After a nearly year-long search for a new president and CEO, the Planned Parenthood South Texas board of directors announced last month that Laura Terrill will lead the health care agency in the post-Roe era.
Terrill’s first day was Monday.
She follows previous CEO Jeffrey Hons, who retired from the position this summer after 22 years.
“Laura brings impressive experience and background in reproductive health and rights,” board chair Merritt Clements said in a statement. “She is also an effective communicator, a thoughtful advocate for reproductive rights and a dynamic and creative leader.”
Terrill previously was vice president of external affairs for Planned Parenthood of Montana, a position she held for six years. She also served as the executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Oregon.
She has worked on political campaigns and was chief of staff for then-Oregon Secretary of State Jeanne Atkins.
Terrill comes to Texas at a time when abortion access is extremely limited. The nine Planned Parenthood clinics in the South Texas region, including two in San Antonio, stopped providing abortions after Senate Bill 8 took effect in September. That law essentially allows anyone to sue anyone involved in an abortion performed on someone who is more than six weeks pregnant.
Then the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade via Dobbs v. Jackson in June, ending federal protections for abortion. Texas’ “trigger law,” which bans nearly all abortions, will become effective on Aug. 25 — but the state’s Supreme Court has ruled that Texas can enforce its 1925 abortion ban in the meantime.
However, Planned Parenthood clinics remain open to provide services including primary care, birth control, testing and treatment for sexually transmitted infections, gender-affirming hormone therapy and fertility assistance.
To find out more about Terrill and Planned Parenthood’s role in this complicated landscape, the San Antonio Report sat down with her for a virtual interview Wednesday. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
San Antonio Report: Where are you from and how did you end up in San Antonio?
Laura Terrill: I was born in Wisconsin, but I spent my formative years in Evergreen, Colorado, and then spent 22 years in Portland, Oregon.
After our second child graduated from high school, we started asking some big questions, and we had some family in Montana so we decided to find our way there for a little while, which was great.
We wanted to explore a different part of the country and take things at a little bit slower of a pace and try a new professional experience. At the time, Montana had a pro-reproductive health care governor and an anti-reproductive health care legislature. So in many respects, it was purple. The governor wielded his veto pen with great consistency around reproductive health care legislation.
And then, unfortunately, an anti-reproductive health care governor was elected a couple of years ago, and Montana is now bracing for some really extreme legislation.
I wasn’t looking for work and then this opportunity in San Antonio presented itself and I was so excited. It felt like there was immediate alignment with what they were looking for and the professional challenge that I was interested in.
I feel so lucky to be in San Antonio. It’s such an incredible place, so warm and friendly. I mean, literally warm. Having just moved from Montana, I’m still regulating my internal temperature.
SAR: What led you to work for Planned Parenthood?
LT: When I was about 8 or 9, my mom came to me and my sister and said, “Hey, when you all become sexually active, please let me know and I will be sure to take you to a health care provider and we’ll get you birth control.”
She proceeded to share with me and my sister stories from our family about women who became pregnant and didn’t want to be — this was before Roe. A couple of women in my family tried to self-manage their own abortions, and both of them almost died as a result.
One of the women was in the hospital for a week. She was originally going to go see a Jane in Chicago, and a friend of hers said there was a bust there, don’t go. So she sought the counsel of someone in her community and almost bled to death.
I remember being so outraged that women could be treated in that way and be denied the health care that they needed. I told my mom in that moment that this was the work that I wanted to do, to help hold the line and advance access to health care. Certainly not in those words, but I was like: this is what I want to do.
She all but patted me on the head to say, honey, these issues aren’t going to be relevant when you are a professional.
So this work is personal for me, and it’s coming full circle.
I started my studies at the University of Colorado in Boulder and was walking on Pearl Street Mall one time. There was an anti-reproductive health care advocate on the sidewalk and he and I got into a little back-and-forth.
He absolutely just took me to town. I could not get a word in edgewise, he got me all twisted up on my own words and I was just rageful about my inability to spar with him and be able to articulate my point of view. In that moment, I decided that I wanted to major in political science. I wanted to understand the rules of government and the players and how the systems worked in order to be able to effect change.
I’m working on a masters of public administration from Portland State University. I feel like that is still — despite all that’s happened — like those are the venues where we can bring about the most important kinds of change that we need to see.
Beyond the temperature, what has the adjustment been like coming from Montana to Texas?
LT: I’ve experienced a lot of dichotomies.
I’ve met some of the friendliest and nicest people, literally, that I’ve ever met in my life.
The garbage truck was going down the street here and the team of garbage guys jumped off and the crew leader came over and shook my hand and introduced himself and told me about the schedule and said he was looking forward to working with me. Everyone, including grocery store clerks, the whole 9 yards — and certainly the staff here and the board — are just so nice.
And yet, there are these forces, these individuals, these anti-reproductive health care extremists, that are denying people their basic human rights. That dichotomy is pretty hard to get my head around.
I want to believe that it’s a vocal minority that has a microphone right now, talking about denying care to people. I think Kansas is such a great proof point of that. [Nearly 60% of voters there rejected a constitutional amendment that could have likely led to an abortion ban]. Kansans gave us evidence of what we’ve always known, which is that access to sexual reproductive health care is a nonpartisan issue.
The University of Texas at Austin did a poll this year that showed that 78% of Texans support some form of access to abortion. I believe that our supporters and Texans writ large believe in dignity and human rights and access to health care without interference from the government.
SAR: How do you maintain that energy in a post-Roe nation?
LT: I’m a fierce optimist. Mostly out of need.
One of the things that has impressed me so much about the folks that I’ve met, the PPST team and board members is their resiliency.
PPST has been around since 1939 — 83 years of providing health care services, even before Roe, and we didn’t start providing abortion services until the 1990s.
It’s unfortunate that we have to continue to need to be resilient because politicians keep trying to deny people access to the care that they need and quite frankly deserve.
For many people that we see, we’re the only health care provider that they have access to, in many cases where the only health care that they seek. They will come in for an STI test and the provider will hear a rattling in their chest or uncover another symptom. I’m super proud of the fact that we provide primary health care to patients.
SAR: I think some folks forget that Planned Parenthood clinics provide much more than abortions — and those services continue, correct?
LT: That’s exactly right. And if there’s one thing that I would want South Texans to know, it’s that our doors are still open and we are still providing the high-quality nonjudgmental care that we are known for.
We do provide a full range of health care services, including, most importantly, access to birth control, contraception and sexual and reproductive health care education.
It’s cruel that the same politicians that have been seeking to ban access or take away access to abortion care here in Texas are the same politicians that are seeking to do away with age-appropriate and medically accurate sex education so that folks can be informed about their bodies and consent education.
That community education that we provide to our patients and through programs, like the promotores program in the Rio Grande Valley, is critically important to making sure that folks are well informed.
SAR: Some conservative leaders have identified birth control and emergency contraceptives as their next targets — is Planned Parenthood bracing for that?
LT: The Dobbs decision did forecast a really, really scary future.
It’s a slippery slope when it comes to rights for members of the LGBTQ community and things like access to birth control, and that is a terrifying prospect. But again, I want to believe that South Texans want to stand on the side of human rights and dignity and maintain people’s bodily autonomy.
Many people don’t use birth control to simply prevent pregnancy, many folks are using it to manage medical conditions. People need to be able to decide, in consultation with their health care provider, the best course of action for them without interference from the government.
SAR: What is PPST’s role as an organization in this post-Roe landscape?
LT: We’ll definitely be continuing to lean into the incredible health care that we already provide. The need for health care, as you know, is only becoming more acute, and we’re proud of the services that we provide.
We serve a unique population and for that unique population, we play a unique role. Our patients are juggling multiple demands on their time — maybe multiple jobs, child care, public transportation — and we need to be in service to them.
We can provide care in a timely manner, which is so important. Some of our health centers open up at six o’clock in the morning, and a couple days a week stay open until seven o’clock at night so that we can see patients when it’s convenient for them.
We’ll be continuing to advocate, to hold the line, and hopefully expand access to preventative health care, including birth control.
SAR: Does the fall of Roe have an impact on PPST funding or staffing?
LT: We did not have any budget or staffing changes because, in Texas, we were already living in a Senate Bill 8 reality.
The Dobbs decision wasn’t quite as earth-shattering to us as it was for many other states, which is not a distinction that I would wish on us. We’ve operated for many, many decades without abortion care and will operate for many decades more — simultaneously, while we fight like hell to regain access to the full range of reproductive health care, including abortion.
SAR: Has there been more or enhanced collaboration with Planned Parenthood affiliates outside of Texas where abortions are legal?
LT: In many ways, the Supreme Court decision’s leak provided a little bit of time to have the necessary conversations to ensure that the network of providers was in strong communication with one another.
Sites like abortionfinder.org are providing a really critical resource. It’s unfortunate that people can’t call and talk to their health care provider about the medical care that they need, but the website is a really important resource for folks to seek the care or be able to get the information that they need to get the care.
SAR: PPST and the other two Texas affiliates are challenging Senate Bill 8 with a lawsuit. Will PPST be pursuing any more legal action against the other abortion laws in Texas?
LT: We stand ready to fight at the local and state and federal level — and at the ballot box — as needed, always with an eye toward what’s the most strategic path forward for the community and the most strategic legal strategy.
Abortion is health care. Every medical professional organization agrees that abortion is standard medical care. It is cruel that politicians and courts are creating so much chaos.
We’re seeing in some states that patients that are close to the gestational bans are being denied care, even though they’re under the legal gestational limit.
The chaos and confusion is causing some providers to hesitate because they’re afraid of criminal penalties that have been enacted in so many states. The fact that our providers are having to be forced to make decisions not based on medical best practice, but rather on politics, is cruel.