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Dawn Laguens’s day job gives her a bit of extra ammunition as the mom of 17-year-old identical triplets — all girls.

Laguens, the executive vice president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, has championed access to no-copay birth control and accurate sex education. She fought to reverse Susan G. Komen for the Cure’s decision to stop funding preventive care at Planned Parenthood.


She’s also embarrassed her daughters by talking about sex while their friends are over.

Laguens sat down with STAT at Spotlight Health, part of the Aspen Ideas Festival, to talk about the major hurdles facing women’s health care and why it’s worth making her daughters bury their heads in their hands at the dinner table.

How do you talk to your daughters about sex?

We’ve been pretty straightforward ever since they were little about body parts and how babies are made. As somebody who is kind of on the progressive end of the world and working at Planned Parenthood, starting when they were 12, we’ve really been pretty bold in our conversations. … Their friends come over and I ask “Do you and your parents talk about sex and sexuality?” and my kids’ eyes are as big as saucers. They’ve always had access to condoms and emergency contraception, in the house, where they or their friends could access it.


We also talk to them about [how] in the end, condoms are not necessarily the end-all, be-all to contraception but at least they’re gonna protect you from STDs. Also, we’re trying to talk about what do we want sex to be like. Because I think a lot of parents have gotten a lot better at the mechanics of [talking about sex], but actually talking about what should you expect. What is it gonna feel like? Those are maybe things that people who work at Planned Parenthood have a lot of comfort talking about.

What do you want them to know about sexual health as they hit college age?

I really want to talk to them as they’re moving to this next phase about consent, about what they as young women should expect from the people they have sex with, whether that’s boys or girls or anybody. We say to kids “We want you to be safe, we don’t want you to get pregnant,” and then we say “Good luck to you. Go have sex in a car, or under a bush.” I think about that as a mature woman now, and you’re not exactly setting up a recipe for great first sex for a teen or a college student. … Those are the kind of conversations I want to have with them — here are the circumstances that are likely to make it seem like something healthy and happy and fun and something you can be proud of and safe at.

What role does mental health have in those conversations?

From the perspective of a parent more than anything else, we think of people as whole people. It’s not just a collection of body parts that are getting together. It’s an actual human being with feelings and lived experience. Teaching our young people to be thinking about the whole person, and to be respecting the whole person, and to be caring for the whole person, is an important part of the sex ed that we do. Talking, again, not just about condoms and birth control but about relationships and consent.

Sex education is so fragmented. How do you get young adults nationwide the information they need?

I don’t see there being a national school system or a national overarching curriculum. I do think you can push for schools to use only proven curriculum, so then you can eliminate some of the abstinence-only and some of that other bull we have to put up with it.

What constitutes an undue burden to a woman’s access to abortion?

You should follow best medical practice in providing abortion services. Anything that is intended for a political reason to make it hard or impossible for you to get one — ultrasounds that you don’t need, waiting periods … all of those, in my view, are an undue burden and cost women time, and money, and emotions, and push abortions later.

One of the undue burdens brought up in the recent Supreme Court case was distance to the nearest abortion provider. How far is too far to have to travel for an abortion?

If you’re poor and don’t have a car, and public transportation is terrible, then having to go very far is an undue burden. If you live in Phoenix, or LA, and you have a car and you’re used to driving, your number might be different than somebody else’s number in my mind. There’s no fixed number.

Do you feel like Planned Parenthood has the resources it needs?

No. … We are a front-line provider. We are proven, effective, and if we had more resources, we could have more kids who are healthy, more children being born healthy, more women getting through college or getting into their careers in a way that is not derailed because they didn’t have the information or the services.

You would have people who had better emotional and mental health because they were not being stigmatized and judged by these jerks who stand outside of health centers. It’s not a couple of nice old ladies on the side praying. It’s a bunch of really mean bullies, for the most part, who are shaming and screaming at women.

When you’re having so much incoming from people who want to fight you and fight contraception, it just is a distraction. What we really need is [for the] time and space and resources that have to go to fighting to go to caring.

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