‘You are not alone in this:’ Inside a local abortion clinic

Sean Mehl, the clinic director at Whole Woman’s Health in Charlottesville, has worked with Hagstrom Miller for years.
Photo: Amy Jackson Smith Sean Mehl, the clinic director at Whole Woman’s Health in Charlottesville, has worked with Hagstrom Miller for years. Photo: Amy Jackson Smith

By Sydney Halleman

The waiting room of Whole Woman’s Health mimics that of a spa foyer. A selection of organic herbal teas lies on a back table, amid an array of fitness and mindfulness magazines. On the wall is a quote from Georgia O’Keeffe, in pale purple: “I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life—and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.”

It’s not what you might imagine an abortion clinic would look like. But the positive, relaxing atmosphere is part of the larger organization’s mission—to end the stigma around terminating a pregnancy.

Today, the nonprofit has taken its pledge one step further. As a growing number of states attempts to outlaw abortion, the Charlottesville clinic has opened its doors to the community, inviting the public to take a walk-through of the facility.

Besides the staff, I’m the only one here.

“Our goal is for you to see what it’s like to be a patient here,” says Sean Mehl, the clinic director. Though I’m only here for a tour, I’m a bit nervous.

If you’ve heard of Whole Woman’s Health before, it’s likely because they were the plaintiffs in a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision challenging abortion restrictions in Texas. In Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, in 2016, the court found that a Texas law that required abortion clinics to meet the same regulatory standards as ambulatory surgical centers, causing clinics throughout the state to close, created an undue burden on those seeking abortions.

CEO Amy Hagstrom Miller now lives in Charlottesville (C-VILLE ran a profile of her last fall), and Whole Woman’s Health has filed litigation against abortion restrictions in Virginia and Illinois.

The proactive fight for abortion rights seems far away from the waiting room, where I’m suddenly feeling much more relaxed—maybe from the light instrumental music that has started to play in the background.

“Women are walking in expecting to be judged,” Mehl says, leading me down a hallway. “A patient should expect a much higher level of care.”

Mehl and Jessica Shein, another staff member, show me to the sonogram room, which looks more like a doctor’s office. Virginia law requires an ultrasound before an abortion, something Mehl says is “definitely not necessary in most cases,” and could potentially make the patient uncomfortable. Yet the serene atmosphere of the waiting room has clearly been designed to carry through to this room, which has its own inspirational quote (Tracee Ellis Ross: “I am learning every day to allow the space between where I am and where I want to be to inspire me and not terrify me”).

Next door are two small counseling rooms. The staff hopes to make the state-mandated counseling sessions soothing to the patient. “We want to reinforce that what they’re feeling is normal,” Mehl says. But they’re required to repeat the potential risks of abortion complications (though the complication rate is less than 1 percent), as well as give patients information about abortion alternatives. “It’s another way to throw that information at them in hopes that they’ll change their mind,” Mehl says.

Patients are required to wait 24 hours between the counseling session and their procedure, as long as the patient lives within 100 miles of the provider. That means a woman who lives, say, an hour and a half away from the nearest clinic must either go back home between visits or stay overnight near her clinic. These are the restrictions Whole Woman’s Health is fighting in Virginia, in the class action lawsuit Falls Church Healthcare Center et al v. Norman Oliver.

Mehl and Shein then take me to the procedure room. I’m not quite sure what to expect. I know almost nothing about the medical side of abortions. The room is, well, normal. It’s the same size as the sonogram room, with the same shade of purple on the walls. I notice some medical equipment and Mehl unwraps blue paper, showing me metal tube-like rods on the inside. I learn that this equipment is used to dilate the cervix.

“There’s no incision in the procedure,” Mehl says as he re-wraps the equipment. “That’s a common misconception.”

Finally, Mehl and Shein show me the aspirator, which removes the pregnancy. It’s small and flimsy looking. Surprisingly not intimidating, it’s not even as big as my forearm. There’s a lever. It’s made of plastic.

“A woman came up here on a tour once,” Shein tells me later. “And once she saw the simplicity inside the procedure room, she said, ‘Is this what everyone is fighting over?’”

The last stop on the tour is the recovery room. There are huge leather recliners, a giant picture of Audrey Hepburn, and a Frida Kahlo quote on the wall. More tea sits on a coffee table, blended and mixed by the CEO herself.

“The blend is supposed to help with uterine contractions,” Shein tells me. Blankets lie on each chair.

As I sit in the recliner, imagining the women who sit in this room after a procedure, Shein hands me a small notebook. Inside are pages upon pages of notes written by patients who have recovered in this room. The words are meant to encourage those women who come after them.

“You made the right choice for you,” one page reads. “You are not alone in this.”

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Bill Marshall
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Bill Marshall

So is C-ville censoring the narrative now? If that’s all your going to do then at least admit it and reflect it in your tos for comments.

Why present only one side while shutting off any contrarian opinions?

You may feel strong comments hurt someones feelings, well this article and subject matter “trigger” lots of people who think killing a living thing is murder.

There are two sides to every story…. (except in charlottesville?)

Jack
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Jack

Face it Bill. This publication and many in Cville only want a=the liberal view about this and anything else. They are very biased, clearly.

Ronald Amon
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Ronald Amon

You were more on board with Hawes Spencer’s The Hook? Also, one of the greats.

DamianThomas
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DamianThomas

Oh boo hoo. I doubt you would be whining about a CPC focused article that shut down “contrarian” opinions.

els
Guest
els

On the walk through we are inspired by 1. quote from Georgia O’Keeffe 2. inspirational quote from Tracee Ellis Ross 3. giant picture of Audrey Hepburn 4. Frida Kahlo quote Georgia, Tracee, Audrey and Frida: All women who were NOT aborted. That is a FACT, not an artistic impression, journalistic reverie, or fake news. Because they WERE ALIVE and magnificently ALIVE. Another matter of fact is that an abortion may be of such magnificent inspirational women or persons like Georgia, Tracee, Audrey and Frida. Those are facts. The writer uses an interesting rhetorical device to avoid these FACTS: Quote “A… Read more »

DamianThomas
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DamianThomas

lol wut? Any person that has even spoken wasn’t aborted, because things that don’t exist don’t have opinions. All the people you listed also wouldn’t exist if their parents had opted to be nuns/priests, but I doubt you go protesting seminary schools and churches over it.

Uncle Albert's Nephew
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Uncle Albert's Nephew

Why do I not see the hoards of forced birthers outside Planned Parenthood on Hydraulic Rd. that I see in the media? At most one to five protesters.

Jack
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Jack

No matter how you want to try and justify abortion, it’s very simple. It’s murder. There’s a better solution, don’t get pregnant!

DamianThomas
Guest
DamianThomas

Not under the law it isn’t , nor in the opinion of the majority (over 70% of the population supports legal abortion). And I take it you’ve invented a 100% failproof form of birth control? I look forward to hearing about it!

Ronald Amon
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Ronald Amon

It’s inevitable that this article will be religion bombed or church bombed by those disposed to intractable brainwashing and mind control. Too dumb to know, too stupid to care. The plan is to outlaw all effective means of birth control, including abortion, so as to jack the national poverty rate as high above 50% as possible to move the US from a democracy to a communist dictatorship from sheer desperation. The hopelessly blind cannot see Venezuela and their dire living circumstances because they trusted when they shouldn’t have. Trusted the wrong people. Now, it’s one dictatorship after another. From Hugo… Read more »

els
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els

Parson, sir/madam/them (whatever your gender identity or non-identity and your pronouns, or not): My comments did not ‘religion bomb’ or ‘church bomb’ ( you might want to define those terms since ‘church bombing’ is a much used form of hate violence, terrorism against Black people, and others!). Of course we see that your comments are prone to hyperbole – comparing difficult getting an abortion to ‘slavery’. Hyperbole, much? Many of our Black neighbors who know stories from their ancestors in chattel slavery might wonder about that hyperbole. Well, that is for you to argue with them. Try it sometime: e.g.… Read more »

dharmanat
Member
dharmanat

It isn’t an infant until it is born. And the vast majority of abortions take place very early in a pregnancy. The ones that happen later are primarily due to a gut wrenching decision to end a pregnancy because of a severe abnormality. Your attempts to deflect by ranting about the former poster’s use of hyperbole is laughable especially when it comes after your comparing your comment to a “Socratic walk about”.
Please-focus on yourself and stop with the obsessive fantasy that ending access to abortion will finally help you feel at peace in the world.

Els
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Els

First: anyone can undertake a ‘Socratic walk about’: that was a PRIMARY POINT of Socrates doing the in the market with the most diverse profile of people, poor and affluent, well educated and poorly educated, etc. So your jibe about that is historically and rhetorically mistake, incorrect, and inept. Second: ‘infant’ refers to ‘not-speaking’ and an unborn baby is ‘not speaking’, especially not being allowed any voice, at all, by abortionists. I use ‘infant’ to emphasize that point, but very well use ‘baby’. But many who use ‘baby’ are trying to obscure that the unborn infant may be unviable without… Read more »

els
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els

Pardon, but the unborn human being is not ‘it’ – an inanimate ‘thing’, a rock, or a cabbage, etc – but is a ‘who’. Generally, decent people, respectful of human dignity and human rights, call human beings ‘who’, not ‘it’. I have not obsessive fantasy to end abortion; rather I have a great desire to respect the dignity of every human being. Unlike many others who call human beings ‘it’, in order to justify chattel slavery, torture, eugenical sterilization or eugenical killing, death camps, genocide, etc.

dharmanat
Member
dharmanat

Ok. So the speech police are out. All I can speak to is the fact that I have had multiple pregnancies in my body and not knowing the sex of IT, I often referred to IT as IT or THEY. That was just me. Other women do it differently. And frankly, it doesn’t matter. I don’t think zygotes, fetuses or babies are “clumps of cells” as was insinuated. However you choose the name it, the pregnancy exists inside a WOMAN’S body. Her health, state of mind, financial situation, status of abusive or supportive relationship, etc. will matter. And she should… Read more »

DamianThomas
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DamianThomas

Abortion is legal for the same reason slavery is illegal.

dharmanat
Member
dharmanat

Commenters, Women will always have unplanned pregnancies (especially in this society which discourages the education about and the availability of contraception 🙄). Therefore women will always terminate pregnancies when they decide to. It never ceases to amaze me the folks that care so much about fetuses coming to term and being born, are seemingly unconcerned about the health and well-being of said fetuses when they are children and (GASP!) when they become adults. Why can’t you extend the same compassion and valuing of life to a troubled child or teenager or homeless adult? Or even, to women that have found… Read more »

Els
Guest
Els

I have been an advocate for decades for medically and ethically sound sexuality education, that is factual, complete, and responsive to all questions. This comes from ‘caring’ – as you say — about FACTS, about PERSONS, and about PUBLIC MORALITY. All the ‘cases’ you describe require attention to facts, persons, and public morality. You use the term ‘unplanned pregnancy’ as it were morally inconsequential; when it is, in FACT, of profound MORAL consequence for the public. If the unborn infant is living and growing because the mother was raped that is of profound public moral consequence. The public must do… Read more »

Bill Marshall
Member
Bill Marshall

and decent people will always judge them as the Constitution allows… Most people who dislike abortions being so prevalent are not for making them illegal, they just want to make them few and far between which means that there should be some gut wrenching involved so that they are fewer and farther between. We have gone from giving women the right, to people being arrested for exposing planned parenthood for selling baby hearts and complete “undamaged” heads. The fact is most abortions could be eliminated if women would accept more responsibility for using birth control to protect the bodies they… Read more »

dharmanat
Member
dharmanat

I see that, as usual, women are held solely responsible for pregnancies and the prevention thereof that require a man’s ejaculation to take place. He gets to just talk about women’s need to take responsibility while he gets to, um, relax. Not to mention how difficult it can be to obtain said birth control for so many reasons. One being poor women whose birth control comes from subsidized sources (like planned parenthood) that are being removed because of the moral panic surrounding clinics that also provide abortion not receiving government funds (which btw, those funds are never allocated toward abortion… Read more »

RONALD AMON
Guest
RONALD AMON

Remember the slogan “BE PREPARED?” The smart woman always carries condoms with her. May even put it on herself. Exposure to organized religion creates sex guilt which accounts for many unplanned pregnancies. Sex guilt religion is also trying to punish you by outlawiing your right to an abortion. Sex guilt religion is fiercely lobbying for more laws to lock up more Americans for having sex. None of their business. It’s nobody’s business what you do down there. Three things and only three things you should go to jail for: Murder, Bodily Harm, and Stealing. No jail term for having sex.… Read more »

DamianThomas
Guest
DamianThomas

Forced-birthers showing their true colors as usual. Caring about embryos, throwing living women under the bus.