The new leader of Planned Parenthood in the state knows both serious policy and the tough realities of family farming.

Tanya Atkinson was promoted to CEO of Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin in February, at a precarious time for the organization that provides reproductive health services ranging from STD and cancer screening to birth control and, at certain locations, abortion. Challenges include an effort to “defund” the organization, backed by House Speaker Paul Ryan, which means barring government-funded insurance programs such as Medicaid from reimbursing patients who use Planned Parenthood clinics, of which there are 21 in the state, serving about 60,000 men and women each year. Amid such strife, it helps to have a sense of humor, which happens to be part of Atkinson’s skill set.

How did you get here?

When I was younger, I grew up on a dairy farm, and there were times when health care was a real challenge. I remember seeing my parents sitting with their heads in their hands, wondering how they were going to manage medical bills. I really connected with this organization that tries so hard to provide health care to those families who might be struggling financially.

What are your thoughts on the global gag rule banning U.S. funded international organizations from talking about abortion?

That harms women across the entire globe. Under this administration, there’s a lot at risk. Women’s health is at risk. Men’s health is at risk, and it’s not just a Planned Parenthood issue.

You have threats to your funding from congress and the president, and political challenges at the state level. Do you foresee a day when you could be legislated out of existence?

Planned Parenthood is going to be here to provide health care no matter what. Politicians who oppose women’s health care would like you to believe they’re hurting Planned Parenthood, but what they’re really doing is hurting women and families. We’ve had to close five health centers in Wisconsin due to legislation that blocked funding, and no other provider has stepped in to provide this basic care.

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How do you deal with the “sidewalk counselors” and protesters with big signs?

“Sidewalk counselors” is a very generous term. The folks that are standing outside of our health centers intimidate our patients, harass our patients, shame our patients, and there is no other form of health care where we have to walk through that kind of shaming and harassment to access very, very basic health care, very common health care.

You’re a comedian?

I am, but I don’t do it as often as I used to. I used to be pretty full time on the road. I loved the small places up north. They were amazing because the people were so welcoming. They also were very good about giving constructive feedback in the moment. That joke doesn’t fly, lady.

Does your previous profession figure into what you do now?

It does. I’m pretty good at reading a room and sensing when things are going south. Then I can use a joke to break up a boring meeting. ◆

‘Contested Care’ appears in the April 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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