PORTLAND, Maine — Fifty years ago, when a group of Vermont women and a local minister founded what would become the northern New England chapter of Planned Parenthood, the birth control pill was new. Approved by federal regulators just five years earlier, the pill would soon revolutionize the lives of women.

Today, women’s accomplishments across a range of arenas can be tied to the freedom birth control offers in planning a family, according to Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

“I can’t imagine going back to a time when women couldn’t make their own decisions about whether or when to have a child,” she said.

Richards visited Maine on Wednesday to take part in Planned Parenthood of Northern New England’s 50th anniversary celebration.

More recent history has seen the nonprofit organization at the center of renewed controversy. Republican legislators in Congress have revived their effort to strip its federal funding, seizing on Planned Parenthood’s image among many conservatives as an “abortion chain.”

U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, the only anti-abortion member of Maine’s congressional delegation, cast his first vote against abortion in January on the 42nd anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.

Richards continues to highlight the other health services her organization provides to women, which make up the bulk of its care.

“These are what I think of as bedrock American values,” she said. “I think anyone who’s trying to get in between women and their access to health care is on the wrong track. It’s really time we take politics out of women’s health care.”

Planned Parenthood operates clinics in Biddeford, Sanford, Topsham and Portland. In 2013, the organization served nearly 43,000 patients at its 21 health centers in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, according to its annual report.

Family planning, counseling and contraception services accounted for more than half of the visits that year. Annual exams and cancer screening and treatment represented 17 percent of visits, followed by testing and treatment for sexually transmitted infections at 15 percent. Abortions accounted for 6 percent, according to the report.

“If you want high-quality birth control and reproductive health care, there’s no better provider in the country than Planned Parenthood,” Richards said. “We know more about birth control than anyone in America, and I think probably on the planet.”

Richards, the daughter of former Texas Gov. Ann Richards, warned Maine against following in her home state’s footsteps by restricting access to abortions.

“Look carefully at any piece of legislation that may be masquerading to benefit women when in fact, what it’s really about is reducing women’s ability to access care,” she said.

One proposed bill would require parental consent for minors to undergo an abortion in Maine. Another would require abortion facilities to obtain a state license, which pro-choice advocates view as a tactic to impede women’s access to the procedure.

“This bill does not do anything to protect the health and safety of women,” said Meagan Gallagher, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Northern New England.

A January pro-life rally and march in Augusta attracted both Poliquin and Gov. Paul LePage. Teresa McCann-Tumidajski, executive director of Maine Right to Life, said abortion, like slavery, should be abolished, according to a CBS 13 report.

“It is the same level with abortion, with slavery not every slave was killed and we knew it was a bad practice. With abortion it kills a baby, so we believe that abortion is the new Holocaust and the new slavery,” she said at the time, according to the news station.

Planned Parenthood supports other proposed legislation, including a bill that would provide Medicaid coverage for family planning and reproductive health care to more low-income adults.

With the expansion of Medicaid — though not in Maine — and new health insurance options under the Affordable Care Act, more patients are walking through the doors of Planned Parenthood clinics with coverage, Richards said.

“For too many years, women chose the [birth control] method that was cheapest because it wasn’t covered by insurance, and that didn’t mean they necessarily got the best coverage,” she said.

The federal health reform law requires insurance companies to cover a variety of women’s health services — including contraception and cancer screenings — with no out-of-pocket costs, beyond monthly premiums.

But two new studies by the National Women’s Law Center found insurers in some states are failing to comply. A few plans sold in Maine last year violated mandates to fully cover genetic testing, care for transgender patients, including hormone therapy and sex reassignment surgery, and over-the-counter birth control, they found. The insurance industry disputed the findings, telling Kaiser Health News the reports presented a “distorted picture of reality.”

Advocates point out skimpy insurance coverage isn’t the only hurdle women face in accessing birth control and other reproductive health care. A group of anti-abortion protesters typically congregates on Fridays outside Planned Parenthood’s Portland clinic on Congress Street. The city passed an ordinance to create a “ buffer zone” for patients entering the clinic, but repealed it in July after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a similar ordinance in Massachusetts as unconstitutional.

Now Planned Parenthood volunteers, who were honored at Wednesday’s anniversary event, greet patients at the door to provide a welcoming face, Gallagher said.

Richards, who penned an October column for Elle magazine disclosing her own abortion, said it’s “horrific” that patients must face the protesters as they seek out any number of women’s health services from the clinic.

“The thought that in order to do that they have to walk through a gauntlet of protesters who know nothing about their situation is really upsetting,” she said.

The decision to share her own experience with abortion was an easy one, Richards said.

“I think we have a long way to go in this country to take away the shame and the stigma that women feel not only about abortion services, but about sexual health in almost every way,” she said.

Jackie Farwell

I'm the health editor for the Bangor Daily News, a Bangor native, a UMaine grad, and a weekend crossword warrior. I never get sick of writing about Maine people, geeking out over health care data, and...