A woman's right to choose when it comes to abortion rights and birth control was the major theme at the 4th annual Desmond Tutu Public Health Lecture at American International College.

Leslie Tarr Laurie, President/Chief Executive Officer of Tapestry Health in Florence, told the audience, providing comprehensive birth control services has been a priority of hers throughout her professional career.

"We must stay united in our determination to prevent unintended pregnancies, support pregnant women, encourage healthy relationships, and promote adoption. It is essential that we continue our efforts so that our daughters have the same rights and opportunities as our sons," she said.

Check out more photos

The event was held April 4 in the Griswold Theatre. Since 2010, American International College has hosted distinguished speakers in its annual Desmond Tutu Public Health Lecture Series. Archbishop Desmond Tutu served as the series’ inaugural speaker and its namesake.

Laurie has dedicated herself to health and human services since 1969. Under her leadership, spanning the existence of Tapestry Health, more than 100,000 people have been served in the 3,000-square-mile region of Western Massachusetts.

Founded as the Family Planning Council of Massachusetts in 1973, Tapestry Health remains the only non-profit organization in the region to offer family planning and reproductive health care to often marginalized individuals, such as young people, women living in poverty, recent immigrants, uninsured and underinsured persons, injection drug users, the homeless, and men and women with HIV/AIDS, despite their ability to pay.

"Urban areas of Massachusetts continue to have some of the highest rates of teen pregnancy. About one third of teens have no formal instruction on birth control, and while the government has spent nearly $1.5 billion since 1997 on abstinence education, abstinence-only programs just don't not work," she said.

Laurie said there are also economic benefits of contraception. "For every dollar spent on birth control, $4 are saved the next year in health care costs," she said.

Laurie worked as the Director of Education and Outreach at Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania from 1969 to 1971, and then as the Western Massachusetts Coordinator at Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts until 1973. In the latter position, she held responsibility for assessing, designing, organizing, and implementing a family planning program. Her efforts culminated in the establishment of the Family Planning Council of Western Massachusetts in 1973, renamed Tapestry Health in 1998.

Laurie has also taken her passion for reproductive health abroad by working in Ghana, and continued her involvement in international development as a trustee of World Education. She has attained many awards including the Mass Women’s Political Caucus Abigail Adams award.

Dr. Peter Bittel, a member of the AIC Board of Trustees, is one of the series’ originators and a strong advocate for its mission. “The function of the lecture series is to bring attention to issues of public health in the college community,” said Dr. Bittel. He noted that, according to a recent study, Hampden County has the highest incidence of public health issues in the commonwealth, underscoring the need for local public awareness campaigns.