Mass. Planned Parenthood’s new CEO is fighting for health care access

Dr. Jennifer Childs-Roshak is the first physician to lead a Planned Parenthood affiliate in the nation.

Dr. Jennifer Childs-Roshak —Photo by Charlotte Wilder

On a winter day several weeks into her new job as the CEO of Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, Dr. Jennifer Childs-Roshak sits in an armchair in her corner office on Commonwealth Avenue.

In order to get there each morning, she has to walk the past pro-life protesters who are always milling about outside the entrance. Planned Parenthood volunteers, wearing neon vests like crossing guards, stand outside the doorway to ensure that Childs-Roshak—and everyone else—will be able to safely enter building without being harassed or hurt.

The group of protesters on this particular day is made up of mostly older women holding pictures of the virgin Mary and trying to hand out anti-abortion pamphlets, rosaries dangling from their gloved hands. Inside the building, all visitors have to pass through a metal detector. A security guard checks their personal belongings for possible explosive devices.

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These extensive security measures are meant to guard against attacks like the one that took place in Colorado last November, when a man opened fire at a Planned Parenthood facility and killed three people.

That shooting took place just five days after Childs-Roshak took over as CEO.

“You never want to go to work thinking, is today going to be my last day?’’ she says. “For me, it was really inspirational to see how everybody just rallied together. And I think it increased people’s resolves, certainly my personal resolve, to say I’m in the right place doing important, critical, necessary work.’’

The security measures are also indicative of the political climate that Planned Parenthood is battling. Childs-Roshak, 51, took on the job of chief executive largely to protect the family medicine and female health care services that Planned Parenthood provides for women in Massachusetts. The political atmosphere is friendlier here than in some other states, she says, but there are still those who’d like to see funding cut here, too.

With her perfectly placed, cropped brown hair, Childs-Roshak has the poise of a ballet teacher. Growing up in a small New Hampshire town with a close-knit, supportive community instilled within her a deep belief that, as a woman, she could be a groundbreaker.

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She’s become one: She’s the first person with a medical degree to take the reins as chief executive of any Planned Parenthood in the nation.

“I guess that does surprise me a little bit,’’ she says. “For me, it seems like a very logical progression and next step, because a lot of what I did and what my family-care colleagues do every day is education and advocacy. Not at the Beacon Hill or Capital Hill level, but advocacy for patients to get coverage for things they really need with health insurance.’’

It feels natural in part because it’s somewhat of a homecoming. After graduating from Harvard University with a degree in English, Childs-Roshak moved to New York City, where she took a job as an editor at the United Nations fund for population activity, which focuses on maternal and child health, birth control, and family planning. In her free time, she also volunteered at a Planned Parenthood center. It was this combination of experiences that made her realize she wanted to be a family doctor.

So Childs-Roshak enrolled at Temple University in Philadelphia for medical school. She also engaged in some family planning of her own: While studying to be a doctor, she and her husband had their first child. She had their second during her residency.

“I’ve really had to balance things, yeah, it’s all a blur,’’ she says, laughing. “Just like a lot of working women, working moms. I’ve had really good mentors and been able to put my foot on the gas or take it off depending on what my family needed.’’

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After school, Childs-Roshak became a primary care physician specializing in family medicine. She also held a number of leadership roles, most recently as the regional medical director for Atrius Health.

“Her extensive experience both as a physician and as a health care management executive makes her uniquely qualified to further the work of Planned Parenthood in Massachusetts,’’ says Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of the national Planned Parenthood office, “and meet the challenges of providing nonprofit health care in our shifting health care landscape.’’

Childs-Roshak wants to face those challenges head on. She cites figures showing that for every $1 spent on family planning, you save $7 further on down the road. She stands firmly behind the services Planned Parenthood provides.

“STI testing for men, too! For men!,’’ she exclaims, losing her calm demeanor for a moment. “Up to 20% of people in our health centers are men coming in for sexually transmitted infection testing.’’

Her staff is working to combat the hostile political climate surrounding Planned Parenthood across the country. She’s excited by the evidence-based educational programs that Planned Parenthood supports for both students and parents who want to learn to talk to their children about safe sex.

“The conversations around the country lately have been filled with such hateful political rhetoric, and the impact is really affecting the access to health care,’’ she says.

Childs-Roshak says that, so far, she’s loving her new role. Recently, she created a Twitter account, which makes her a little bit nervous. When it comes to policy and health care, she knows what to do. Social media, however, is a brave new world.

Her apprehension won’t stop her, though. She sends out a tweet before heading to her next meeting. After all, she says, one of her personal mottos is: “Go big or go home.’’

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