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.”