Monday, July 31, 2023 | News

Ipas celebrates the life of Katie Early, long-time Ipas leader and champion for reproductive justice

Ipas is honoring the memory of Katie Early, Ipas’s longest-serving employee, whose extraordinary leadership and vision helped shape Ipas programs, fundraising, and workplace culture—as well as Ipas’s visibility on the global stage as a bold advocate for abortion access.

Early passed away on July 26, surrounded by loved ones. She retired from Ipas in 2019 in the role of senior director of development, but originally joined Ipas in 1980 and went on to serve in a number of key leadership roles over more than 30 years.

“Katie’s visionary leadership saw Ipas through decades of innovation as we fought at the local, national and global levels to raise awareness that abortion access is a human right,” says Anu Kumar, Ipas president and CEO. “Her tenure at Ipas really tracked the evolution of the global abortion rights movement, in which Ipas was instrumental—and Katie’s devotion and strategic guidance was crucial to that success.”

Indeed, when Early first joined Ipas, the word ‘abortion’ was barely mentioned in the fields of family planning and women’s health due to factors like abortion stigma and gender inequity in politics worldwide. By the time Early retired, a robust global movement for abortion access was gaining momentum and achieving historic law change in countries around the world.

“Katie Early was a giant upon whose shoulders many of us stand,” says Francine Coeytaux, co-founder of Plan C, an organization that works to expand access to self-managed abortion with pills. “Plan C could not be doing what we are doing today had it not been for Katie’s groundbreaking leadership. A founding member of the Reproductive Health Technologies Project, she helped develop and promote new technologies—the manual vacuum aspirator, emergency contraception and medication abortion—that have the potential of putting reproductive autonomy in the hands of users. Under Katie’s leadership Ipas flourished and today, millions of women’s lives, all over the world, have been saved thanks to the work of Ipas and other international organizations who stepped up to distribute these simple technologies.”

A lifetime of trailblazing

Early first joined Ipas in 1980, as part of the marketing and customer service team, when Ipas was focused on providing manual vacuum aspirators (MVA) to health systems around the world. This revolutionary device for abortion care is easy for health providers to use and greatly expanded abortion access in low-resource settings. After a tour in the Peace Corps, she returned in 1985 to be Ipas’s executive director. During this time, she instituted Ipas’s research, policy, and communications initiatives, establishing the organization as an international leader in reproductive health and rights with a deep understanding of the harmful impact of abortion with unsafe methods and the need to expand access to safe, legal abortion care.

Early represented Ipas in numerous international fora, successfully advocating for the inclusion of abortion-related policies and practices at the World Health Organization, the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics and other international bodies. She helped introduce new concepts and terms that had not existed in the world of global and reproductive health: postabortion family planning and postabortion care (treatment for complications of an unsafe abortion—life-saving health care in places where abortion is legally restricted). Now those terms are a vital part of the global health vernacular.

In 1992, Early was among the founding members of the Reproductive Health Technologies Project, which sought to ensure reproductive freedom for women globally with access to technologies like emergency contraception and abortion with pills. In the late 1990’s, Early left Ipas briefly for other work, but she returned again in 1999 and served as the director of development. A gifted fundraiser, Early played a key role in expanding Ipas’s donor base over the decades, helping grow the organization from a small non-profit to an international NGO with programs in many countries and global reach. In 2014, Early was awarded the prestigious Margaret Sanger Award from Planned Parenthood Action Fund of North Carolina in recognition of her outstanding contributions to the reproductive health and rights movement.

“Katie was a trusted colleague who made people feel comfortable, and one of her greatest gifts was incredible empathy,” Kumar says. “She was a leader I deeply admired—inclusive, caring, always sharp, and able to put things into perspective. All these qualities also made her an amazing fundraiser too—she loved cultivating relationships with people.”

Beloved globally and in her community

Early’s dedication to social justice and women’s rights were not limited to the global stage. While not at Ipas, she led North Carolina-focused educational and social service agencies. As president of the SECU Family House at UNC Hospitals, she oversaw the completion of a 40-room facility to provide a home-away-from-home for families of patients receiving critical care at UNC hospitals.

After retiring from Ipas, Early turned her creative vision to photography and art, and she enjoyed spending time with her family. Ipas colleagues fondly remember Early’s quick wit and way with words, and for being a fun and caring manager—someone who recognized and nurtured talent and brought out the best in people.

“It has been my life’s privilege to serve with you,” Early wrote in an email to staff in 2019, upon her retirement. It was Ipas’s privilege to count Early as such a generous and talented colleague for so many years.

Early’s obituary provides an online space to share memories and tributes.

Katie Early: A lifetime of trailblazing

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We work with partners around the world to advance reproductive justice by expanding access to abortion and contraception.

Ipas Sustainable Abortion Care

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The global movement for legal, accessible abortion is growing. Our staff and partners in countries as diverse as Bolivia, Malawi and India are working to ensure all people can access high-quality abortion care.

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The global movement for legal, accessible abortion is growing. Our staff and partners in countries as diverse as Bolivia, Malawi and India are working to ensure all people can access high-quality abortion care.


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