Life Support for Feminist Health Care?

I'm sitting at my desk in my office at Seattle's Aradia Women's Health Center (AWHC), one of only 16 feminist women's health centers left in the nation. I'll be the Communications Manager here at AWHC for four more weeks, when we'll permanently close our doors, ending a 34-year-long relationship with the women of the Pacific Northwest.

I'm wiping my computer clean of all my files, shredding old AWHC newsletters and boxing up documents. I'm actively dissolving one of Washington State's most experienced and vocal voices on reproductive rights and health, and wondering how this happened and how we got here. While the answers to these questions may not be entirely clear, the leaders of both the past and present feminist health movement which gave birth to centers like AWHC have a lot to say about it.

As Marcy Bloom, AWHC's former Executive Director for eighteen years says, "The closing of AWHC is a dramatic sign of our times. The federal government has not funded abortion care since 1978. Our state Medicaid fiscal reimbursements do not cover the costs of providing care. Costs of medical supplies, malpractice insurance and rent have skyrocketed. Abortion is on the decline in the United States," she adds, "except for low-income women. A true societal commitment to quality, funded health care for poor and marginalized women (the majority of Aradia's clients) still eludes us."

Beverly Whipple, current executive director of Cedar River Clinics, a trio of feminist women's health centers in Washington says it may be too late for hers and the remaining centers around the country. "I don't know if it's sustainable or not anymore – it depends on what the world wants. Other clinics [besides Aradia] are struggling and may not make it. It might be too late."

Before we can examine what exactly led to Aradia's downfall and what the future may hold for feminist women's health centers in general, something needs to be said about the history of feminist health care in the United States. AWHC, along with at least 15 other centers around the country, was founded in 1972, before abortion became legal for women in the United States. As Bloom puts it, "We were women's health and abortion rights trailblazers and pioneers in every way." And she's right.

In its history, Aradia provided more than 54,000 women with abortion and gynecological health care services, trained more than 1,000 medical students in abortion care and served as a sort of public health prep-school for hundreds of staff women and volunteers. Aradia incorporated outreach, education and state-level legislative advocacy into its work, and became one of Washington State's most energetic advocates for women's health. Aradia helped pass the Washington State Reproductive Privacy Act (our state's version of Roe v. Wade ), worked to advocate for the development of a viable microbicide for women worldwide, labored to keep Washington pharmacists from obtaining the right to refuse emergency contraception prescriptions, and all the while strove to destigmatize abortion for all women. AWHC was a remarkable force with which to be reckoned for more than three decades.

Though the concept of feminist health care may not mean the same thing to all women, feminists today can agree that the feminist clinics that arose in the early 1970's were responsible in large part for some immense gains for women. In response to the risk feminist health centers now face, the Consortium: A National Network of Feminist Reproductive Health Centers was formed and states that:

You have the feminist women's health movement to thank if you:

  • Were offered a cervical cap as a birth control option
  • Had a natural childbirth
  • Had your partner with you during your abortion
  • Purchased an over-the-counter pregnancy test
  • Participated in informed consent

With all these clear, attributable advancements, it is astonishing that so many still don't recognize the feminist women's health movement's many contributions to the healthcare landscape in general and to women's lives in particular. It's a shame, because it seems that we may be heading toward the end of an identifiable era of great value to women in America.

The feminist women's health movement gave birth to feminist health centers and, at its zenith in the mid-eighties, there were over 50 such centers around the United States. Over the last twenty or so years, an estimated thirty-five of those clinics have closed their doors forever. Clearly, something dramatic is happening.

The growing numbers of closed feminist health centers in the United States represents a tremendous loss for women in our country, according to Beverly Whipple. "Women will get healthcare, but not the same kind of care. In general, providers don't interact [with female patients] first as women and then as patients, but first as patients and then as women."

Comparing private-practice abortion care to feminist health care, Carol Downer, one of the founding mothers of the feminist health care movement says, "Women go into those provider's offices and no matter how good the medical care is they come out feeling ashamed. Not true with feminist health centers. We REALLY believe in the rights of all women that come through our doors. We treat a woman with respect. Therefore the [abortion] experience, rather than producing shame, gives her a feeling that she can go on."

The loss of Aradia will be hard to measure in quantifiable terms. Seattle is well-served in the number of abortion providers practicing in our area, but with rising numbers of low-income women accessing abortion services in the United States, and a health care system that seems to fail our lower income fellow Americans in general, there are many questions left unanswered about the future of feminist health care. Next week, I will explore the challenges faced by Aradia and its fellow Consortium members and the consequences for women served by these centers, as well as potential shortcomings in the broader feminist health movement leading to its current struggles.

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