Health & Medicine

Planned Parenthood California brings on a ‘tenacious fighter’ to take on Trump

Sacramento attorney Maggy Krell was fighting a high-profile internet sex trafficking case on behalf of the state of California when she made an unexpected career decision: She left her position as a prosecutor for the attorney general to join Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California as its chief legal counsel.

Krell had spent months putting together a case against Backpage.com, a site she argued was little more than a platform for digital pimping, often facilitating sex trafficking of underage girls. She was in the middle of the litigation. It was a trial she was passionate about, one that had raised her profile statewide after an unsuccessful run for Sacramento district attorney in 2014.

But, she said, the work she could do at Planned Parenthood was too urgent to wait. "I am not willing to stand on the sidelines when the stakes are so high," Krell, 39, explained.

According to Krell and others, the Trump administration has put Planned Parenthood under attack, seeking to defund its health clinics and curtail access to low-cost reproductive health and abortion services in California and across the country.

In the past year, President Donald Trump has appointed conservative, anti-abortion justices in federal courts in multiple jurisdictions. He also pushed the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, potentially taking away access to contraceptives for 55 million women . In January, Trump reversed Obama-era guidelines on Medicaid funding, making it easier for states to withhold money from the nonprofit.

In addition, the U.S Health and Human Services Department last week announced new rules for $260 million in Title X grants, used for family planning and preventative health programs, that favor providers who offer "natural family planning" such as information about the rhythm method of birth control, according to an AP report, effectively knocking Planned Parenthood out of the running for the money.

Planned Parenthood is facing a crisis as it seeks ways not only to continue to provide services to millions of women across the country – more than 1 million in California – but to raise awareness of what's at stake for women if access to birth control and health services becomes restricted by economics, politics and what Crystal Strait, CEO of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California, sees as Trump's dangerously narrow view of women's reproductive rights.

"Now more than ever, Planned Parenthood needs a brilliant legal mind and tenacious fighter at the helm of our legal team as we continue to protect against the extremist agenda threatening to defund our operations and chip away access to health care," Strait said.

Krell said that when Strait asked her to join the team, she felt it was both an opportunity and an obligation.

"I am ready to fight in a new arena, whether it's abortion bans or the defunding or banning of sex education," said Krell, who had worked for the Department of Justice for 15 years. "Many of my sex trafficking and domestic violence cases started because a patient confided in her medical provider. If it hadn't been for that nurse, doctor or medical assistant notifying law enforcement, we wouldn't have been able to stop the abuse, access resources for the victim, and put the abuser behind bars."

While Planned Parenthood is one of the main providers of abortion services in the U.S., abortions make up only about 3 percent of the nonprofit's work. As abortion rates have fallen nationwide in recent years, Planned Parenthood has focused on its core mission: reproductive health services. But Krell said that Planned Parenthood represents a vital piece of the health care puzzle for many young and low-income women, whatever their needs are.

Growing up in San Francisco, Krell said she worked in a pizzeria "before everyone had cellphones, and I remember letting my friend use the phone there to set up appointments with Planned Parenthood and get test results so they wouldn't call her parents at home."

When another friend got pregnant at 15 "and was terrified, Planned Parenthood cared for her without judgment," Krell said.

It's that kind of open-access she wants to protect. Last week – her second on the job – Krell filed an amicus brief in the U.S. Supreme Court seeking to defend a California law that cracks down on "crisis pregnancy centers" that she says mislead thousands of young women about birth control and abortion services.

Such crisis centers often are run by anti-abortion groups that provide free pregnancy tests and counseling without disclosing their political positions, Krell said. Those groups have sued the state of California over a law, the 2015 Reproductive FACT Act, that requires them to provide or post information about abortion services. The case has made its way to the Supreme Court. Krell filed her brief to support the position of her former boss, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who is defending the law.

Krell argued that "crisis pregnancy centers" are not medical clinics, but anti-abortion advocacy organizations designed to promote abstinence and dissuade women from terminating pregnancies. In her 34-page brief, Krell cited an undercover investigation that revealed 70 percent of the centers' patients were told abortion increases the risk of breast cancer, and 85 percent were told abortion not only increases the risk of infertility but leads to mental health problems.

"Aside from the injury of being deceived, lectured, bullied and shamed, CPCs' tactics harm women in numerous ways that directly risk their lives and health," Krell wrote.

The FACT Act has been challenged in court by the national nonprofit pro-life membership organization National Institute of Family and Life Advocates, on behalf of 135 California pregnancy centers.

NIFLA, which filed a federal civil rights complaint against Becerra and the state of California, argued that the act requires "that medical pro-life pregnancy centers provide written or digital information to their patients – such as a sign in the waiting room – on how to obtain a state-funded abortion. This means that nonprofit pro-life medical clinics as well as their staff and volunteers are being forced to violate their consciences – an outright violation of their First Amendment rights."

But Krell argued in her brief that along with medical misinformation, "poorly trained, or entirely untrained, staff have mistaken multiple women's intrauterine contraceptive devices (commonly known as 'IUDs') for fetuses." In one case, a staffer informed the patient the "fetus" did not have a heart beat.

Krell added that when crisis pregnancy centers discourage the use of condoms and "impede women's access to contraceptives and shame women who ask about them, they harm those women by increasing their risk of future unintended pregnancy. ... This is particularly true for low-income women."

The case, which Becerra will argue before the U.S. Supreme Court on March 20 with Krell in attendance, is considered a significant test of First Amendment rights versus state mandated access to reproductive care.

Steve Magagnini: 916-321-1072, smagagnini@sacbee.com. Phillip Reese contributed to this story.

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