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An exit interview with Sue Idtensohn of Planned Parenthood of Greater Orlando

Idtensohn talks contraception, empowerment and retirement amid the current political attacks on reproductive rights

Photo: Rob Bartlett, License: N/A

Rob Bartlett

Sir, we've got a person here that lives in the neighborhood that cuts the heads off babies,” a religious protester says to a passing car. It's July 19, 2011, and he's picketing outside the Titusville home of Sue Idtensohn, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Greater Orlando. In between half-hearted, tuneless songs about the gospel of Jesus, the waving of poster-board images of dismembered fetuses and accusations ranging from profiteering to infanticide (how else could she afford such a nice home?), Idtensohn remains stoic. By now, she's grown accustomed to preaching peanut galleries outside her home and her office, Planned Parenthood's main Orlando clinic on Tampa Avenue. But she's always taken it in stride, facing down the Bible-bearing critics with the same aplomb she faces down the legislators that encourage them.

“All of the noise around me, I've probably gotten a little hardened to it,” she says over a glass of wine at White Wolf Café. “I made the decision a long time ago that if someone was going to do harm to me, they were going to do harm to me.”

But neither Idtensohn nor Planned Parenthood's two local offices have had much harm done to them, despite the fact that some of her clinicians include bulletproof vests in their work uniforms. Since 1998, Idtensohn has led PPGO from a fledgling organization of almost secretive advocacy to a thriving resource for women's health serving 26,000 men and women with basic health care annually.

In January, on the 39th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, Idtensohn, now 66, announced that she would be retiring from her post; her last day is March 29. The timing couldn't be more surreal. The last year has seen attempts by Republicans to shut down the federal government over Planned Parenthood funding, a huge public-relations disaster when the Komen for the Cure Foundation threatened to pull its funding for breast cancer screenings from the organization and unprecedented – even obscene – political forays into wedge issues of contraception and vaginal intrusion. All of a sudden, women – who make up 51 percent of the electorate – are the punching bags of the moment. And this is when Idtensohn decides to walk away?

She says, with some authority, that this is the perfect time, the time for a new generation of activists, leaders and practitioners to step up and defend the rights of women. She's done her job, and now other women – women like her replacement, 28-year-old Jenna Tosh – need to carry the torch.

“I love that I grabbed an organization like Planned Parenthood here in its infancy, and now it's at its adolescence,” she laughs. “Here you go. Here are the keys to the car. I can't think of a better scenario.”

Orlando Weekly : We've talked a lot over the years, and what never fails to surprise me is how you've been put in a position of both running a clinic and looking out for your life and the lives of your staff. Does that happen in any other medical field?

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