Cynthia Mathews (left) and Gail Michaelis-Ow (right)
Cynthia Mathews (left) opened the first Planned Parenthood from her kitchen counter in 1971. Gail Michaelis-Ow is a longtime nurse practitioner in the Santa Cruz clinic.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Health & Wellness

‘It’s really unknown territory’: Longtime Planned Parenthood leaders look back — and forward

With the landmark Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion seemingly under threat and states across the country passing laws that greatly restrict a woman’s right to choose, local activists see “a grim, grim future” ahead but say they’re committed to keeping Planned Parenthood’s health care role in Santa Cruz a central one.

Longtime Santa Cruz community leaders decry restrictions on a woman’s right to choose that are happening in states all over the country. For more than 50 years, they have helped lead an impressive foundation of medical services for women. Unexpectedly, they now see the need to gear up as California becomes a sanctuary state, and to provide local services to women from states that have passed restrictive legislation.

“With the packing of a consciously anti-choice majority on the Supreme Court, it’s ‘gloves off’ for the opponents,” said Cynthia Mathews, who served for over 24 years on the Santa Cruz City Council and as mayor several times. “I just feel like we’re going back — we’re heading back to the 19th century. It’s exceedingly oppressive, and it’s inequity at its worst. It’s a horrible move backwards, and it’s happening before our eyes.”

Mathews — who co-founded the Santa Cruz chapter of Planned Parenthood in 1971 from her kitchen table — is both worried and angry about the larger national impacts of a potential reversal of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that effectively legalized abortion.

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“It’s really unknown territory,” said Gail Michaelis-Ow, a longtime nurse practitioner with Planned Parenthood Mar Monte in the Santa Cruz clinic.

The Mar Monte affiliate of national Planned Parenthood is the nation’s largest, providing medical and education services to more than 220,000 people annually at 35 health center locations in mid-California and northern Nevada. Those include four health centers in the Central Coast region — downtown Santa Cruz, Watsonville, Salinas and Seaside. In the past year, these four local health centers served a total of 44,500 individuals.

Locally, Santa Cruz residents can visit the four Planned Parenthood clinics within the coastal region, with more options on the other side of the hill. But those continued opportunities don’t negate the very real threat to reproductive health services, to the concern of area leaders.

Pioneers like Mathews and Michaelis-Ow — among other Santa Cruz-based health advocates, including Leslie Conner, CEO of Santa Cruz Community Health — see the “writing on the wall,” and are gearing up to help as many individuals as possible who need these vital services.

“We’re so lucky here, because the right to choose is codified in the state constitution,” Michaelis-Ow said. “But, honestly, I never thought I’d live through a time when Roe v. Wade would be overturned — it just seemed inconceivable for decades. It’s hard to imagine that the Supreme Court would … and now it seems very likely.”

For some states to call for bans on abortions after 15 weeks or even six weeks, Michaelis-Ow says, seems unfathomable: “Most women don’t even know they’re pregnant.”

Mathews notes that, while the threat has been real for a long time, the changes on the Supreme Court over the past few years have been “dominos falling.”

“It’s unavoidable — it’s a grim, grim future,” she said.

While abortion is at the center of this debate, Michaelis-Ow believes it’s vital for both proponents and opponents of Planned Parenthood to understand how much more the organization provides.

“Abortion is just 3% of our services — 97% of the time, we’re providing contraception, breast exams, Pap tests, treating sexually transmitted infections,” she said. “We’re providing primary health care — this should be thought of as just health care.”

Added Mathews: “California has been a leader on this issue, and many other issues. Santa Cruz as a community, from the time we started, was consistently supportive of the expansion of these services.”

But ultimately, she asks: “What can we do to preserve these services elsewhere?”

Gail Michaelis-Ow, a longtime Santa Cruz nurse practitioner, speaks with a Planned Parenthood client in a file photo
Gail Michaelis-Ow, a longtime Santa Cruz County nurse practitioner for Planned Parenthood, shows a client how to self-examine. Michaelis-Ow was one of the first six employees of the clinic back in 1976; she now works as part of the 19-person staff.
(Via Gail Michaelis-Ow)

Planned Parenthood’s early Santa Cruz roots

Fifty-one years ago, Mathews launched Santa Cruz’s Planned Parenthood chapter from her kitchen table in Santa Cruz. She had moved to Santa Cruz from San Diego in 1970, and had already worked with Southern California Planned Parenthood for five years as a volunteer and board member. It was during that time, in 1967, when then-Gov. Ronald Reagan passed the California Therapeutic Abortion Act, allowing authorized physicians to perform abortions up to the 21st week of pregnancy. Then, California became the third state to “liberalize” its laws, though Reagan apparently had his qualms.

Mathews found that the Santa Cruz community at large — particularly with the 1965 founding of UC Santa Cruz — needed family planning, contraceptive and related services. With collaboration from campus and county health services, she founded the the Santa Cruz chapter in 1971.

“It was just kind of the tenor of the times,” Mathews said.

After beginning as a “simple” advocacy and referral group with volunteers, directing individuals to existing county health services, the organization transitioned to providing sanctioned medical services, soon operating out of an Ocean Street office. Two years later, in January 1973, the Supreme Court handed down the historic Roe v. Wade decision, in effect making the right to choose national.

An "open house" flyer for the Santa Cruz Planned Parenthood, welcoming the community to visit the clinic on June 18, 1976.
(Via Gail Michaelis-Ow)

“It was a very supportive community from the beginning … at that time, there was just a blossoming of social service nonprofits for all kinds of groups,” Mathews said.

Michaelis-Ow, then a young nurse practitioner, joined the Ocean Street clinic on April 15, 1976, as one of just six employees. Today, she continues her work at the downtown clinic as one of 19 staff members, working part time.

Michaelis-Ow recalls that the county government began offering abortion services post-Roe v. Wade in the old county hospital building on Emeline Avenue, at the so-called “STOP” clinic (for selected termination of pregnancy). But many of the nurses, former labor-and-delivery nurses, were not on board with assisting for the new services. Michaelis-Ow says she and others came forward to volunteer as “patient advocates,” walking women through the procedure and creating a more comfortable experience.

After finishing her Master of Science degree in the nurse practitioner program at UC San Francisco, Michaelis-Ow returned to the Santa Cruz clinic in 1976. Over the next 20 years, she says, the clinic “kind of took off,” and merged with other local clinics to become part of Planned Parenthood Mar Monte.

As much as the services provided at the Santa Cruz clinic were a team effort from its launch, Michaelis-Ow explained how good co-founder Mathews was in ensuring that the clinic was able to provide the services the community needed.

“Cynthia was a master in affairs — she was so good at relationships with local press, and getting the word out there,” Michaelis-Ow said. “Looking back, I think the community was just hungry for these kinds of services since the university had just opened. I would say we were welcomed with open arms in those days.”