other places but only $42 at Planned Parenthood.
“I had bad insurance, but they make it affordable,” she said. “They take in everything, like if you’re a student, how much you work, how much in scholarships you have, and they make it so the price is that you can afford it.”
She did say however there was one drawback to Planned Parenthood’s services.
“The only negative part has been sometimes, like the first time I ever went there, there were protesters outside of it calling me a murderer and that was kind of unpleasant,” she said.
For that reason, McQuade will continue to fight for her organization.
“You think you can shame them?” she asked the opponents of Planned Parenthood during her speech, “You think you can stigmatize them for seeking the health care they deserve? No way, we tell you, no way.”