What We Can Learn From the First Woman-Run, Legal Abortion Clinic
With abortion rights being chipped away by states across the country and the imminent threat to overturn Roe v. Wade by the conservative-dominated Supreme Court, I have been reflecting on the early days of that struggle and what life was like before abortion was made legal by the Supreme Court in 1973. Most of us have heard about the Jane Collective in Chicago, which created an underground network and eventually learned how to perform abortions themselves. Less known, however is the important role feminist-run, legal abortion clinics played in making abortion safe and accepted across the country.
I was one of the founders of the Vermont Women’s Health Center, or VWHC — the first woman-run legal nonprofit clinic to perform abortions in the United States. As I reflect on this history, there are lessons to learn from the challenges of working in a broad coalition, as well as from the ways in which women’s liberation is connected to freedom and dignity for all. How and when I came to understand the importance of this began in the movements of the 1960s and 1970s.
This was a time of much upheaval, with activism in the antiwar, student and civil rights movements, and our emerging awareness of women’s oppression motivating us to act to support reproductive freedom. It was both a political and a personal issue with consciousness-raising groups sprouting up all over the country. We all knew and shared stories of back-alley abortions and what desperate measures women took to end a pregnancy. Some rich women were able to leave the country. Poor women and women of color were not able to find that route.
One experience that motivated me toward my activism was when I helped a high school friend obtain an illegal abortion. She found a so-called “doctor” through a newspaper ad, who performed abortions in a swanky hotel room in New York City. I drove my friend from the suburbs to the city. I waited in the lobby of the hotel with the room number in my hand as she went up in the elevator. I became agitated, so I decided to check in on her. When I entered the room, she said the “doctor” had made sexual advances. I grabbed her and we left abruptly. When she got home, she drank the “medicine” he had given her and aborted the fetus in the toilet, bleeding heavily. I urged her to go to the hospital. She was one of the lucky ones who survived. I will never forget that incident and knew then that I had to do something to fight for abortion rights.
As a result, it made total sense that — while a graduate student at New York University in 1970 — I would become active in the campus and city-wide burgeoning second-wave women’s liberation movement. I volunteered at the New York Women’s Center in Manhattan. From there we organized women’s actions for housing, prison and gay rights all over the city and in Washington, D.C. — and women led actions against the Vietnam War. When New York State legalized abortion in 1970 — joining Hawaii as the second state to do so — it also began to organize abortion counseling services. I was trained as an abortion counselor, arranging for appointments for women all over the United States to come to New York. We also helped women find transportation and funds.
While states like Texas, Oklahoma and others are now making abortion access illegal, we are seeing similar networks expanding around the country. These networks are benefiting from the organizing and knowledge gained from the past 50 years of legal abortion.
By the time I’d finished graduate school in 1971, I’d become much more radical, surrounded by the numerous campus strikes, demonstrations and movement building on all fronts: antiwar, women’s liberation, Black liberation and more. At a Black Panther rally, white activists were encouraged to organize white working-class people. I took that message to heart. It became difficult to remain working “in the system,” and with my radical idealism, I started to seek out a place to go to organize in a smaller city.
I traveled with my partner at the time along the East Coast, visiting radical collectives. We landed in Burlington, Vermont, where people were welcoming to many big city refugees eager to join them in struggle. There was already a growing movement of commune dwellers and local people who had begun alternative projects, such as food coops and health centers, linked in a movement called Free Vermont. We jumped into this work on many levels, and I spent most of the next decade as a community organizer, connecting with working-class, urban and rural people.
I also joined women in Vermont who were discussing how to legalize abortion. Having just come from my role as an abortion counselor, I thought I would have something to contribute. They were looking for a way to overturn the Vermont law that punished doctors for performing an abortion (but not the women who got one) and reached out to Dr. Jackson Beecham of St. Johnsbury, who agreed to challenge the law by asking a patient to sue him. The Vermont Supreme Court ruled that if it was not illegal for a patient to receive a particular medical procedure, then the legislature could not deny that procedure. This was a big win, and abortion became legal in Vermont one year before Roe v. Wade was decided.
Now the hard work of setting up a clinic began. We had to act quickly, as soon as abortion became legal in the state, before the opposition was able to challenge us. While there had been some unity among the women in their goals of establishing one, there was still the need to build trust among the different factions.
This was a diverse group of women, comprised of different ages and a range of political and class differences. Some were affiliated with the University of Vermont, Planned Parenthood or local churches, as opposed to the younger, less-established and newer radical arrivals. Although there was tension and divisions, our radical faction decided we all had to work together, as Burlington was too small of a town to have two clinics — and the more established women had access to resources we didn’t.
We all had one goal in mind and that was to open a woman-run nonprofit clinic that performed abortions, as well as other reproductive health services. Being woman-run was essential in taking control of our lives against the patriarchy. This was very significant as abortion became legal nationwide and many in the medical establishment and elsewhere would try to exploit women for profit.
We had different strategies on how the clinic would be run. Would we have a medical director, or would there be a more cooperative structure? Many of us were hearing stories about the Janes in Chicago, who learned how to perform their own procedures — and we were also influenced by the Boston Women’s Health Collective, as they created a course entitled “Women and Their Bodies,” which was the foundation for what eventually became their bestselling publication “Our Bodies Ourselves.”
The whole experience was liberating in itself, as we learned about our own bodies and became empowered by that knowledge. In the end, many compromises were made and different structures were tried, including a clinic run by the workers, with everyone doing all the jobs at one point. That system became unworkable in the long run, and it evolved into more of a hybrid system — with some workers part-time and some full-time, along with a clinical director. We did create a Board of Directors (which I served on for two years), until we disbanded it to create a worker-run clinic.
When we needed to raise funds for a building, those connected to resources were able to find people to back bank loans. A place was found in Colchester, outside of Burlington. We agreed to pay back the loans when the clinic was financially able to support itself, which we did within a short period of time.
Before we were able to begin conversations about details like interior design and hiring staff, we had a political fight on our hands. In the highly Catholic Colchester, a referendum was placed on the ballot by those opposed to abortion. While we did have some liberal nuns and others on our side, the effort to stop the clinic from opening was fierce. I recall a meeting of hundreds in a large venue, where a nun in her habit held up a preserved fetus in a jar. We held strong. We organized with the Women’s Political Caucus to fight the ballot initiative. United and well-organized, we canvassed, made phone calls, printed flyers and won the vote.
When the clinic was finally open, the Vermont Women’s Health Center became the first feminist, woman-run nonprofit clinic in the United States to perform abortions legally. It survived anti-abortion attacks, including fire bombings. But its success rested on the solidarity and highly-safe and legal abortions it provided, in a warm and welcoming environment. This too was an act of resistance. There was a lot of suspicion. And I realized how radical this organizing was when I got my Freedom of Information Act file from the FBI and discovered they had included an article from a local paper announcing the opening of the clinic, listing and underlining all our names. The FBI was watching, seeing us as subversive.
After nearly a decade in Vermont, I decided to return to New York, as I felt the need to delve into a more urban setting and join the work of national organizations. I stayed connected to both the women’s movement and the many other groups I was a part of, visiting often. In 1987, I attended the 15th anniversary reunion of its founding. All of us had moved on, and there seemed to be a more unified group, as the success of the VWHC was celebrated.
It turned out that unity and trust among the founders and staff grew with the years of working together. We didn’t have to agree on every issue, but joining forces in a coalition with common goals contributed to its success. Networks were built for further solidarity in the long term on many issues. Members of Planned Parenthood of Vermont were involved in the founding, but at the time the organization was not prepared to take the political risk of performing abortions. However, The Vermont Women’s Health Center eventually merged with Planned Parenthood in 2001.
We don’t know what will become of the right to choose in the coming weeks and months. But the fight will continue. Young women and men are leading the cause. Women’s reproductive rights is not an isolated issue. It is connected to the struggles against racism and economic oppression, as well as the climate crisis. According to climate scientists, if women and girls throughout the world had control over their reproductive choices and access to education, it would be one of the major changes needed to solve the climate emergency.
This is why the struggle continues: Women’s rights are human rights!