When I was the chief lobbyist for the National Abortion Rights Action League in the early 1980’s, I had absolutely no contact with abortion clinics. Some people might find that ironic, but the fact was that I spent most of my time roaming the halls of Capitol Hill trying to stop legislative attacks on the right to abortion. I never talked about the actual abortion procedure. Abortion providers and their world were totally foreign to me. I just devoted my time to trying to preserve Roe v Wade and the constitutional right to privacy.
But like most Americans, I had a vision in my mind about what those abortion clinics looked like and how they operated. It was not a nice vision because in some ways I had bought into the anti-abortion propaganda about the “abortion mills.” And there was no one to rebut their claims as the clinics had no lobbyists, no public relations person.
Years later, when I joined the National Coalition of Abortion Providers, I realized that I had to get out there and visit the abortion clinics. So, I started making phone calls, asking the owners or administrators if they would mind if I came to their clinic for a visit. I expected to get mostly negative reactions, figuring they wouldn’t want me to see their clinics but the reaction was just the opposite. Instead, people were thrilled that anyone from the “outside world” would want to see their facility. They welcomed me with open arms.
The first abortion clinic I ever stepped into was the Raleigh Women’s Health Organization, a facility that was operated by my dear friend, Susan Hill. I drove down on a Monday morning, met her at her house and we drove together to her clinic. I was first struck when we pulled into a beautiful business park. For some reason, I had been prepared to wind up in the slums of Raleigh. Instead, we turned a corner and I say a beautiful free-standing building surrounded by a number of mature oak trees and a sprawling green lawn. And right out front, showing they had nothing to hide, was a sign saying “Raleigh Women’s Health Organization.”
We went through the front door and I lost my breath. In the reception area were about 15 women sitting together. The room was pristine with sunlight coming through the skylights and there was a whiff of lavender in the air. I then noticed several fresh Iris plants in tall vases. Classical music was being piped in through the facility. I was stunned – and embarrassed because I had been expecting something much worse.
We went back to the staff room for some coffee, then Susan introduced me to her two (surprisingly)
young doctors. They were not the sleazeball “abortionists” that I had envisioned. They were Ob-Gyns with diplomas from the top medical schools and what came across during our conversation was how proud they were of the work they were performing. The rest of the staff had the same positive attitude. For a place that was hosting women in less than ideal circumstances, the clinic was a surprisingly upbeat place.
Later on, when most of the patients were done with their procedure, Susan escorted me into the recovery room. There were about 10 women resting in warm, fuzzy reclining chairs with warm, fuzzy afghans. They were sipping some kind of tea and eating cookies. I was surprised that some were talking to each other. I’m not saying that they were having a downright party but it was nothing like I had expected.
When it was time for me to leave, I said goodbye to the staff and thanked them for all the great work they were performing. Then I walked outside and saw my first anti-abortion protestors. They had apparently come just after I entered the clinic (which I never understood because they had missed their chance to harass the women as they came into the facility). There were about thirty of them, all men, holding very ugly signs and screaming at me. There was no way they could have known who I was but they probably just assumed I was associated with the clinic.
At that very moment, I actually felt my first surge of pride as the representative for the clinics. I was emboldened and anxious to go back to Washington, D.C. to represent the staff at the Raleigh Women’s Health Organization and the hundreds of other clinics like them across the country.
I learned that day that abortion facilities were mere medical offices but with a special touch. I learned that the anti-abortion propaganda that I had been listening to for years was just that – propaganda. And I learned that the real “ugliness” in the abortion field was outside the clinic, not inside.