The recent closing of the Kanawha (WV) Surgicenter, which left Charleston’s Women’s Health Center (WHC) the state’s only abortion provider, is part of an unnerving national movement decreasing access to women’s reproductive health, experts say.
The Kanawha Surgicenter closed earlier this year when its doctor, Dr. Gorli Harish, permanently retired to California with his family, according to The Charleston Gazette-Mail.
Although this is just one clinic closing, it represents a much larger political development that’s been building steam for years, according to James Owens, a NARAL (Pro-Choice America) spokesman.
“It’s so easy to look around and see one clinic close and not see this as part of a national trend, but we’ve been seeing this for more than a decade,” he explained. “The anti-choice groups that have lobbied a frontal assault on Roe v. Wade rights didn’t get what they wanted, and have a lot more success shutting down individual clinics and restricting funding. During the Bush era, restrictions started state by state, county by county, to decrease reproductive health services.”
The Surgicenter closing is just the tip of the iceberg, according to West Virginia pro-choice activists.
Sharon Lewis, the executive director at the WHC, said that even before the Surgicenter closed, access to abortions in the state has been challenging.
“Both abortion facilities were in Charleston, and those who use Medicaid had to make that trip regardless of where they lived,” she pointed out. “Those without Medicaid had to scrape together money and sometimes choose between paying for rent and food, and having an abortion.”
Ultimately, with the Surgicenter closing, women who are more advanced in their pregnancy now need to be referred out of state. Lewis noted that Harish differentiated himself slightly in that regard. “Dr. Harish would perform abortions at later stages of pregnancy than we do. We see patients up to sixteen weeks pregnant.”
The WHC faces an additional challenge, said Lewis. An anti-choice facility opened next door, attempting to discourage women from entering the abortion clinic.
“There’s a crisis pregnancy center next door to us that used to call themselves Lifeline of Charleston, but changed their name to Women’s Choice,” she explained. “They put signs in the parking lot near the side of our building to get people to go into their clinic and not ours. They would tell the women it wasn’t a mistake that they chose them and not us. We put trees up to try and hide their sign, and I constructed a sign warning patients about going to that building. But it still happens sometimes.”
Owens added that such centers have sprung up all around the country.
“The anti-choice movement funds fake abortion clinics. These clinics, known as crisis pregnancy centers, try to steer women away from having abortions through intimidation and lies, such as telling them abortions will lead to cancer risks.”
Lewis also said that pregnancy crisis centers are only one part of the movement against access to abortion and other reproductive health services in West Virginia.
“I’ve worked here for twenty-nine years and have seen more and more restrictions coming from the West Virginia legislature, as well as at the national level,” she said.
“One of the best kept secrets is that West Virginia refuses to advertise the fact that state-funded family planning services are available to them,” she highlighted. “At some point in the last ten years, the governor wasn’t going to be known as the ‘birth control governor.’ There’s no law against advertising for these services, but it isn’t done.”
In addition, national right-to-life folks prepare drafts of bills that would restrict access to care, and anti-choice groups run them up the flagpole, Lewis said.
“Pro-choice people are not necessarily activists, and young people don’t know what it’s like not to have access to reproductive choice. Those most vocal are older people and aging doctors, who are dying out. Doctors who work in abortion care are typically much older, and a lot of medical schools don’t teach doctors how to perform abortions.”
A Local Connection to a Larger Issue
Margaret Chapman-Pomponio, executive director of WV FREE—a reproductive health rights and justice, education, and advocacy organization—agrees that having only one abortion provider in the state is concerning, especially with abundant anti-choice legislation in the works.
“We’re at the Capitol every day now, where a little more than a dozen bills are aimed at taking away abortion access in West Virginia,” she revealed.
One bill that recently passed the legislature took away a safeguard for minors seeking an abortion. “The state already has a 1984 law requiring a parent notification for minors seeking abortions,” Chapman-Pomponio said. “But Senator Patricia Rucker [Jefferson County] wanted to get rid of the safeguard, which allows for a physician to waive the notification mandate if they decide it’s not in the best interest to notify the parents, for example in cases of rape or incest.”
In passing HB 2002, the Senate rejected an unprecedented compromise in the House that would have put a waiver from a psychiatrist or psychologist in place of one from a physician. “It is extremely rare to see a unanimous vote on a bill pertaining to abortion, but the House accomplished one. Senator Rucker’s move undid the good work of the House,” Chapman-Pomponio said. “The senator wanted to strip a doctor’s involvement and leave the only safeguard in the hands of the judicial system. It was a maneuver entirely lacking integrity.”
Senator Rucker also introduced a telemedicine bill aimed at taking care away from those who desperately need it, Chapman-Pomponio added.
“Telemedicine would have the capacity to bring care to underserved women in rural communities who can’t travel. Doctors could have partnerships with clinics or private practices in rural areas to administer the abortion pill to patients in their first trimester. It would be mean spirited to take this away, and the state medical association agrees with us.
“These bills tell the medical community we don’t trust them to take care of patients, and tell women we don’t trust them to make good decisions about their health.”
Despite the growing amount of anti-choice legislation around the nation, polls done in red and blue states report that seven out of ten people support legal access to abortion, said Owens.
“A lot of people are surprised to hear just how bad it is in some states,” he emphasized. “Even before the Surgicenter closed, ninety-eight percent of West Virginia counties had no abortion clinics, and ninety-two percent of Virginia counties have no abortion access.”
Owens pointed out that the issue has flown under the radar. “There are a determined minority of activists in the anti-choice movement who push these laws, know who their allies are, and assure them they won’t pay a price for enacting restrictions. Legislators feel they can get away with voting anti-choice. Abortion restrictions are happening in all states.”
More than half of all U.S. abortion patients in 2014 were in their 20s: patients aged 20–24 obtained 34% of all abortions, and patients aged 25–29 obtained 27%.
Twelve percent of abortion patients in 2014 were adolescents: those aged 18–19 accounted for 8% of all abortions, 15–17-year-olds for 3%, and those younger than 15 for 0.2%.
White patients accounted for 39% of abortion procedures in 2014, African Americans for 28%, Hispanics for 25%, and patients of other races and ethnicities for 9%.
Seventeen percent of abortion patients in 2014 identified as mainline Protestant, 13% as evangelical Protestant, and 24% as Catholic; 38% reported no religious affiliation, and the remaining 8% reported some other affiliation.
In 2014, some 46% of all abortion patients had never married and were not cohabiting. However, nearly half were living with a male partner in the month they became pregnant, including 14% who were married and 31% who were cohabiting.By Lisa Troshinsky