Another Perspective: Petaluman’s passion for women’s health began with teenage pregnancy in the ‘60s
Cheryl Negrin, a 70-year-old nurse practitioner, has dedicated her life to making reproductive health care accessible. Her passion began in 1967, when she was only 16. She unintentionally became pregnant in her relationship with her first boyfriend.
Negrin was born and raised in a working-class family living in the Sunset District of San Francisco. Her father was a Jewish immigrant from Egypt and worked as a printer. Her mother, who was from Atlantic City, New Jersey, was a housewife who worked at department stores and other retail jobs. When Negrin was a teenager, counterculture was on the rise in the city.
“I had strict parents. I was so innocent, but at the same time, I was growing up in the midst of the explosion of change happening,” Negrin said. “When I realized I was pregnant, I remember how scared and desperate I was. I could not go to my parents. We never talked about sexual health. I had nowhere to go.”
Describing the distressing days as the pregnancy clock started to tick, she explained that although abortion was not uncommon, few people talked about it openly, and it was difficult for her to find the information she needed.
“I frantically made phone calls,” she said.
That same year, California became the first state to allow therapeutic abortion for pregnancy that resulted from rape or incest or that endangered the physical or mental health of the mother. The alternative was an illicit procedure given by midwives, by skilled underground feminist collectives like “Jane” in Chicago, or even by organized criminals who routinely performed abortion as part of their prostitution business. These unlawful options were an open secret, often relatively safe but completely unregulated. At the same time, many women risked permanent injury or death attempting to induce termination on their own using herbs, poison, vacuum cleaner or objects like clothes hangers. If a woman was caught, she could be sent to jail.
Negrin was determined to find a reliable legal procedure.
Eventually, she found an abortion counselor who was able to help.
“To this day, I remember her name, Marjorie Ganz. She helped me take a deep breath and gather the strength needed to navigate the system,” Negrin said, recalling the mortifying steps she needed to take. First, she saw a psychologist. Then a psychiatrist. Finally, she had to stand in front of the hospital board to prove that she was not physically and mentally capable of carrying through the pregnancy.
“It was hard. No one wants to admit that they are not capable, but I was only 16,” she says.
By the time she’d obtained permission to get an abortion, weeks had gone by, and her pregnancy was further along. “It was traumatic,” she recalled.
Negrin was first among her friends to get an abortion, but one after another, many of them also became pregnant. She found herself showing them the ropes and giving support. Eventually, she began to help people beyond her circle of friends.
“I started to work for Planned Parenthood, even before Roe v. Wade, which constitutionally protects the right for women to choose to have an abortion,” she said.
Negrin was at the epicenter of a broad social uprising.
“A lot was happening. Civil rights. The anti-Vietnam war protests. We were holding up signs and marching for women's right to choose and speaking at big venues,” she recalled. “I remember being mocked by some men who stood by.”
At the same time, newer birth control technologies such as the IUD and birth control pills were becoming available.
“I stayed very involved in women’s health because it was a new type of medicine,” Negrin said.
She got married, started a family, gave birth to three children, and adopted one. While raising her children, she continued to work as a nurse, speak publicly about women’s reproductive health issues, and teaching sex education classes at schools. She also became a licensed vocational nurse, a registered nurse, and then a nurse practitioner.
“I don’t know how I did it all,” she said. ‘It must have been sheer determination.“
When Negrin moved to Petaluma in the 1980s, she noticed that there were few public health services. So, she advocated for opening health clinics in places such as the homeless shelter and the teen center. Over the years, she helped open four free clinics in Petaluma. For various reasons, all but one of those clinics has since closed.
The clinic at the Phoenix Teen Center was the last one that remained until the pandemic forced it to close in March 2020. Today, with the enthusiastic help of a young volunteer, Quinn Hyland, Negrin recently restarted the Phoenix Center Teen clinic, which will open once a week, 3:30-5:30 p.m. on Wednesdays.
“We offer free health services and education, various birth controls, and free condoms,” Negrin said.
She sees that many parents today understand the importance of open communication and ensuring that their children feel safe discussing their sexual health.
“They understand that it is better to know what’s going on,” she said. “Many parents have thanked us for the services we provide.”
Negrin believes that women and girls shouldn’t be the only ones bearing the weight of pregnancy.
“It takes two for pregnancy to happen,” she said, emphatically. “Physically and emotionally, pregnancy can be a tremendous experience for girls to go through. Unintentional pregnancies are preventable if boys are also better informed and make responsible choices too.”
Reproductive health medicine has changed dramatically since the days when Negrin was young. Birth control is safer and more effective. Unlike in the ‘60s, young people can easily find information online, for instance, at the Planned Parenthood website.
On the other hand, there has been a backlash against women’s reproductive choice. Abortion clinics are closing across the country. Due to controversial laws recently instated in Texas, many women there must now travel outside of the state to access abortion.
“In Sonoma County, Planned Parenthood is the only clinic you can go to,” Negrin said. “There used to be more places.”
At the same time, it appears that efforts like Negrin’s are paying off. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that the teen pregnancy rate has declined over the past several decades.
In 2020, California outlawed "stealthing," a slang term for non-consensually removing a condom during sex.
“It’s a step towards making men and boys more accountable,” said Negrin, who is also noticing that more men and boys are showing up at women's marches. “It’s great to see so many men showing support for women and reproductive justice.”
Lina Hoshino’s “Another Perspective” runs the third Thursday of the month in the Argus-Courier.