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Renee Wsol: From Planned Parenthood patient to advocate
by David Thill

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It's uncertain what the future holds for Planned Parenthood, but Renee Wsol isn't waiting to find out.

A single mother and a Medicaid beneficiary since 2012, Wsol, 34, of unincorporated Central Stickney in Stickney Township, feared the Trump administration and the Republican-led Congress might cut Planned Parenthood's Medicaid funding.

So, on Inauguration Day, she made an appointment to visit the organization's Orland Park clinic.

"Planned Parenthood offered me the flexibility I needed," she told Windy City Times. "I can go to any [Planned Parenthood clinic] I want….That's invaluable to me as someone who has to travel all over the city for my son's therapies." ( Wsol's four-year-old son has special needs. )

Since that February visit, Wsol has lobbied six U.S. representatives in Washington D.C. and traveled to Springfield to push for the passage of reproductive rights legislation at the state level. At press time, she was organizing a rally outside the office of her own U.S. representative, Dan Lipinski of Illinois' Third District—who received a 22 percent rating ( out of 100 ) on Planned Parenthood's 2017 Congressional Scorecard—in the hopes of convincing him to improve that score.

But she didn't anticipate doing all that when she made her appointment on Inauguration Day.

( In response to a request for comment, Lipinski wrote in part, in an email to Windy City Times, "I have and am willing to meet with any individual or group to talk about any matter related to the federal government….I encourage all of my constituents to continue reaching out to me about issues that are important to them." The congressman's full comments, including those regarding Planned Parenthood and LGBT issues, can be found below. )

From central Stickney to Washington, D.C.

Talking to the nurse during her initial visit to Planned Parenthood, Wsol expressed her fear that under the new administration, she and others like her would lose access to health care provisions like birth control. "I was just going on and on and on and on," she said. The nurse provided Wsol with contact information for Julie Lynn, manager of external affairs for Planned Parenthood's Illinois branch, who wanted to hear from patients like Wsol. Unsure of what to expect, Wsol reached out.

"I told [Lynn] I feel powerless," said Wsol. "All these terrible things are going to happen, and I think people don't think that they will. But they are [happening], and they're going to continue."

After hearing Wsol's story, Lynn invited her to a "lobby day" in Washington D.C. So, on March 1, Wsol, along with about 150 Planned Parenthood advocates and care providers from across the country, traveled to Washington—her first time in the nation's capital—and told her story to lawmakers.

Though she was nervous at first, Wsol soon found her footing, realizing that it was important to be direct in making her case.

"You can't afford to be shy" when talking to legislators, she said. And for anyone who is nervous before they start, "you're not going to be after you do it." She stays polite in her meetings with lawmakers, but she also keeps in mind one fact: "These people work for me, and they work for the other constituents in their district."

Constituents often feel like their voices don't matter, Wsol said. "But they do." She pointed out that many moderate Republican representatives refused to vote for repeal of the Affordable Care Act because of the pressure they felt from constituents. "We need to put the pressure on," she said.

But where should that pressure fall?

The push for HB40

"When we talk about 'defunding' Planned Parenthood, that means taking away Medicaid reimbursements" for the organization, Lynn, the Planned Parenthood of Illinois manager of external affairs, wrote in an email to Windy City Times. Over one-third of Planned Parenthood's 60,000 Illinois patients rely on Medicaid coverage, she said. That includes patients like Wsol.

Though the organization could potentially find itself in the crosshairs of April budget appropriation talks, multiple studies indicate that a large majority of Americans support continued Medicaid funding for Planned Parenthood. ( And as Lynn pointed out, Planned Parenthood provides more than just abortion services. )

Republican legislators, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, reportedly want to avoid the issue in budget talks, since that debate could lead to the kind of government shutdown the Republican-led government wants to avoid. But Planned Parenthood could then be targeted in an upcoming tax overhaul, which, as part of the Senate reconciliation process, would only need 51 votes in that chamber—and, therefore, no Democratic support—to become law.

But while uncertainty reigns at the national level, Wsol and others have taken their cause to the state capital.

During Wsol's trip to Springfield, organized by Illinois Women Moving Forward, she brought to lawmakers' attention HB40, originally introduced by Illinois Representative Sara Feigenholtz of the 12th district. The bill, which was approved by committee in February and is now up for a full House vote, removes language from the Illinois Abortion Law of 1975 that proponents argue would criminalize abortion in Illinois should the 1973 Roe v. Wade U.S. Supreme Court decision be overturned.

"I really hope it goes through, but I'm not sure if it will," Wsol said of HB40. To help it get passed, she hopes voters lobby their lawmakers on behalf of the bill. And "if you can't get out there [in person], then make phone calls," she said.

"It's not scary; it's not intimidating. Nobody's going to yell at you," she said. She emphasized that legislators don't expect constituents to be experts on the law. And if voters do face questions they can't answer, resources are available to help them find those answers, including organizational policy experts. ( At Planned Parenthood of Illinois, that person is Brigid Leahy, director of legislation. )

"This is all we can do," said Wsol. "We have this, and we have 2018," she added, referring to the congressional midterm elections. Voters' action now, she said, "paves the road" for what happens then.

Comments from Daniel Lipinski, Democratic representative of Illinois' Third U.S. district

In response to a request for comment from Windy City Times, Daniel Lipinski, U.S. representative of Illinois' third congressional district, wrote the following in an email:

"I have and am willing to meet with any individual or group to talk about any matter related to the federal government. Regarding Planned Parenthood specifically, it was the focus of much of my well-attended Town Hall earlier this year and I recently met with several smaller groups of PP supporters at my offices in the district. In addition, I had a good meeting with Equality Illinois just a few days ago, and I will continue to talk with them and others about how we can work together on issues important to the LGBTQ community.

"My constituents know that I'm very accessible to them and am always interested in hearing their thoughts and views. I represent 812,000 people and not everyone is going to agree with every vote I cast. Sometimes people believe that if I don't vote the way they would like me to vote on a particulate ( sic ) issue that I am not hearing their voice. That is not the case. I encourage all of my constituents to continue reaching out to me about issues that are important to them."

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