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Paula Gianino reflects on 25 years heading Planned Parenthood

Paula Gianino is president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - Paula Gianino  has been the regional head of Planned Parenthood for almost a quarter of a century. She plans to step down in a year, according to an announcement late Wednesday by the organization’s board.

Gianino’s retirement in January 2015 would mark her 25th anniversary of the medical organization.

Gianino became president and chief executive of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region in January 1990. The organization expanded its operations in 2008 and became Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri.

The board said it was announcing her pending retirement now so that an extensive search for her successor can get underway.

Gianino said in an interview Thursday that she long saw her 25th anniversary in office as “the perfect, perfect milestone’’ to step down, provided that the Planned Parenthood affiliate was in a strong position.

From her vantage point, it is. Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri oversees a number of clinics in the St. Louis area, as well as two in Springfield, Mo., and Joplin.

Planned Parenthood operates health centers that focus on providing medical services related to reproduction and birth control, including Pap smears for women. It also operates an abortion clinic in St. Louis.

During her tenure, the clinics have served more than 1 million patients, most of whom seek reproductive-related services, preventive medical screenings or gynecological exams. The clinics serve men as well as women.

Planned Parenthood also runs an educational program aimed to informing children and teens about reproduction-related matters.

Planned Parenthood used to be the biggest participant in a state-funded family-planning program during the 1990s, but the General Assembly killed the whole program when its efforts to bar Planned Parenthood’s participation failed in court.

Annually, the Planned Parenthood affiliate treats about 50,000 patients a year. Fewer than 15 percent come for the organization’s most controversial service: abortion.

Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri operates the only fully licensed abortion clinic in the state. Originally known as Reproductive Health Services, it performs about 6,000 abortions a year at Planned Parenthood’s main building in St. Louis’ Central West End.

At least 20 percent of the women seeking abortions travel more than 100 miles to Planned Parenthood’s St. Louis clinic, Gianino said, because so few abortion clinics remain in the Midwest. (They include the Hope Clinic in Granite City, Ill.)

Planned Parenthood’s decision in 1996 to take over the abortion clinic was arguably its more controversial action during Gianino’s tenure. And she has no regrets, citing women’s constitutional right to reproductive choice.

“It was a moment of truth for this organization,’’ Gianino said. “It was a huge mission-driven decision that we knew was going to change us forever.”

Since then, Planned Parenthood’s St. Louis headquarters, which also houses the abortion clinic, has had to deal with anti-abortion protesters five days a week. “These are people who are determined to harass our patients and any visitors,” she said.

Gianino also is disturbed over “a fake mobile clinic” set up by abortion opponents across the street that offers free screenings for pregnancy and sexual transmitted diseases. She’s concerned about the lack of state oversight. “There’s no medical regulations, no licensing, no quality control,’’ while Planned Parenthood’s operations are closely monitored, she said.

Gianino also points to the organization’s annual battles in Jefferson City, where she says some legislators “seem to be overly obsessed’’ with curbing women’s reproductive rights. “Every single year we’ve had anti-choice bills pass the legislature,’’ she said.

While costly and time-consuming, those fights have had at least one benefit. “I’m really proud how our organization has built its political might over the last 25 years,’’ Gianino said.

She also is proud that, even during challenging, times, the St. Louis Planned Parenthood affiliate never laid off personnel and always gave employees merit-based raises. The affiliate’s staff has more than tripled under her watch, to about 160 full- and part-time employees.

Her tenure also has seen dramatic growth in the local Planned Parenthood’s endowment, from about $250,000 when Gianino arrived to more than $21 million now.

That growth has come, she emphasized, as the number of Planned Parenthood affiliates has dramatically dropped, from about 175 when she started to 86 now.  The decline is attributed, in part, to mergers.

Gianino said the saddest times have revolved around murders at various Planned Parenthood operations around the country.  But while upsetting, she said the threats have increased the resolve of supporters, workers and patients.

“We have to make sure that our doors stay open,’’ she said. “That’s why I come to work every day, to make sure that we do that.”

In a statement, the organization cited her leading role “through mergers, acquisitions, legislative attacks and capital expansions – moves that have strengthened Planned Parenthood and helped solidify its reputation as a trusted source for health care and education.”

Board chair Shanti Parikh said in a statement, “For nearly 25 years, Paula has been an extraordinary and visionary leader for Planned Parenthood both locally and nationally. She has given so much to the reproductive justice movement.  Her resolve, stewardship and impact will be felt in perpetuity.”

The board also is setting up the Paula M. Gianino Endowment Fund to train medical personnel.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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