Shortly after becoming sexually active, Alexandra Rucinski got pregnant.
She was 22 years old and had only been taught about abstinence because of her conservative, Mormon upbringing.
“There was no conversation other than abstinence, which didn’t protect me at all,” Rucinski said.
Enter Planned Parenthood in downtown Burlington, Iowa. The clinic closed in 2017 after Republican lawmakers excluded Planned Parenthood from state funding, but it was there for Rucinski.
Rucinski said she went to the clinic when she was about three months pregnant because she didn’t have health insurance at the time. She was pretty sure she was pregnant, but she wanted to have it confirmed.
“When I went into Planned Parenthood, I was pretty scared to go in there,” she said. “Because I had been raised conservative, I had heard things about Planned Parenthood, that they were going to pressure me, there was going to be an agenda.”
But she found the opposite.
Instead, Rucinski said she found an environment that supported whatever decision she made and she was given the resources to inform that decision. When she told the staff at the clinic that she wanted to keep the pregnancy, she said their next move was to refer her to the OBGYN at the Great River Medical Center, the hospital in Burlington.
“Women know what they want to do, but we also deserve unbiased support in making that decision,” Rucinski said.
After she had her son, she went back to the Planned Parenthood clinic for birth control because she felt comfortable and safe there, and because she wanted to take care of the child she had.
The clinic then closed in June 2017.
Rucinski got angry, but she also got organized.
Before the clinic shuttered for good, Rucinski led a protest march from the downtown clinic to the Mississippi River that included about 125 people in the community. By the river, people shared their stories about their experiences with Planned Parenthood.
“For me, it was a feeling of wanting to say something before the doors closed. I didn’t want the clinic to close with nothing being said,” Rucinski said. “I already knew going into it that this protest wasn’t going to stop what had already been put into motion, but I wanted people to see how much this clinic had helped the community and to make a loud and bold statement saying that.”
Rucinski hadn’t reached out to anyone at Planned Parenthood about putting on the march, but the national organization noticed her efforts and contacted her, which launched her new life of advocacy.
A Void Of Options
Without Planned Parenthood, Burlington didn’t have a clinic specializing in low-cost family planning services for almost a full year. The next closest Planned Parenthood is in Iowa City, about 80 miles away.
For those patients without the resources to travel to Iowa City, the hospital and other Burlington clinics had to take on Planned Parenthood’s patients, often without all of the resources or staff to accomplish the job.
When Planned Parenthood closed, Rucinski said she felt adrift because her options had diminished.
“It really left this community disadvantaged when we didn’t have a Title X clinic,” she said.
Trying To Fill The Gap
Community leaders in Burlington understood that issue, and hosted meetings to find solutions.
Annie Wilson, the mayor pro-tem of Burlington, attended some of those meetings and heard the concerns about accessibility that people voiced.
“On the city level, there’s not a whole lot, at least that I’m aware of, that we could’ve been able to do,” she said.
But as a city official, and someone who had used Planned Parenthood, Wilson said felt like she should be a voice for the people who needed clinics like Planned Parenthood.
She got involved with events people put on and, to raise awareness for the issue, she talked to reporters who were writing about the situation.
“I was devastated for the people who use [Planned Parenthood],” Wilson said. By that point, she’d been elected to the city council and she said she had health insurance to cover what she needs.
But she understood how important Planned Parenthood is to the people who need the services the clinic offers, like testing and routine medical exams.
“The great thing about having family planning services in the immediate area is for people who have to use public transit,” Wilson said.
Traveling for Planned Parenthood services is a major obstacle for many Iowans who don’t have access to personal transportation or the time to travel. Having fewer clinics can also affect wait times for appointments.
A new Title X clinic, Family Planning of Southeast Iowa, opened in 2018 to replace Planned Parenthood. Many of the people who worked at the Planned Parenthood work there now.
“We had to fight for this Title X Clinic and we’re still relying on Title X funding,” Rucinski said.
Title X is the federal program that provides government money for family planning services throughout the country. The money has never gone to funding abortions, but it did go to other services in clinics that did provide abortions.
In 2017, the state of Iowa denied federal money and changed its family planning program to a state-funded model. The model allowed the state to exclude clinics that provide abortions from getting the money, which led to four Planned Parenthood clinics shutting down around the state.
The Trump Administration is trying to go further, aiming to deny any clinic that also offers abortion services from receiving any federal funding.
Family Planning of Southeast Iowa doesn’t offer abortion services, and it operates on the federally funded Title X program.
A Long Time Coming
While an anti-abortion platform has been central to the Republican Party for decades, the party has moved in a very aggressive manner on abortion restrictions in recent years – just as they took over Iowa government.
According to Tom Courtney, a former state senator from Burlington, this move to restrict abortions has been coming for a long time.
“It became an adversarial thing,” Courtney said. “All of a sudden it was: ‘you should be staying home,’ ‘you should not have sex until you’re married.’ It just got crazy.”
He said the renewed legislative push came when Republicans gained more control of the state government by winning the governorship and the majority in the Iowa House in 2010.
“It’s really obvious. The states that have rampant Republican control are pushing all these bills,” Courtney said. “I told folks when I was up for re-election, ‘these guys get control, you won’t know Iowa anymore.’”
That control came in 2016, when Republicans took over the Iowa Senate, the last remaining Democratic bulwark in state government.
“It’s the worst feeling that you can imagine,” he said. “It almost makes me cry to look back at that Senate.”
The Next Step In The Battle
For many women, the fight is ongoing, and Rucinski said she’s not finished.
“I jumped in because Planned Parenthood helped me personally,” she said. “And then I had the opportunity, through the march and through the protests, to see how much Planned Parenthood helped my community.”
Now Rucinski is a member of Planned Parenthood’s Speakers Bureau. She’s flown out to Washington, D.C. more than once to visit both Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst to tell them why funding Planned Parenthood matters so much.
She said their reception has been mixed.
“In some ways, there’s some sympathy there,” Rucinski said. “In other ways, there’s still this idea that these resources aren’t as important as I think they should realize that they are.”
Rucinski’s march was also the first time Wilson was involved in a political protest.
“I’m involved in city government and that’s taking a stance on something, and some people don’t like that,” Wilson said. “I just knew that [marching] was more important than any political career I may or may not have.”
Wilson said this political action has inspired her to potentially run for higher office. After all, she said, bringing a new voice to local government was why she got involved in city government in the first place.
In the end, Rucinski said this is what it means to be a woman in today’s America.
“If you’re a woman, your life is political whether you like it or not,” Rucinski said. “I care too much about this to let it go.”
by Nikoel Hytrek
Graphic by Rob Bingham