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Planned Parenthood Faces Hostility in N.H., and Vermont Solidifies Defenses 

click to enlarge Meagan Gallagher - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Meagan Gallagher

The secretly filmed videos provoked a national furor. Although none of the footage of Planned Parenthood employees discussing the price of fetal tissue came from New England, the backlash was especially swift in New Hampshire, where the Republican-controlled Executive Council, which shares authority with the governor, quickly terminated a $640,000 state grant to the organization.

On October 6, someone spray-painted "Murderer" on the front window of a Planned Parenthood health center in Claremont, N.H. Two weeks later, police apprehended a hatchet-wielding intruder who had wreaked tens of thousands of dollars worth of damage at the same clinic.

Vermont's reaction to the videos? Meagan Gallagher, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, paused to reflect: "We heard from one legislator who had heard from some constituents just looking for information, clarifying the fetal-tissue situation, and that was pretty much it."

Welcome to the tripolar universe of PPNE, an affiliate of the national organization that spans three states: New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine. While public opinion polls show pro-choice majorities in all three states, the pro-life movement appears to have more momentum on the other side of the Connecticut River. In Maine, as in New Hampshire, Republican lawmakers are calling for further investigation and defunding measures.

"There's a big difference between understanding the political environment in one state and understanding the political environments in three states," said Gallagher, one of several leaders of the long-embattled organization who pass daily between friendly and hostile territory. "In New Hampshire and Maine, we're on the defensive, and in Vermont, we're talking about proactive ways to make people healthier."

Abortion opponents staged a daylong protest last Thursday at the Manchester, N.H., clinic, where an attentive security guard escorted patients and staff inside. By 10 a.m., there were nearly 20 protesters walking up and down the sidewalk, saying the rosary, including a priest in a black sport coat.

"Keep your baby! It's your baby!" one woman called to a young woman who walked into the clinic with her boyfriend. She held brochures for the pro-life Pennacook Pregnancy Center, located just one block away.

In contrast: The previous Saturday, only two regulars kept silent vigil by the sidewalk in front of the Burlington clinic while passersby ignored them.

Planned Parenthood of Northern New England began 50 years ago as a statewide family-planning organization in Vermont. It later expanded to southern and central New Hampshire and Maine.

In 2014, the regional organization provided a range of reproductive health services to 41,643 people — most of them low-income women — across 21 health centers. Twelve of the clinics are in Vermont, but, according to Gallagher, that concentration is simply a product of the organization's evolution. It began by serving all of Vermont and later expanded.

The $20 million organization employs 220 people. Seventy of them work at its central administrative headquarters in Burlington, which provides human resources, accounting and IT support to all three states. It also runs a unified educational program across Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire.

Unlike several Planned Parenthood affiliates, the northern New England group does not run a fetal-tissue donation program. The practice is legal — as is getting reimbursed for the costs associated with it — although profiting from it is not. In the aftermath of the videos, the national Planned Parenthood and its state affiliates have strenuously denied making money from selling tissue, and a series of investigations failed to uncover evidence to the contrary. But in response to the uproar, Planned Parenthood announced last month that it would no longer accept reimbursements.

Abortion opponents, meanwhile, continue to hold up the videos as proof that Planned Parenthood profits from selling aborted fetuses.

Outside the Manchester, N.H., clinic last Thursday, a friendly man who introduced himself as Fran sported a new pink sign slung around his neck that read, "Planned Parenthood sells baby parts." When a car with Vermont license plates pulled up, Fran explained that he assumed that what he called an "abortionist" was arriving. It was, in fact, a reporter, but he was right to think that the organization shares resources across state lines.

A single medical director and a director of health center operations oversee the clinics in all three states. Gallagher explained that there's also a lot of "border crossing," particularly along the Connecticut River Valley: Doctors and other health professionals licensed in both states can serve patients in Brattleboro and Keene, N.H., or Claremont and White River Junction.

Surprisingly, Gallagher insisted that the decision to relocate a clinic from West Lebanon, N.H., to White River Junction last year had more to do with finding an appropriate building than with politics.

Funding isn't so fungible. Planned Parenthood receives three types of government support — state grants, federal Title X dollars and Medicaid reimbursements. Gallagher explained that the organization couldn't dip into Vermont state grants or Medicaid monies to, say, fill the funding hole created by the Executive Council vote. It has, however, been able to preserve health care services in New Hampshire by cutting costs at its headquarters in Burlington.

Last weekend, Planned Parenthood left its Lakeside Avenue office — and the Lake Champlain view — for cheaper rent at a complex behind Costco in Colchester. The move will save $150,000 a year, according to Gallagher, and the clinic on St. Paul Street isn't going anywhere.

Also helpful to the tristate organization: Donations increased amid the video fracas. To address the remaining shortfall, the organization plans to take short-term measures, such as delaying capital projects.

Planned Parenthood of Northern New England operates a formidable political arm. It has political action committees and 501(c)(4)s — nonprofits that can spend money to influence elections without disclosing donors — in each state.

As CEO, Gallagher must work across state boundaries and make decisions about where to expend resources when advocating for Planned Parenthood's agenda.

Her background is in numbers, not policy making. After graduating from Tufts University with a bachelor's in mathematics, Gallagher spent three years auditing companies for Pricewaterhouse Coopers in Boston. In 2000, she joined Planned Parenthood of Massachusetts as a comptroller and was promoted to chief financial officer three months later. A decade later, the New Hampshire native and her husband left Boston for Vermont. Now 40, Gallagher is one of Planned Parenthood's youngest CEOs.

Gallagher spoke excitedly about plans to launch a program in Vermont to reduce unintended pregnancies by promoting more effective birth control — think IUDs rather than the pill, for instance — made possible by the Affordable Care Act, which requires insurers to pay for contraception.

She outlined more basic goals for Maine and New Hampshire. During the upcoming legislative sessions, Planned Parenthood will fight defunding efforts. While Maine doesn't give them any grants and New Hampshire just terminated its contribution, Gallagher expects Republicans in both states to try to put an end to Medicaid reimbursements for preventive services. Planned Parenthood has argued that the tactic violates the federal Medicaid law.

The tristate group is also focused on the 2016 elections. In New Hampshire, the situation is particularly uncertain. Democratic Governor Maggie Hassan, who is pro-choice, is running for the U.S. Senate, hoping to unseat Kelly Ayotte, a pro-life Republican and longtime foe of Planned Parenthood. Chris Sununu, a Republican candidate for governor and an Executive Council member, had supported Planned Parenthood in the past but in August cast the deciding vote against the organization because of the videos.

In a presidential battleground state, Gallagher said, "The long arm of Washington shows up in painful ways."

In Vermont, Planned Parenthood can rest easy. Political support for the organization was on full display on October 29 as Congressman Peter Welch (D-Vt.), an assortment of state lawmakers and political candidates fraternized in the Farmhouse Tap & Grill's cozy basement bar in downtown Burlington. If it wasn't already obvious from the bowl of condoms next to the cheese board, a pink banner above the fireplace advertised the organizer of this Sex, Politics and Cocktails fundraiser: Planned Parenthood's Vermont PAC.

Gubernatorial hopeful Shap Smith, the Democratic House speaker from Morristown, swooped in to catch a word with Gallagher as she prepared for her speech. Sue Minter, who's also making a bid for the state's top post, snapped photos of the CEO when she stepped up to the podium. Matt Dunne, the third declared Democratic candidate, was there, too.

Neither Republican candidate attended, but both Lt. Gov. Phil Scott and Bruce Lisman have said they are pro-choice and have disavowed national efforts to defund Planned Parenthood.

Despite the chummy political climate, Planned Parenthood's Anne Burmeister warned the Sex, Cocktails and Politics crowd: "Vermont is not an island. We are not immune." Summoning political bogeymen is a classic tactic used to drum up dollars at political fundraisers.

Later, however, Gallagher offered real examples of how distant problems can hit home.

During the Miss America contest in September, Miss Tennessee was asked whether she supported sending taxpayer dollars to Planned Parenthood. She erroneously stated that the organization offers mammograms. That prompted a flood of calls to the Burlington call center — a coordinated effort among pro-lifers asking about mammogram services. Gallagher said these "campaigns to intimidate abortion providers" have become the "new normal" for her staff.

"We spend a lot of time and energy training our staff on how to deal with things like that," Gallagher said.

Security, too, commands an inordinate amount of organization's attention. The recent attack on the Claremont clinic is causing the group's board to revisit policies at its clinics in all three states.

Correction 11/11/15: An earlier version of this story incorrectly suggested that Planned Parenthood receives Medicaid reimbursements for abortion services provided in Maine and New Hampshire. In those states, the organization is only reimbursed for preventative services such as birth control and cancer screenings. In Vermont, Planned Parenthood can receive Medicaid reimbursements for abortion services.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Planned Parenthood Faces Hostility in N.H., and Vermont Solidifies Defenses"

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Alicia Freese

Alicia Freese

Alicia Freese is a Seven Days staff writer.

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