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francine coeytaux, 64, public health specialist, los angeles

ageist EDITORS | april 5, 2018

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One of the more rewarding aspects of our work with AGEIST over the last few years is coming to the realization that there are a good number of risk-takers among our community. Some are pivoting into new careers and some of you are starting businesses for the first time. But rarely do we encounter someone for whom the risk-taking stakes are professional credibility, even personal harm.

For most of her lauded career in public health, Francine Coeytaux has made it her mission to fight for safe reproductive health measures for women in need. The work has taken her around the world, to clinics in Africa and Latin America, and to the forefront of the very public and very contentious debate around abortion in this country.

“I’ve been vilified and I’ve been defunded,” she says. “I had a funder the other day say that what I was doing was criminal activity.”

Since starting Plan C, which seeks to overcome the obstacle-laden path to abortion clinics by advocating for access to the FDA-approved “abortion pill,” Coeytaux has weathered her fair share of criticism and threats. Though we don’t typically touch on issues this contentious—we wanted to feature Coeytaux more for the way she’s managed to blend her profession and passion, and for her appetite for risk. If you sit on the other side of the fence from her, we get it. 

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Coeytaux’s journey to social scientist and advocate began in rural California, where her French father moved the family after the independence movement in Tunisia forced a change.

“If you ask me where I was born, I was born in Switzerland. If you ask me where I grew, I would say Tunisia. If you ask me what I am, it’s French,” she says. “If you ask me where I’ve lived most of my life? It’s California.”

While studying at Stanford, she spent a semester working at a pediatric clinic in the slums outside Lima, Peru. The stream of women who came with multiple children and questions as to how to avoid future pregnancies made Coeytaux realize that the greater issue — that of family planning — wasn’t being properly addressed in third world countries.

When she moved to New York with her husband in the 1980s and joined the Population Council, that realization became the foundation of her work. Starting with work in Tunisia, she criss-crossed Africa conducting research and helping put family planning programs in place.

She gave birth to twins in 1990. The traveling came to an end and Coeytaux moved back to Los Angeles with her husband. She then set about building something that she’d wanted to for a while: an institute which focused specifically on women’s health issues, bringing the lessons she’d learned overseas to the US.

“I got a lot of pushback on the title — The Pacific Institute for Women’s Health. There was no women’s health field,” she says. “Seeing women’s health as separate was a brand new thing, and I got people saying, ‘Are you anti-men?’ ”

A group of scientists, social scientists and researchers, The Pacific Institute was doing data-driven advocacy at a time when that was a foreign concept. “We were being practical,” she says. “We knew we wanted to do advocacy, but we wanted it to be based on evidence and we were going to do the research to help us make change.”

Chief among her passions are women’s rights to make their own decisions when it comes to their bodies. With states either outright banning abortion or throwing up miles of red tape for organizations like Planned Parenthood and anyone wanting to open an abortion clinic, Coeytaux sees the clear solution in the FDA-approved “abortion pills,” misoprostol and mifepristone. She set up Plan C to raise awareness and advocate for better access to them. At 64, she says she’s better positioned for the fight than in her previous years.

“I can take a risk that maybe younger people shouldn’t be taking. It’s like, ‘Okay, we’ll do it, and we’ll show that the sky didn’t fall down’,” she says. “And we have in the last two years. The number of organizations willing to mention this, to talk about it has grown exponentially because we took a risk. What do I have to lose at this point? Not much. I’m willing to be the tip of the spear that's going to get hurt first.”

She’s also encouraged by a more practically-minded younger generation that isn’t loaded down with baggage of the previous battles around abortion and family planning in the United States. Plan C is headed up by Coeytaux and her colleague Elisa Wells, she says, “but everyone else is less than 40 and they're running with it. The number of people who want to be a part of this just keeps growing and that's the way it should be. It's got to be owned by the people who most need it.”