The Grand Opening - A Courageous Event

An abortion clinic carries on its important work
by Kat Overman, fall 1998

It wasn't until after I left the Grand Opening of an abortion clinic that I realized what a rare event I had attended. At a time when doctors who perform abortions are being hunted down and killed (there are only 900 doctors who perform abortions in the entire U. S.) and abortion clinics are under siege from right wing terrorists, the Feminist Women's Health Center has recently expanded and remodeled one of their facilities. Not only that, they threw a bold party to celebrate the occasion.

    Abortion used to be a deadly proposition for the women who sought them. Back alley, coat hanger abortions took the lives of many women. Now the procedure maims and kills the doctors, nurses, and clinic staff who take the risk to provide this needed procedure.

    The danger became very real to me as I approached the clinic the night of the "grand opening" party. My companion and I were met on the sidewalk by two armed guards and the proud director of the new facility. One of the guards carried a handheld metal detector like the ones they use at the airports for those of us who set off the alarm and need more careful inspection. We needed no such inspection this time because my companion is a personal friend of the clinic director, who ushered us in with a warm greeting.

    Inside the front lobby the friendly, compassionate staff greeted us with food and wine, and offered us a tour of the facility. I learned that the women who operate this new facility were the same women who opened a clinic in Everett in 1983. That clinic was closed after it was firebombed three times.

    Concern that bordered on fear became my chaperon as I began the trip through the clinic. Before I noticed the walls that were painted in restful shades of yellow and gold and the paintings and art that covered them, donated by women artists from around the country, I saw vials of smelling salts taped at intervals down the hall. A precaution in case a patient fainted at some point during her visit.

    The several counseling rooms we were shown were small but comfortable looking. Encountering the first procedure room gave me pause. There in the corner sat the big, boxy vacuum on wheels, its two long clear plastic tubes draping over the side. Having never seen one of these before, another level of queasy discomfort came over me.     Our next stop on the tour was the recovery room. Narrow wheeled cots neatly lined one wall; each separated by curtains decorated with beautiful designs. For the evening, informational displays provided more details about abortion procedures, the clinic, and the law. In the recovery room a map of the United States marked with various colored pins described the legal conditions placed on abortions in each state. Washington had no pins. Luckily, and for now, our state government has left a woman's right to choose up to a woman and her doctor. I noticed that the state of Louisiana had a big blue X marked through it. I was informed that Louisiana was so far gone there weren't enough pins to cover the job. It is unfortunate that this is where the new Speaker of the House to be, Bob Livingston, is from.

    Following our guide upstairs we were shown rooms that were outfitted a little more fully. Perhaps we were being broken in gradually, so as not to have to put the smelling salts to use. It was understood that the visitors were all pro-choice, but perhaps not pro-needle, -knife, or -dilator. We stepped into an exam room where a tray of instruments used during the procedure was displayed. Not for the squeamish. Shockingly, a glance at the dilators lined up in the tray instantly transported me back to a Sunday evening family dinner. The handles of the dilators looked vaguely like the long, silver, ornate serving cutlery of the special dinners of my childhood. I was dumbstruck and didn't think to ask why they were made in such a way, or what purpose the decoration achieved.

    The next room displayed surgical equipment for second trimester abortions. The dilators were larger, and the needles longer. The surroundings of the room compelled me to imagine what it must be like for a pregnant young woman, scared, and perhaps alone, exposing herself to the unfamiliar doctor and these frightening looking instruments. She must be terribly apprehensive about what pain she may have to endure. And she may have mixed emotions regarding the decision she has made. But it was obvious to me that all the effort of the staff was directed to overcoming the uneasiness of the patient, and making sure she knew she was in a place where people cared. As I stood there, I wondered if the young patients ever worry that the clinic might be bombed or the doctor shot. I hoped not - they have enough to be concerned about at such a time.

    The last room we visited was made over for the evening into a memorial for all those who had been killed dedicating their lives to helping women in their hour of need. A list of names covered the wall and yellow ribbons were offered for visitors to wear. A somber discussion took place about the fear the staff lives with day in and day out. One woman remarked that she is afraid to go out bike riding, but does anyway. She said she feels foolish for being afraid. I, for one, certainly don't think she has any reason to feel foolish.

    A guard passed us in the hallway as we made our way back downstairs. A guard is something you don't see in a normal medical clinic. Is this any way to practice medicine, I asked myself.

    The opening of this beautiful new clinic was a remarkable, courageous event. The staff are dedicated to their profession and compassionate for their patients. In dealing with the emotional crisis of an unwanted pregnancy, I could recommend no better place. But, no one should have their lives put at risk over a legal medical procedure. Not the patients and not the doctors.

"I believe that women, families, and physicians, rather than politicians, should make the difficult, personal decision regarding a woman's reproductive health... In my opinion, any actions taken to decrease the reliance on abortion must preserve the dignity of a woman's right to make her own moral decisions."
-Rick Larsen, Member of Congress from the 2nd Congressional District, Washington State

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