Women’s Choice Clinic in Oakland, California was forced to close April 8 after running out of money. Women’s Choice was the oldest feminist health center in the United States — performing abortions since 1972, a year before the Roe vs. Wade decision made abortion legal. Women’s Choice Clinic performed low cost, sliding-scale abortions, as well as offering gynecological exams, STD testing, and birth control, all in a supportive, comfortable environment. Volunteers made sure women could learn as much about their health care options as possible, and that doctors listened to the concerns of women and paid attention. The clinic provided feminist health care centered on compassion, dignity, and respect. These subversive practices ran counter to the practice of professional medicine, where male experts distanced themselves from women’s bodies and voices.
“Coming to a feminist health care center feels like coming home,” noted Linci Comi, an activist who has worked with the clinic for over thirty years and is currently its executive director.
The state’s chronic failure to reimburse for Medi-Cal (California’s supplemented medi-caid) payments forced the clinic to close. Ninety percent of the clinic’s clients received free abortion services through Medi-Cal, and the clinic no longer had the money to cover basic supplies and licensing fees. “It’s heartbreaking, class warfare on poor women,” says Comi.
“Unfortunately, relying on Medi-Cal has put us under the thumb of the state,” according to Annah Wilson. And the State’s thumb is stingy and ugly, barely providing money to cover the cost of supplies, often over six months late in payments, and refusing to pay on the slightest grounds. “We had to survive on private donations for over thirty years, and the community did as much as it could to support us.” Unfortunately the economic slump means that the community couldn’t really step up once more and rescue the clinic.
The clinic’s dedication to providing care to low-income women was no accident, but an integral part of the politics of reproductive justice. The battle must be fought not just to keep abortion legal, but to make free abortion available on demand. This is a part of the broader battle to give all of us access to the free health care we need to live. The Hyde Amendment, passed by Congress in 1976, chipped away at abortion access by taking away Medicaid funding for abortions, but California and Hawaii still provide Medicaid abortions with state funding. While nothing has changed legally, the state tightened the screws by reducing the rates of payment on Medi-Cal abortions and delaying payments.
I have seen the revolutionary banner of Women’s Choice Clinic literally out on the streets demonstrating for women’s freedom, and against war and oppression, and it’s so important that we continue to struggle now, and stand up for truly free, truly universal health care, and for women seeking reproductive freedom. A seated pro-choice president doesn’t mean we can sit back and relax, and the clinic’s closure should be a wake up call. It’s time to demand systematic changes and free up resources sucked down by the war, quiet the carping of anti-choicers and keep them from carving away at abortion access by putting political and economic pressure on the fourteen feminist health centers operating today. It’s great if political changes can provide us with renewed hope and inspiration, but the work remains to be done to make the vision of reproductive freedom clear and real.
Clinic volunteers actively worked against forced sterilization, helped pioneer informed consent, put the health of women above all other considerations, and analyzed the larger structures of oppression in their work. We need voices like these to speak out loud and strong, because of the history of birth control being a tool of population control, white supremacy, and eugenics, extending into the birth control options pushed on low income women and women of color offered in clinics today. This activist voice is especially needed when anti-abortions critics are becoming more sophisticated, by co-opting real fears of racist genocide.
Women’s choice used a loophole in Medi-Cal to provide abortion funds to more women: pregnant low-income women are immediately eligible for temporary Medi-Cal, without having to go through quite as many hoops. Women’s Choice was one of the last stops for women short on cash seeking an abortion, since the big box abortion clinics prioritize the bottom line, and cut corners to make more money and leave low-income women out in the cold. Comi gave an example of big box clinics creatively adding to Medi-Cal billing by inserting unwanted Intra Uterine Devices, an involuntary birth control device, just to tack on charges. What a fucked up excuse for limiting reproductive freedom!
The clinic has faced round after round of budget shortfalls bravely, responding to previous Medi-cal cuts by trimming down to a skeleton crew of paid staff and relying almost completely on volunteers. In some ways, this switch back to volunteers rejuvenated the activist culture at Women’s Choice, as young women with no formal health care training, but as dedicated to learning about health care as the clinics founders, began performing duties such as blood work, counseling, sonograms, and assisting surgical procedures. This is more involvement than the passive roles (paperwork) interns are usually subjected to.
“Women’s Choice Clinic showed us a whole new way to approach health care that valued patient education and empowerment. And they have left an important legacy — there are literally hundreds of health care professionals now in the field who did their clinical hours and certifications at Women’s Choice Clinic. We are better off for WCC’s work, and it is a crying shame that they can’t continue,” according to Kim Barstow, a former clinic volunteer.
“I feel stripped of hope,” laments Annah Wilson, the clinic’s volunteer coordinator, “but I also feel a renewed sense of urgency, and a need to funnel people away from the mainstream health system. The counter-narrative of Women’s Choice made it possible for me to work with the mainstream health system in what I felt to be a subversive way. I needed a place where I could speak out frankly against oppression.”
Carol Downer, Lorraine Rothman, and other women, started a self-help group in Los Angeles, which became the Feminist Health Center in 1971. These women studied women’s anatomy, physiology, and abortion techniques, and started providing abortions on their own, as well as teaching women to do their own cervical exams and inventing a technique called Menstrual Extraction, which women can use to empty the contents of the uterus manually. Northern California women caught on quickly, starting the Oakland Feminist Health Center and a network of clinics.
The new self-help clinics broke new technical ground in women’s health care, as well as breaking barriers to women becoming involved in their own health care. Vacuum evacuation was pioneered by the newly legalized self help clinics and based on the insights and research done by women’s self care groups. This is why abortion is so safe today, and women should never have to face the immense physical and emotional danger of an unwanted pregnancy. When challenges to abortion reached a fever pitch in the 1990s, Rothman again began distributing information about how woman could directly take control of their own health care, as the services at clinics deteriorated in the climate of fear, writing A Woman’s Book of Choices. Young women responded by forming new self-help groups to learn about their own bodies (Slingshot was a part of this new generation and has published information about menstrual extraction and do-it-yourself women’s health consistently.)
The clinic’s work isn’t over. As a licensed medical clinic, they must continue to provide medical records for seven years, and clinic workers plan to keep providing health information, unwanted pregnancy prevention, reproductive health information, on a street level, as the West Coast Feminist Health Project. “There is still a lot we can do without a licensed clinic,” according to Comi. This means the community can’t just mourn the loss of the clinic, but needs to keep helping to carry the burden, and organizing for reproductive freedom. “There is still hope that something will change in the political situation, or we can get a new source of funding.” The clinic is looking for storage space, legal support (the nonprofit may need to file for bankruptcy), design work, and people who want to help come up with a strategic vision.
So if you are ready to get back to the basics of grassroots feminist work, meeting in living rooms, contact them and offer you support at WCFHP, P.O. BOX 70432, Oakland, CA 94612. They also love to hear from former volunteers, and are keeping an archive, so drop a line if you were one of the many people who did everything from clinic defense to counseling, and have recollections or snapshots. “We’re not going to let them destroy us,” said Comi.