When Depot Youth Center program director Janice Marzano heard Darien students as young as eighth grade were buying Plan B, an over-the-counter, day-after birth control method, on a regular basis, she did what she always does.
She sought to educate young people in Darien about the facts and dangers of their behaviors, scheduling a talk for high school students and parents.
In the process of doing so, she contacted Planned Parenthood, thinking the group might be a knowledgeable source of facts on such a topic.
Her selection of Planned Parenthood made her the target of often anonymous attacks, because the organization is at the center of the abortion debate.
As soon as she announced the talk in mid-January, Marzano was immediately barraged with criticism and pushback — largely from anonymous sources.
Some alleged Marzano was advocating that teens use Plan B as a birth control method.
One caller accused Marzano of being a murderer and supporting murderers. Other callers who did identify themselves threatened to attempt to block or withhold funding from the Depot if the program went forward.
Marzano said she was shocked at the backlash, the intensity of which left her in tears and physically ill.
“The messenger is getting killed here. I’m trying to help and educate and I don’t want them taking Plan B, and if it means promoting Planned Parenthood, so be it,” she said.
A levonorgestrel morning-after pill, Plan B One Step, can reduce the chance of getting pregnant by 75 to 89% if it is taken it within three days after unprotected sex, according to the manufacturer.
While it is considered safe to use, Marzano wanted students to understand what the product does and its possible side effects.
But more than advocating birth control, most of her critics took issue with the choice of Planned Parenthood as a partner.
Planned Parenthood defines itself as “a trusted health care provider, an informed educator, a passionate advocate, and a global partner helping similar organizations around the world. Planned Parenthood delivers vital reproductive health care, sex education, and information to millions of people worldwide.”
Planned Parenthood does provide abortion services, which thrusts it into the middle of that fiercely passionate debate between those pro-life and pro-choice. It has become a somewhat of a political football, with some opposed to abortion feeling Planned Parenthood should not get federal funding because it offers abortion services.
In 2016, a controversy arose when anti-abortion advocates released a video allegedly showing members of Planned Parenthood negotiating the sale of fetal body parts and tissue.
NPR reports that various states launched investigations into the practice.
“State investigations have yet to find any evidence that Planned Parenthood was selling or profiting off fetal tissue. Twelve states have completed investigations into Planned Parenthood following the videos’ release, according to the organization,” NPR reported in January 2016.
In response to the video, Planned Parenthood released the following statement:
“A well-funded group established for the purpose of damaging Planned Parenthood’s mission and services has promoted a heavily edited, secretly recorded videotape that falsely portrays Planned Parenthood’s participation in tissue donation programs that support life saving scientific research. Similar false accusations have been put forth by opponents of abortion services for decades. These groups have been widely discredited and their claims fall apart on closer examination, just as they do in this case.”
This accusation of Planned Parenthood selling fetal tissue, or “baby body parts,” was the basis of one of the criticisms Marzano faced after announcing the discussion. Many calls she received came from phone numbers which blocked their IDs.
Marzano said she has had sleepless nights since this ordeal began, but that the Depot board has been behind her 100%.
“It’s a fantastic board and they have shown me a lot of love,” she said.
In a letter to the editor this week, Marzano addressed the controversy.
“As program director for the last 17 years at The Depot, I would never do anything to jeopardize the job that I love,” she wrote.
“I am truly sorry for offending the people that I did, but refuse to apologize for trying to educate these young women. This is a serious matter, and only hope that people will listen,” Marzano added.
Depot board presidents Kathryn Doran and Kathy Arrix also wrote a letter to support Marzano this week.
“Janice has handled this situation with honesty and grace, even while dealing with individuals that threatened to try to close our doors,” they wrote.
“Janice has been the heart of The Depot for the last 17 years. Through her hard work and connections with our youth and community she is first to see a new destructive trend or issue. Janice’s programs are always in the best interest of our youth and their growth. Thank you Janice for your vital work with our community,” their letter continued.
Planned Parenthood of Southern New England’s vice president of education, Pierette Silverman, said the discussion at the Depot was not to be solely about Plan B, but a more holistic approach to sexuality and relationships.
Silverman said she knows such conversations can be uncomfortable, and as a mother of a 16-year-old, even she faces challenges having such talks.
As far as the pushback on the program, Silverman said “people are not fully informed about the work we do.”
And she said people were not able to get the full scope of the intended purpose of the program before it was canceled.
“It was not just to talk about Plan B, it was to talk about how to have healthy relationships, the idea of consent, and communication. It was also to help support parents in having these conversations,” Silverman said.
“We want to be able to provide as much information as possible,” she said.
Silverman said it is also important to have these talks before young people become sexually active, and explain there’s a lot more involved than just sex.
“We want to have these conversations to ensure positive sexual experiences and relationships and provide the skills to be able to do that,” Silverman said.
As far as holding a program in Darien, Silverman said she hasn’t given up.
“I hope we get the opportunity to do that in the future,” she said.
Support for Marzano
Since The Darien Times published Marzano’s letter, there have been dozens of postings of support on Facebook and on the story itself, and many personal letters and texts that she has shared.
“You didn’t make a mistake bringing them in, they are the authority on reproductive health and justice. The fact that their services are viewed as controversial is a reflection on the small-mindedness of the people who are outraged. Women, especially young women, need this information, and I applaud you for standing up for them,” one person wrote.
“In short, you are an incredibly valued part of the fabric of the Darien community, and the town would certainly not be as great as it is without you. It’s really terrible to hear that people have called you saying mean/threatening things, and that anybody has even floated the idea of closing The Depot. Rest assured that if that chatter ever became serious, those 25 years’ worth of Darien kids would flood the town in support of you and The Depot,” another wrote.
While Marzano said she was devastated by this experience, she reiterated she is not giving up on supporting and educating Darien’s youth. Often, she says, parents in town would rather not see the reality of their children’s risks and behaviors and she will continue to try to change that.
“Kids in this town are under so much pressure,” she said, which sometimes leads them to take risks in a variety of ways, including drinking and substance abuse.
The one critic of the program who did use a name did not respond to a request for comment from The Darien Times. Out of the many social media comments only one poster was critical of Planned Parenthood.
The close of Marzano’s letter underscores her resolve for the future.
“We have retracted all dates on our calendar with Planned Parenthood; but as director of the youth service bureau, and The Depot,” she wrote,” “I will not stop educating the kids.”