Reproductive Justice Icon Urges Repair of Constitution to Protect Women
Columbia Nursing alumna Faye Wattleton, MS ’67, former president of Planned Parenthood, recently shared with the Columbia community her insights on the past, present, and future of women’s rights in America and the forces that have shaped her life’s work. The event included a conversation between Wattleton and Columbia Nursing Associate Dean for Diversity and Cultural Affairs Vivian Taylor, EdD, as well as an audience Q&A. A reception followed.
The Black Alumni Council of Columbia University, Columbia Nursing, and the Columbia Alumni Association (CAA) presented the November 2, 2022, event, which was part of CAA’s She Opened the Door. Launched in 2018, the series honors Winifred Edgerton Merrill, the first woman to graduate from Columbia—in 1886—and the first American woman to earn a PhD in mathematics. She Opened the Door aims to enlighten, educate, elevate, and empower women across the university, fostering a powerful network that broadens their impact in the world.
Brenda Aiken, BA ’77, MD ’81, the associate vice president of medical services at Columbia Health, welcomed Wattleton and Taylor to the stage at the Lantern in the Lenfest Center for the Arts.
In 1978, Wattleton became the first African American and the youngest person ever named president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA). She was also the first women to lead PPFA since Margaret Sanger founded the organization (as the American Birth Control League) in 1921.
Under Wattleton’s leadership, PPFA fought to protect women’s right to self-determination, while providing medical and educational services across the U.S. and supporting family planning programs in dozens of developing countries. By the time Wattleton stepped down as president in 1992, PPFA was the country’s seventh-largest charitable organization, with 170 affiliates in 49 states and the District of Columbia that served 4 million people a year.
A trailblazing minister mother
Wattleton’s mother, the eldest daughter of nine children, was an early guiding force for her. When her mother was a young girl, she traveled to Washington, D.C., to read on NBC Radio an award-winning essay she’d written—and felt “the whole world opening up to her,” Wattleton said. Then at 17, her mother was called to the ministry.
Growing up listening to sermons gave Wattleton a firm grasp of the importance of having principles in life, she continued. “I was the child of a woman who stood up.”
Wattleton noted that she doesn’t recall ever not wanting to be a nurse. After she completed her bachelor’s in nursing at Ohio State, a mentor recommended she seek out a master’s in nursing through a midwifery program. Columbia Nursing was then one of only three such programs in the U.S.
During her clinical integration at the Women’s Pavilion at Harlem Hospital, Wattleton saw a woman die after an illegal abortion and observed the toll pregnancy took on teens and women already facing poverty and racism. “Pregnancy is a dangerous condition,” she told the Columbia audience. “Nobody should be forced to have one against their will.”
Wattleton’s studies at Columbia were key in guiding her toward reproductive rights advocacy, she noted. “I’m drawn to this work out of my experience of being a trained nurse.”
She believes the Supreme Court’s June 24, 2022, Dobbs decision should have come as no surprise. “The courts have been overturning Roe v. Wade for four years. We just simply stopped paying attention and engaged in fantasy. We did not have Roe v. Wade on June 23—we had a piece of Roe v. Wade,” Wattleton said.
Efforts to restore women’s rights must now be made at the federal level, according to Wattleton, who feels there is a role in the process for everyone. “I am going to support any effort that will create a movement to correct the damage that has been done to our Constitution by the Supreme Court,” she said.
The anti-abortion movement’s ultimate goal, Wattleton warned, is to make women second-class citizens. “It’s not just about abortion. This is really about controlling women and our status in society,” she said. “This should outrage us all.”