Behind Susanna Birdsong’s mild voice stands a steely resolve.
The counsel for Planned Parenthood South Atlantic speaks clearly and unequivocally about her job and what she sees as its importance to herself and others.
“The issue of reproductive freedom and bodily autonomy was deeply personal to me,” she said about what drew her to the position. “It felt like the right job and the right time for me.”
But despite her title, Birdsong’s work as the affiliate’s lawyer is not what many people would expect. For one thing, she is not its courtroom presence.
“I’ve never been a litigator,” she said.
Instead, she works in policy-driven areas. At one time, she served as its registered lobbyist, but her official title now is general counsel and vice president of compliance.
“My priority work over the last year has been to support our health care providers and support staff,” she said, helping them to understand changes in laws such as North Carolina’s Senate Bill 20.
Passed this spring over the veto of Gov. Roy Cooper, the bill limits abortion to not later than the 12th week of pregnancy, requires patients to make an extra visit to a clinic before undergoing an abortion, and mandates the clinic’s use of a state-approved script to convey certain information to them.
“The law prior to that had been 20 weeks,” she said, until the General Assembly “stripped eight weeks of access.”
She also has been involved in a seesaw fight over abortion in South Carolina.
After Roe v. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court case that legalized abortion, was overturned in 2022, South Carolina legislators passed a law banning the procedure after the sixth week of pregnancy. Planned Parenthood South Atlantic sued that year in state court, and the South Carolina Supreme Court upheld an injunction that blocked the law.
“The justices said that a six-week abortion ban was a violation of South Carolinians’ right to privacy,” Birdsong said.
But the fight continued when state legislators again passed a similar law. Planned Parenthood South Atlantic sued again, but there was a key difference.
“The composition of the (Supreme Court) had changed in the meantime,” she said.
Oral arguments were heard in June 2023; the South Carolina Supreme Court upheld the law in a ruling issued Aug. 23.
Planned Parenthood South Atlantic has no cases in Virginia open now.
Political and policy roots
Her ties to Planned Parenthood go back to her college years at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Birdsong said, explaining, “It has been an organization I felt aligned with.”
Retail politics helped cement the tie. A first-time mother living in Washington, D.C., she volunteered to help Planned Parenthood in the 2013 state election cycle in Virginia. Birdsong even took her daughter with her while canvassing door to door on behalf of legislative candidates.
“I think becoming a parent made me more resolute in my support for reproductive freedom,” she said.
By the time she moved back to North Carolina in 2015, she was working for the American Civil Liberties Union. The position had her working alongside Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, and she moved over to the affiliate in January 2020.
Planned Parenthood’s focus was appealing.
“I really wanted to deepen my work in a single issue,” Birdsong said. “The ACLU is a multi-issue organization.”
Planned Parenthood South Atlantic serves four states through 14 clinics — nine in North Carolina, two each in South Carolina and Virginia, and one in West Virginia. According to the Form 990 the agency filed with the Internal Revenue Service for 2021, it took in almost $47.6 million from all sources, had almost $29.17 million in expenses, and had a total of 418 workers over the year and another 187 total volunteers.
Planned Parenthood as a whole is well-known — possibly best-known — as an abortion provider. But it offers more services than that, including preventative care, birth control, cancer screening, sexually transmitted infections testing and treatment, primary care, and gender-affirming hormone therapy.
But many in the public focus on abortion to the exclusion of the rest.
“There are some loud voices on the other side who have sort of permeated the narrative,” Birdsong said.
“We’ll never back down from being an abortion provider. … There’s some segment of people who will never be able to see us as anything other than that.”
Planned Parenthood and its South Atlantic affiliate don’t work in a vacuum. Laboring alongside them are groups such as the ACLU, Reproductive Freedom Project, Center for Reproductive Rights, Pro-Choice North Carolina, Sister Song, the North Carolina Obstetrical & Gynecological Society, the North Carolina Justice Center, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
And on the opposing side?
“I don’t even know that I want to give them airtime,” Birdsong said with a laugh, then named the North Carolina Values Coalition and local pregnancy care centers.
“There are myriad anti-abortion, specifically, groups and entities whose goal is to lobby legislators to ban abortion,” Birdsong said. “They have found willing partners in many state legislatures over the years, including this session in North Carolina and South Carolina.”
She, however, is undeterred.
“I have never been more resolved than I am about reproductive freedom,” Birdsong said.