Tuesday Guest Post: “Abortion in the Rural Northwest”

Abortion in the Rural Northwest

By Holly Carpenter

This summer, I road tripped around the Northwestern quarter of our country, hitting up Idaho, Montana, Washington, and Oregon. As a future rural abortion provider, I was keenly interested not only in getting a glimpse of what abortion culture was like in those states, but also to scope out possible places to live and work. I decided to make it into a sort of anti-protester trip, where I visited clinics to drop off little appreciation gifts and messages of support.

I started in Boise, but my schedule ended up conflicting with the clinic’s hours and I wasn’t able to stop by in person. So I sent them an envelope of Exhale cards, and a note to say that I appreciated their brave work in my home state. I traveled on to Missoula, Montana, through hundreds of miles of tiny towns and beautiful mountains. There, I asked friends and contacts about local health care options, and who the local abortion providers were. There was a Planned Parenthood, one of the two in the state of 145,545 square miles and almost a million people. I decided, however, to visit a private clinic, offering a unique mix of primary care, mental health, reproductive health care, and abortion services. I stopped by the local food co-op and picked out a few boxes of chocolate and a card (I know, so romantic!)

Pulling up to the clinic, I noticed the ten-foot tall metal fence surrounding the property. The gate was open, so I parked, noting the surveillance cameras covering the parking lot. Getting into the front lobby required pressing a bell, speaking to a receptionist, and then going through two thick glass doors, which I assume must have been bulletproof. Like many clinics, the receptionists sat behind another bulletproof glass window, and communication happened through a microphone. I introduced myself, realizing as I said the cheery words “Hi! I’m a UCSF nursing grad student and I just wanted to stop by to say thanks for the work you do!” that this wasn’t something that happened often around there. It took a good deal of awkward explanations to convey why I was there and what I wanted. I handed over the chocolates and card, which they picked up gingerly and gave me a cautious “thank you?” for. I left shortly after, feeling disturbed and confused.

When I did a little more research online, I discovered that their first clinic had been firebombed and destroyed in 1993. The site I visited had been opened two years later, through collective efforts in the Missoula community. It dawned on me that there was no way they were going to eat those chocolates. They were most likely checking them for anthrax and then throwing them into biohazard bags. Our culture of stigmatizing, demonizing, and attacking people seeking abortions and their providers had created an atmosphere in which even the most well-intentioned visitor could inspire fear in the staff who work in clinics that provide abortion. This was so sad.

I gave up my naïve quest to visit these clinics, and instead spent time reflecting on the ways in which I can bring about a different culture, one in which people are respected and supported in making choices about their bodies, lives, and families. We need to create a world in which abortion providers can accept thank you cards from patients and visitors, and protesters don’t encircle people going into Planned Parenthood any more than they do patients at a dermatology clinic. I’m so grateful to my fellow BADP’ers, the New York Doula Project, and all the other full spectrum projects starting in urban areas around the U.S., and I’m looking forward to seeing the full spectrum doula movement percolate out to rural communities.

Holly Carpenter is currently an RN and full-spectrum midwifery graduate student at University of California, San Francisco and previously volunteered as a birth/post-partum doula at San Francisco General Hospital. Originally from northern Idaho, she became a California-convert while completing her B.A. at Pitzer College. After volunteering for reproductive justice for years, she decided to depart from politics and policy in search of more tangible, direct work in women’s health care. She sought experience in a variety of settings, from patient care in rural teen clinics and Planned Parenthood to several years as an after-abortion counselor with Oakland-based Exhale. As a Pro-Voice Lead Counselor, she heard thousands of abortion stories and facilitated a team of thirty fellow counselors as they provided conscious, compassionate, and non-judgmental support to women and their partners. The missing link between emotional support and clinical services inspired her to work with this group of incredible women to found the Bay Area Doula Project. As a future clinician providing birth and abortion services, she appreciates every chance to support people through every pregnancy outcome, and to ease experiences that can be painful, relieving, complicated and empowering, to name a few. 

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