Planned Parenthood leader Lillian Tamayo retiring after two decades defending abortion rights
During her time, the agency has sued to protect abortion rights, withstood protests and expanded health care for women, teens and LGBTQ people.
From the minute Lillian Tamayo took over what was then a small West Palm Beach office of Planned Parenthood two decades ago, she has been battling harsh and persistent political winds that threatened women’s rights to abortion.
Now, as she prepares to end her career, the long-raging storm has gained hurricane strength.
“This is code red. There is no question,” she said. “This is a different kind of time, and there is no middle ground.”
If the U.S. Supreme Court upholds restrictive Mississippi and Texas abortion laws, at least two dozen states, including Florida, are likely to follow suit, she said. That would mean at least 36 million women of child-bearing age would live in communities where there is no access to abortion.
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But, she said, such “abortion deserts” won’t affect all women equally. Women with means will always find a way to end unintended pregnancies.
“The part that’s especially painful to me as a Latina woman is knowing that the people who are most impacted by policies like this are poor people, black and brown people, disabled people, marginalized people,” said Tamayo, who was born in Cuba.
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Lawsuits, protests mark 22 years leading agency
While Tamayo announced last week that she will retire in March, she said she hasn’t had time to think about what she will do when she leaves the sprawling organization that serves 45 counties from Key West to the Georgia line and across the Panhandle.
With abortion rights under attack, a $22 million-a-year agency to run and an $18 million fundraising campaign underway, she said she is too busy to think ahead to retirement.
Instead, for the short term at least, she will continue to do what has made her a respected leader in the community and on the national stage: fight to make sure reproductive health care is available to those who are too often ignored.
“She’s a freedom fighter,” said U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach. “Lillian has been a leader during some of the most turbulent, difficult times in the abortion movement.”
During her 22-year career, Tamayo has gone to federal court to successfully block Florida laws designed to limit abortions. She has been forced to deal with protesters and anthrax attacks. She has had to find ways to beef up security while providing a welcoming place for women – and men – to discuss the most intimate details of their lives.
When the Presidential Women’s Center was set on fire by arsonists in 2005, Tamayo was one of the first to offer help, said Mona Reis, founder and director of the West Palm Beach clinic.
“As this has evolved in our community, Lillian has always been front and center,” said Reis said. “She has left a tremendous legacy.”
Planned Parenthood brought health services, counseling to teens, Latinas
While known for her work to protect abortion access, Tamayo’s overall mission is far broader.
Dr. Alina Alonso, director of the county’s state-run health department and a fellow native Cuban, lauded the health services Tamayo provides to teens.
She offers them free screening tests for HIV and sexually transmitted infections. Counselors are available to talk to them about birth control, mental illness and other health concerns.
Alonso credits the clinics with reducing teen pregnancy and STI rates. “It’s been one of the best partnerships we’ve ever had,” she said.
Tamayo also formed relationships with Compass and other organizations that serve the LGBTQ community. In addition to HIV and STI screening, hormone therapy is available to those who want to transition and counseling is offered to those who are struggling under the weight of scorn and misconceptions.
“We wanted to create a judgment-free zone for our young people to come to receive care,” she said, pointing to photos in the agency’s newly renovated $1.7 million clinic at its headquarters on Florida Mango Road.
The photos, which depict loving relationships between young people of various races, genders and ethnic groups, are emblematic of the agency’s mission, she said.
Her mantra has always been: Everyone is welcome. To assure it wasn’t just a catchy slogan, she hired experts to train staff so they wouldn’t inadvertently offend or belittle people they might not fully understand.
“How are you welcomed? How are you received? How do you self-identify?” she said of the questions workers constantly keep in mind as they deal with ever-changing patients.
The focus isn't unlike the steps she took in 1999 after she was tapped to take over what was then Planned Parenthood of Palm Beach and the Treasure Coast.
“I was looking at the patient demographics and saw that, gosh, we were serving very few Latinx people,” she recalled. “Well, lo and behold, we had very few Latinx staff.”
In addition to making sure her staff mirrored the community, she reached out to Black and Hispanic leaders to dispel myths about Planned Parenthood and to encourage them to direct women to the clinics.
Former West Palm Beach City Commissioner Cory Neering, who worked with Tamayo for nearly 20 years before being tapped in February to head up a Planned Parenthood affiliate in New Jersey, said Tamayo was ahead of her time.
“Long before the racial reckoning we are in now, Lillian was in the forefront to make sure Black and brown people had full access to health care,” he said.
One of her most successful initiatives was La Promesa, a health care program for Latina women. She dispatched workers to Hispanic grocery stores, such as Presidente and Sedona, to publicize “Free Pap Smear Days”.
Latina women, many who had never had a gynecological exam, streamed in. Two years after La Promesa was launched in 2000, the number of Latina women the agency served increased by more than 65 percent. Eventually, women brought their children, partners and friends to the clinics for checkups.
The program underscores the importance of having a staff that understands the cultures of disparate groups, Tamayo said.
“Latino women are often raised to put themselves in the back seat, taking care of children, husbands, mothers, sisters and putting their own health on the back burner,” Tamayo said. “Part of it was really educating women that we needed, all of us, to really take care of ourselves and to be responsible for our own sexual reproductive health care in order to be able to fulfill all those roles that we believe are so critical to our identity.”
With the advent of social media, La Promesa was disbanded. Instead of grabbing pamphlets outside bodegas, young Latina women now look to the internet to find information about where they can receive reproductive health services.
“So much has changed from those days,” Tamayo said.
The only constant has been the attack on women’s right to choose.
Pressure to limit abortion rights growing for years in Florida
Fighting for abortion rights was always a key part of Tamayo’s mission.
When she interviewed for the post, Reis said she was summoned to pepper Tamayo with questions to test her commitment. “She passed with flying colors,” Reis said.
But anti-abortion sentiment was growing in state capitals throughout the nation, including the GOP-controlled Florida Legislature.
Beginning in the late 1990s, the Legislature passed a series of measures to curtail abortion rights. It banned so-called “partial birth” abortions. It required minors to get parental consent.
It cut funding to abortion providers for unrelated programs, such as cancer screenings and teen health programs. It gave state officials the right to inspect the records of 50% of patients who received abortions.
Further, each year from 2011 to 2016, bills were filed to outlaw abortion. In 2019, two bills were filed that would ban abortion as soon as a fetal heartbeat can be detected. None passed.
Many of the restrictions that gained legislative approval were struck down by either the Florida Supreme Court or federal judges.
In a 2016 decision, a U.S. District Court judge in Tallahassee blasted a sweeping measure that would have robbed abortion providers of state money to provide other health services.
“That a woman has a constitutional right to an abortion does not mean a legislature can impose otherwise-unconstitutional conditions on public funding,” U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkel wrote, blocking the law from taking effect.
West Palm Beach attorney Jim Green represented Planned Parenthood and Tamayo in that legal battle and others.
Despite enormous pressure from top Republican lawmakers and Govs. Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis, Tamayo has never wavered, he said.
“There’s no one I’d want to follow over the hill into battle than Lillian,” he said. “She recognizes exactly how sophisticated the opposition to reproductive freedom has become, both politically and legally. She knows where to draw the subtle line with focus and tenacity.”
Neering agreed. “She’s wicked smart and fierce and passionate about our movement and our work,” he said.
Like many who have spent decades on the frontlines of abortion battles, Tamayo said she never expected to end her career worrying that the Supreme Court would overturn the landmark 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion.
“I’m also not surprised,” she said last week after the court’s six conservative justices voiced support for doing just that.
For many of the nation’s most powerful abortion opponents, it’s never been about protecting the unborn, she said.
“It’s about women. It’s about misogyny,” she said. “It’s about judgment and shaming. It’s about control.”
During the next several months, she said she will be part of efforts to push the U.S. Senate to pass the Women’s Health Protection Act to make sure abortion remains legal throughout the country.
She will urge state residents to lobby Florida lawmakers to reject a bill that mirrors the Texas law, which bans most abortions after six weeks.
While the future looks grim, she voiced hope. “We’re a movement that’s 100 years old,” she said. “We’ll continue to fight.”
But, she said, it’s time for others to lead the battles.
In a way, she’s completing a circle. She accepted the job in West Palm Beach because she wanted to be close to her beloved grandmother. Like the rest of Tamayo’s family, the woman Tamayo described as "the love of my life" had fled the cold of New Jersey for the warmth of South Florida.
Two decades later, Tamayo is leaving the organization because she wants to be close to her mother, who lives in The Acreage. She was recently diagnosed with dementia and needs help. Also, she acknowledged, 22 years is a long time.
“It was a confluence of a realization that the time was right and a desire to follow my heart and spend time with people who I love,” she said.
While she doesn’t know what she will do in retirement, she said she will always be part of the pro-choice movement.
“How can I not? It courses through my veins,” she said.
But, she said, she is ready to embrace the unknown. “I think between making time for family and perhaps other life passions, who knows what’s next?”