Director, Global Communications | Planned Parenthood Global
We had this conversation with Lori back in January 2017 – and while some details have changed, the topics remain as relevant as ever.
Can you tell us a bit about Planned Parenthood Global (PPG) and summarize the organization's work abroad for us?
Many folks might be more familiar with Planned Parenthood's work across the United States but we've been working globally as Planned Parenthood for more than 40 years. PPG is the international arm of PPFA and our model is to support partners. We focus on women, men and young people in some of the world's most neglected areas. We make sure that they have access to the healthcare they need to control their bodies and their futures. We support over 100 grassroots reproductive and community groups with both financial and technical assistance.
The work gets done better when youth organizations come together with professional groups like lawyers and doctors and journalists. Our goal was to reach over one million people with sexual reproductive health information and services over the course of our five-year strategic plan. We ended up reaching over five million people through our partners with sexual reproductive health, information and services. That includes over 60,000 safe abortion and post-abortion care procedures last year alone.
You have an amazing global reach. For example, you are in 12 countries throughout Latin America and Africa. Your network includes over 6,000 advocates trained to understand and leverage human rights frameworks, laws, and mechanisms. That's critical to foreign policy.
This interview is part of an ongoing partnership between Women in Foreign Policy and The Women in Diplomacy Podcast, ran by Kelsey Suemnicht, focused on women working at the intersections of foreign policy and technology.
Previous interviews include:
- Kelsey Suemnicht, founder, The Foreign Policy Project
- Arezoo Riahi, Program director, TechWomen
- Katie Shay, Legal Counsel, Business and Human Rights, Yahoo!
- Irene Wu, Expert in communication technology around the world
- Wendy Betts, Director, eyeWitness to Atrocities
- Nora Hauptmann, Head of NGO Relations, Kiron Open Higher Education
- Diana Nassar, TechWomen fellow, Jordan
Similar to the way that we operate in the US, PPG knows that to advance the issue of sexual and reproductive health globally, you can't just look at services. There needs to be that advocacy component there or the work cannot advance.
What do you think the impact of the incoming administration will be on sexual reproductive health policy?
In the new administration, we have an extreme push by politicians like Vice-President Mike Pence, who wants to defund and shut down Planned Parenthood. It would deny millions of people access to services that they rely on. These attacks are not just attacks on Planned Parenthood, they're attacks against the reproductive rights movement that we stand for.
Planned Parenthood Global are not currently receiving USAID money. Therefore there would not be a direct, de-fund effort in the same way Planned Parenthood is facing de-funding under the Trump administration. Yet we are concerned with the impact that the new administration could have on women, young people and communities in the global south and around the world, because as you all know the US is a huge contributor to many global health programmes. We are the leading bilateral donor for family planning and we are meant to be a beacon of progressive values, democracy and global health around the world. We have seen indications that some of that legacy and some of those contributions may be in jeopardy.
Most immediately we are very concerned about the reinstatement of the global gag rule. [Since then, Trump has since not only reinstated but expanded the global gag rule. Learn more here.] The global gag rule, also known as the Mexico City policy, could be reinstated by Donald Trump. This would impede countries' efforts to improve women's health by needlessly and devastatingly forcing healthcare providers to choose between becoming a recipient of U.S. family planning assistance and the ability to provide clients with abortion services or to even advocate for abortion services.
The U.S. should not be imposing standards on organisations outside of its borders that it wouldn't even stand for imposing within its borders. Yet, that's exactly what it does through the global gag rule and we know that this has an absolutely chilling and devastating effect on groups that are working to advance global health and specifically sexual and reproductive health and rights around the world.
We're also worried about levels of international family planning funding. There was a questionnaire circulated among the global health community this weekend that, was very worrisome and essentially asked the question, if foreign aid worth it? Now, you know and I know that the answer is resoundingly yes. To take a very numerical example, the U.S. investment of over 600 million dollars in international family planning, in the fiscal year 2015 helped over six million unintended pregnancies, over two million abortions, and thousands of maternal deaths. So, that's a, for a lack of a better phrase return on investment that we know is pretty unbeatable if you want to look at the raw numbers, but this questionnaire seems to indicate that the administration might feel differently. Of course, again, we don't know for sure and the only thing that there's really precedent around for this administration is unpredictability. So, we can't be certain but the global community has reason to be concerned and Planned Parenthood Global shares that concern.
There is an upcoming election in France and one of the most prominent contenders has declared that he was personally against abortion but wouldn't change the law. Do you have any concern about what an American administration against abortion would do to reproductive health rights worldwide?
Absolutely, we're concerned about the effects on countries worldwide and what it means symbolically and practically-speaking when the United States sends this message that we are anti-abortion.
Now, keep in mind this is not actually a popular opinion among Americans. We know that Donald Trump did not win the popular vote. We also know that in the United States, Planned Parenthood is wildly popular. We are more popular than the United States Congress for example, and we know that 16 separate nationwide polls and nine polls in key swing states show strong favorability for Planned Parenthood and strong opposition to "de-funding efforts". So, this is not popular. People did not elect Donald Trump to send a message to the world that the U.S. is against abortion access. In fact, we know that even among Trump's own supporters, he does not have a majority mandate to go after Planned Parenthood and to go after reproductive healthcare.
What is your role at Planned Parenthood Global and what would your average, every day be like?
I have been with Planned Parenthood for three and a half years now and I'm new to the role of director of global communications. This is my first role as a director in my professional career. I lead the implementation of Planned Parenthood Global's strategic communications work.
Within Planned Parenthood, because we have such a robust US domestic organisation to stay in touch with, I sit on two different teams. I'm part of the broader Planned Parenthood communications team, where I serve as their global point of contact and I'm part of the Planned Parenthood Global team, where I serve as their communications focal point and I have an excellent team here.
A day in the life is very diverse. We see any range of communications challenges come up, whether there's something in the news that pertains to an abortion law in another country being changed or protests being staged. Perhaps a partner is seeking technical assistance on a communications campaign that they're working on in-country. Sometimes we are working with the president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Cecile Richards or another senior leader of Planned Parenthood to make sure that they understand what is happening at the global level and are able to communicate that to the audiences that are meaningful to their work.
What role does technology play in today's global health foreign policy?
Technology plays an increasingly large role in advancing global health. Communications are a vehicle for advancing global health specifically, because we're seeing greater levels of connectivity and creativity from people all around the world in using communications to advocate for themselves and share their own stories.
There was a time when communications were often a one-way street. Donor governments or people in the Western world were often the ones who had access to the technology in order to dominate the narrative about any particular issue and to determine which stories would rise to the top. Some of that still happens but now you can't publish an article online about someone else and expect them to not be reading it along with perhaps whoever your intending audience is. Instead of asking someone about their story, writing it up and sharing it, you can ask them to write it themselves and share it themselves. That enables a more interesting and more ethical opportunity to use communications to get people interested in global health, understand its importance and its value.
You also run Feministing, a popular blog by and for young feminists. Can you tell us about that and also how do you balance a day job and a side hustle?
Sometimes I go on college campuses to give talks. I often get asked by younger folks whether they will have to get rid of their blog or active Twitter account in order to "get a real job" or if they can keep a variety of gigs going. That's something that people see as attractive and it's something that has been beneficial for my career.
When I first started writing about feminism, gender and reproductive health in the late 2000s, I was newly out of college. Many family members, my peers and my professors gave me a side eye and were very confused about why I would want to go on the record with my views on all of these things. They viewed it as a risky move. Now, I can tell you with certainty that many employers have told me that my involvement with blogging, writing and media, being able to build that experience on my own within an online community outside of more formal and traditional routes was a bonus for them. They saw it as something that was desirable. Which is, ironic, because I thought I was sacrificing something when I took on a passion project on the side but really it turned out to be something more.
I learned so much and now I am able to bring that to my employer in the nonprofit sector. I encourage people not to shy away from pursuing multiple interests at the same time, especially they can't see themselves able to choose one over the other right away or they get value out of those different projects. We're in a time when you don't have to choose one or the other. As millennials and Gen Z-ers, we have this insatiable attention span and this is one more way to fill that.
What advice would you give to young women interested in a career like yours?
The kindest compliment I've ever received in a professional setting, to this day, has been that I have good instincts. Many young women are encouraged when they enter the workforce to put their instincts aside in order to learn the way of the world and get their bearings. It is really important to take lessons from those around you and learn the ropes but it's also important to keep that instinct that you have and trust yourself. When it comes to communications and global health, there has to be a voice of authenticity that shines through all of the NGO jargon.
You always want to be able to trust your judgement and for instance question whether it is ethical to use a photo of this person? Have I talked to them all of the ways in which It will be used, or is there a more accessible way that I can communicate about this policy so that more young people understand its impact on their lives or their peers around the world. Those are the kinds of questions that surface for young woman naturally and they can get squashed just by all of the formal processes of communications in global health but they shouldn't. So, trust your instincts and that's, that will propel you forward.