Man, I missed Stephanie Simon. She's the superhuman religion reporter who left the Los Angeles Times in April for the Wall Street Journal. These last few months of California-heavy coverage without her ace reporting have been difficult to endure. I missed her so much that I just randomly Googled her name . . . and found a fantastic story that ran last week in the Journal. I have no idea how I missed this huge Page One story with tons of graphics. (If that link does not work, try this reprint from the Denver Post.) It's vintage Simon -- she reports the heck out of her pieces, gives them a compelling angle, and writes beautifully. Still based in God's country (that would be my native Colorado), Simon looks at how Planned Parenthood is working to extend its brand by marketing to affluent women and building huge new centers in suburbia. What makes all this particularly interesting is that Planned Parenthood is a non-profit that is heavily subsidized by federal and state governments. Well, that and the notion that abortion and birth control services would be something that would be branded:
Flush with cash, Planned Parenthood affiliates nationwide are aggressively expanding their reach, seeking to woo more affluent patients with a network of suburban clinics and huge new health centers that project a decidedly upscale image. . . .
Two elegant new health centers have been built, and at least five more are on the way; the facility in Denver will be 52,000 square feet. They feature touches such as muted lighting, hardwood floors and airy waiting rooms in colors selected by marketing experts -- as well as walls designed to withstand a car's impact should an antiabortion protest turn violent.
Planned Parenthood has also opened more than two dozen quick-service "express centers," many in suburban shopping malls.
Some sell jewelry, candles, books and T-shirts, along with contraception. . . .
While Planned Parenthood executives describe the tactics as a natural extension of their mission, the moves have opened the organization up to criticism from foes and friends alike.
Antiabortion groups point out that Planned Parenthood, the nation's largest abortion provider, reported a record $1 billion in annual revenue in its most recent financial report -- about a third of that coming from federal and state grants to care for low-income women. The nonprofit ended the year with a surplus of $115 million, or about 11 percent of its revenue, and net assets of $952 million.
Simon speaks with both anti-abortion activists who argue that the government shouldn't be giving so many funds to an organization in this financial situation. She also speaks with Planned Parenthood's president who defends the revenue stream and management of funds.
What I also love about the story is that it doesn't just pit pro-lifers against Planned Parenthood. She finds that competitors in the contraception and abortion business are none-too-pleased as well. After discussing Planned Parenthood's mission statement changes, she speaks with a competitor:
"This is not the Planned Parenthood we all grew up with . . . they now have more of a business approach, much more aggressive," said Amy Hagstrom Miller, who runs abortion clinics in Texas and Maryland.
Ms. Hagstrom Miller competes with Planned Parenthood for abortion patients -- and finds it deeply frustrating. She does not receive the government grants or tax-deductible donations that bolster Planned Parenthood, and says she can't match the nonprofit's budget for advertising or clinic upgrades. She has carved her own niche by touting her care as more holistic -- and by charging $425 for a first-trimester surgery at her Austin clinic, compared with $475 at the local Planned Parenthood. (Both Ms. Hagstrom Miller and Planned Parenthood say they work out discounts and payment plans for the needy.) "They're not unlike other big national chains," Ms. Hagstrom Miller said. "They put local independent businesses in a tough situation."
Other abortion providers also weigh in with criticism, saying that Planned Parenthood's new outreach to the "young, hip and affluent" is leaving poor women behind. One aspect to the story is missing and it feels somewhat weird. Simon repeatedly mentions Margaret Sanger, who founded Planned Parenthood. She mentions Sanger's activism in support of contraception. But for a story dealing with reaching out to poor vs. rich, Sanger's views on eugenics really should be mentioned, shouldn't they? As one might expect in the Journal, the story really digs into the business decisions made at the national and local affiliate level.
"I like to think of it as the LensCrafters of family planning," Steve Trombley, the top executive in Illinois, said as he toured an express center a few doors down from a hair salon and a Japanese restaurant in the well-to-do suburb of Schaumburg, Ill.
Simon explains that Planned Parenthood claims a loss of $1 on each packet of birth control pills given to poor women under the federal Title X program but makes a profit of $22 on each packet of pills sold to adults who pay full price. She explains how the excess funds are used and that Planned Parenthood is targeting the affluent in part to protect itself from any funding cutbacks. Here's another fascinating tidbit:
Nationally, Planned Parenthood's political-action arm plans to raise $10 million to influence the fall campaign. Under federal tax law, the health-care wing of Planned Parenthood cannot support political candidates but can mobilize voters and advocate on issues such as abortion rights and sex education in schools.
To encourage the new wave of patients to join the cause, an express center in Parker, Colo., sells political buttons next to the condoms and sets out invitations to activism by the magazine rack. A 52,000-square-foot center opening this summer in Denver uses about 20% of its space for health care; roughly 40% is for meetings, including political work.
Tons of other interesting information as well: specifics on how the new buildings are being built to provide a buffer between anti-abortion activists and patients, attempts to make clinics eco-friendly, and information on a marketing campaign billing a $2 condom as a "must-have fashion accessory."
One thing that would have been nice to include would have been a discussion from people who don't welcome Planned Parenthood's arrival to the local mall. It's terribly fascinating that Planned Parenthood considers itself a lifestyle brand. Other people find it a brand of death. A discussion of that conflict would definitely have been interesting.
Just another great story from Simon. Her command of the faith and values beat at the Los Angeles Times was exemplary and I look forward to her next Page One story at the Journal. Incidentally, that long Page One feature that runs in every day's paper is the most coveted real estate in the newspaper. Every singly reporter at the paper is expected to aim for that space so it's very difficult to get a story in there and it's impressive that Simon turned that around so quickly.