California Forum

This champion of Planned Parenthood helped cut the abortion rate in half

Kathy Kneer, longtime head of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California, will retire July 5. Her successor is Crystal Strait, an experienced Democratic political aide and strategist.
Kathy Kneer, longtime head of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California, will retire July 5. Her successor is Crystal Strait, an experienced Democratic political aide and strategist.

Before she built California into a national force on family planning – before the teen pregnancy epidemics and the anti-choice ballot measures, before the bomb threats against clinics that would have closed had it not been for her determination and grit – before all that, Katherine Kneer was 19-year-old Kathy Souza, a junior college freshman with a positive pregnancy test.

It was 1972. “He was my high school sweetheart,” the outgoing head of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California, now 64, recalled on a recent afternoon, as many Capitol people prepared for her retirement party. “He was at University of Reno and I didn’t know what I was going to do when I grew up.”

Abortion was nationally outlawed, but Ronald Reagan had signed a bill making it legal in California in 1967. She could have terminated the pregnancy; she chose not to.

Kathy Kneer has had as much as any politician to do with California’s national leadership on family planning. She’s also a testament to the way real change really happens – not overnight, but bit by bit, year by year, step by step.

She was the oldest of six children. Her mother was a housewife; her father, a Catholic and a Republican, owned a trucking company in Alameda. “I always knew I’d get married and have a family,” she said, “and at the time, we loved each other.”

So she dropped out of what was then Alameda Junior College, moved to Reno, married the boyfriend, gave birth to a son, and started job hunting. And that might have been that, had fate not gotten creative.

Instead, a volunteer gig at the March of Dimes, where her mother been a Mother’s March captain, turned into a job when the executive director of the Reno chapter failed to return from a Christmas vacation. Kneer had been the sole applicant; when she put on a fundraiser and raised record amounts, she was as surprised as the elderly polio survivors who were her board members.

“I learned something that carried me through my career,” she says now. “It’s not impossible if you don’t know it’s impossible.”

Though she has been an institution in Sacramento, Kathy Kneer is not a household name for most Californians. Pregnant women don’t think of her when the state issues some new warning on pesticides and birth defects. Young women don’t gratefully murmur her name when they swing by their neighborhood Planned Parenthood for free contraception and an STD test.

But they should. Pound for pound, Kneer has had as much as any politician to do with the extent to which California women can take family planning and good prenatal care for granted. She’s also a testament in these changing times to the way real change really happens – not overnight, but bit by bit, year by year, step by step.

Those who go way back with Kneer – and they appear to be legion – say it sometimes seems she has been changing California forever. After the Reno job, she rose within the March of Dimes, moving back to the Bay Area with her son when her marriage ended.

Eventually, the organization sent her to Sacramento to lobby, a job she says she learned by watching gifted Capitol hands such as Beverlee Myers, Jerry Brown’s director of Health Services in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

In that job, she helped establish the nation’s first birth defects monitoring program, a result of the Med-fly crisis that prompted Brown to authorize widespread aerial spraying of the pesticide malathion. Her efforts with Myers to expand benefits for prenatal care begat a federal expansion.

All but taken for granted now, Family PACT is one of California’s great unsung public policy success stories.

Along the way, Kneer learned states could do amazing things with federal waivers, and when she was hired in 1991 to succeed the outgoing lobbyist for Planned Parenthood, she used those skills to bring about one of the more important policy shifts in women’s health here in a generation.

Working with then-Gov. Pete Wilson’s administration to reduce teen pregnancies – which had soared in the early ’80s – and then with Gov. Gray Davis, she was instrumental in the creation of Family PACT (for planning, access, care and treatment), a state program that made it possible for poor women, including those without children, to get walk-in contraception and health care.

The program, all but taken for granted now, is one of California’s great unsung public policy success stories: Essentially by expanding Medi-Cal for just that one use, it took the red tape out of family planning for poor women, and made birth control exponentially easier to get for young women.

And because those women were used to coming to Planned Parenthood, it also stabilized the nonprofit’s funding, which had previously come from state grants that were chronically insufficient. That, in large measure, is how Planned Parenthood grew in California from about 40 clinics in 1996 to more than 110 now, offering more family planning than abortion.

Meanwhile, teen pregnancy and abortion rates fell dramatically in California. Family PACT’s contribution was found to have saved taxpayers billions – more than $9 in public funds for every dollar spent on the program, according to independent studies.

By 2014, the abortion rate among California women of childbearing age was 19.5 per thousand – less than half what it was in 1991, when Wilson took office. And the teen pregnancy rate per thousand girls had fallen from 160 to 54.

At her retirement party, in a ballroom at the Citizen Hotel decked with pink balloons in downtown Sacramento, a who’s who of California policymakers cited that and other Kneer contributions: to sex education rules, to privacy laws, to the defeat of the kinds of regulatory roadblocks abortion opponents have put up against Planned Parenthood elsewhere in the country.

Few mentioned the violence against clinics that arose after the anti-abortion activist David Daleiden launched his now-infamous video campaign against Planned Parenthood doctors. And no one but her sisters, from Cameron Park and San Leandro, and her husband of 32 years, Bob Kneer – a retired transportation safety director she met through her father – talked about the worry that comes with high profile Planned Parenthood jobs now.

It was with no small degree of relief that they spoke of the job being passed to another Sacramento political hand, Crystal Strait, and Kneer’s plans to travel and see more of her family. (Her son, now grown, lives in Hawaii.)

Mostly, the focus was on her commitment.

“Kathy Kneer has personified a word that is much in use today – because we need it – and that is ‘persistence,’ ” said Gov. Jerry Brown’s top aide, Nancy McFadden. Kneer’s sisters, at the edge of the crowd, joked that she had no idea: Theirs were the only children they knew whose Aunt Kathy put condoms in their Easter baskets when they hit adolescence.

So yes, she persisted. Interestingly, Kneer credits that to her father, and to his support when she was a lot like the Californians she would come to serve: young, with child, unmarried and frightened.

“When I told him – and I’ve always loved him dearly for this – he said, ‘Tell me what you want to do, and that’s what we’ll do,’ ” she remembered. “Now I tell parents every day that if your kids ever come to you and tell you that they’re pregnant, that’s what you should tell them. Because that’s how they know you love them unconditionally.”

Shawn Hubler: 916-321-1646, @ShawnHubler