Emma Goldman Clinic’s founding mothers reflect on ‘the beauty of choice,’ half a century of Roe and the future of abortion care

Emma Goldman Clinic
Illustration by Lorna Campbell

Deb Nye was 23 when she heard the news: The Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade had just affirmed a person’s right to choose to have an abortion. It was late January 1973, and light snow covered the ground. She ran two blocks to the University of Iowa College of Law building, crossing over the Iowa River.

“We ran over there within moments of hearing the decision,” Nye recalled. “I remember running through the law school lounge, you know, just screaming. And the other gals that were with me were screaming, ‘This is just great!’”

Nye is one of the founding mothers of the Emma Goldman Clinic in Iowa City, one of the first feminist reproductive healthcare clinics in the United States. Last month, she joined fellow founders and others at the clinic to discuss its founding, their memories of Roe and the current Supreme Court’s rescinding of the constitutionally guaranteed right to an abortion. The discussion took place before the court handed down its opinion overturning Roe, but because of a leaked draft opinion in May, everyone knew the change was coming.

When Roe was decided on Jan. 22, 1973, it didn’t have an immediate impact in Iowa City. At the time, Nye worked at the Abortion Referral Service of the Women’s Research Center at UI. She started calling local doctors and asking, “When can we start referring to you?” Most of them hung up the phone. Others said they weren’t interested or told her to send people to New York.

“After that happened, we were kinda sitting there being disappointed, and we said, ‘Well you know, looks like we’re gonna have to do this ourselves,’” Nye said.

Nye, along with a group of young mothers, college students and other advocates, began building the Emma Goldman Clinic, and nine months later, it opened on Sept. 1, 1973.

For the past 49 years, the clinic has provided reproductive healthcare services for thousands throughout the Midwest. But following the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, which overturned Roe and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, people are asking, “What’s going to happen to the clinic?”

Francine Thompson, executive director of the Emma Goldman Clinic, speaks at the Bans Off Our Bodies protest. “It’s a short leap from banning abortions to criminalizing those seeking and those providing abortions. And it’s a really short leap from abortion bans to birth control bans, to marriage equality bans, to interracial marriage bans, and on and on,” Thompson said. “We need politicians and judges to just stay the fuck out of our personal lives.” – Adria Carpenter/Little Village

Francine Thompson, the clinic’s executive director, has heard that question over and over since the leaked draft opinion. And she keeps trying to assure the public that the clinic isn’t going anywhere.

“We’re going to continue to be here in some form, providing the care that we do to the folks in this state,” she said last month, before the Supreme Court handed down the Dobbs ruling on June 24. “We’re going to have to work if abortion becomes illegal in Iowa, and it might take a while until we turn that back around. But I have no doubt that we can do that, but it’s probably not going to happen that quickly.”

Republicans have worked to overturn Roe and make abortions illegal since the Supreme Court handed down its decision nearly half a century ago. Reinstating the right to choose won’t happen overnight, Thompson said.

“If we think we’re going to change it back in, you know, a couple days, it’s not gonna happen,” she explained. “I’m seeing a lot of reaction to SCOTUS, but I’m not seeing a lot of movement to change things in November yet.”

The Emma Goldman Clinic saw approximately 600 people for abortion services last year. The number of patients fluctuates from year to year, as circumstance change, but the clinic has never served fewer than 400 patients during the course of a year.

Most abortion procedures at Emma Goldman are non-surgical. A patient takes medicine, like mifepristone and misoprostol, which blocks progesterone and induces cramping and bleeding. This type of abortion is performed during the first trimester of a pregnancy.

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The clinic offers contraceptives, gynecology services, Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI) testing, transgender healthcare and more. While many women visit the clinic, it also provides physicals and exams for men.

Underground abortions and contraceptive networks: The pre-Roe world

In the pre-Roe world, getting a legal abortion was not an option for most people. Leading up to 1973, access to abortion was typically limited to those who needed it to protect their physical or mental health, or in cases of rape or incest. Reproductive rights fell along arbitrary state lines. Everything depended on location.

The Emma Goldman Clinic team, November 2020. — Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

Even then, a standing hospital committee had to review and approve an abortion request, often requiring lengthy physical exams and psychiatric evaluations. For cases involving sexual assault, a law enforcement officer might have to verify that the individual filed a report.

Contraceptives weren’t always readily available, even after the 1965 Supreme Court ruling in Griswold v. Connecticut, which established a right to access to contraceptives for married couples. Many doctors of the era wouldn’t prescribe contraceptives for minors or unmarried people.

After giving birth as a teen, Gina Kaefring, then 17, asked her Catholic doctor for contraceptives.

“He said, ‘Oh I’m sorry. You mean you didn’t learn your lesson?’ and I go, ‘Woah I guess I’ll be talking to someone else.’ So basically, there was an underground network, or word-of-mouth, about what doctor you could go to, to get birth control pills or IUDs or whatever,” Kaefring recounted during the discussion at the clinic last month.

“Basically, unless you where 18 years old, you couldn’t get birth control. And if you couldn’t find a doctor who would give you birth control, you couldn’t have birth control.”

Gina Kaefring looks through old photographs of the Emma Goldman founding mothers, on June 7, 2022. – Adria Carpenter/Little Villlage

Many vulnerable people sought out illegal, and often unsafe, abortions by either crossing state lines or flying to other countries. There were an estimated 200,000 to 1.2 million illegal abortions per year in the 1950s and ’60s, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit organization focused on reproductive health research and policy.

Nye was one of them.

She became pregnant in high school and contacted the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion (CCS), a group of pastors, priests and rabbis that helped people get safe abortions from licensed doctors. From 1967 to 1973, the group had over 3,000 members across 38 states and helped nearly half a million people. CCS referred her to an underground abortion facility operating out of chiropractic clinic in Missouri.

“My sister went to Puerto Rico, a girlfriend of mine in college went to Japan,” Nye said. “You had to travel far. You had to be able to pay for an airplane ticket, or take a car somehow to get to where you were going, and lose time at work, and maybe your parents found out, maybe your husband found out.”

The Emma Goldman Clinic was originally a collective. The founding mothers pooled together about $10,000 for their preliminary budget. Roxie Tullis, whose husband had died during the Vietnam War, used the life insurance policy to help buy the house, and they put down $5,000. Nye and Melissa Farley each got a $1,000 loan from their families. After two more $1,000 loans, the founders cobbled together small donations for the rest.

Rebecca Arbogast and Deb Nye talk about the future of reproductive rights in Iowa on June 7, 2022. – Adria Carpenter/Little Village

“Just sitting down with a group of women and saying, ‘Let’s do this, and how are we going to do this?’ And getting it done, and then running the clinic, I mean, that was a trip. And it stays with you,” said Barb Yates, one of the founding mothers. “We never thought it would last for 50 years. We thought, you know, getting through the middle of next Tuesday was our goal. And one Tuesday at a time led to many different things.”

Emma Goldman was the first abortion clinic to open east of California, and the fifth to open nationwide, Nye said. During the first few years, the clinic provided between 1,000 to 1,200 first-trimester abortions annually. It didn’t offer abortions after the first trimester. People from every adjacent state traveled to the clinic, though the pool gradually got smaller as more clinics opened.

The majority of their patients were young girls and women between 15 and 25 years old, followed by women aged 25 to 35 years old. But they also saw women into their 40s who had a menopausal pregnancy, or pregnant adolescents aged 12 to 15 years old. Those cases usually involved incest, according to Nye.

“The 12-to-15 was usually fewer, but they were there,” she said.

The Pro-Choice and Anti-Choice movements

In the conference room at Emma Goldman, Kaefring and Nye, along with Barbara Bailey and Rebecca Arbogast, reminisced over old photographs and shared stories about their time at the clinic, ignoring the drone of traffic on North Dubuque Street.

Kaefring joined the clinic shortly after it opened, while they were still deciding what color to paint the living room and kitchen. Roxie Tullis invited her to work at the Abortion Referral Service. Reading Sisterhood is Powerful, a 1970 anthology of feminist writings, inspired her to get involved, and at 21 years old she starting volunteering at Emma Goldman.

“I just remember the excitement at the time. It was just so exciting,” Kaefring said. “It was just incredibly empowering to work with a group of women that were strong and smart and alive and active. It was lifechanging.”

Kaefring, 73, worked at Emma Goldman off and on for 11 years. She remembers joking with her colleagues, and occasionally fighting with them. But mostly, she remembers the young women and other patients she counseled.

“I remember a young woman being brought in by her family, and she wanted to keep the pregnancy. And they wanted her to have an abortion. And so, they brought her to us for help,” she said. “We talked for quite a long time. And I think when they left, she still wanted to have the baby … And I just really felt like, ‘If only people knew how pro-choice we really are.’ We’re really pro-choice. We’re not abortion lovers. We’re pro-choice.”

“We aren’t advocates for abortion,” Nye added. “We’re advocates for choice.”

“We’re all mothers,” Bailey said. The room loudly assented.

“And that’s something, I have to say, that’s really bugged me about the press from the very beginning,” Nye said.  “The word choices that you use when you report these things. When you use words like ‘pro-life,’ that’s wrong. It’s anti-choice, or it’s pro-choice. It’s not, you know — we aren’t anti-life. If they’re pro-life, are we anti-life? No, we aren’t. So, I think it’s an issue of choice, and I think it should be discussed that way.”

Gina Kaefring, Francine Thompson and Deb Nye talk in the lobby at the Emma Goldman Clinic, on June 6, 2022. – Adria Carpenter/Little Village

Nye recalled one young woman who came in with her mother for an abortion, and the following day, their doctor saw the mother protesting outside the clinic. The other founders chimed in that many “pro-life” people came to the clinic.

“We just want choice,” Kaefring said. “It’s a huge decision, and very rarely does anybody take it lightly at all. I think it’s a very serious decision.”

“The beauty of choice is that somebody who thinks abortion is wrong or immoral, they don’t have to do it when they’re faced with that situation,” Nye said. “But those who face it and think it’s the right decision can do it. With this opinion coming down, it’s like there’s only one choice.”

Community support and endless protests

Rebecca Arbogast had just graduated from college when she joined Emma Goldman in 1981 as a patient advocate. She remembers seeing all the stress patients felt — from either traveling, taking off work, having children at home, etc. — quickly fade as they rested in the recovery room.

“That sense of relief across all the women who came in is probably what I remember,” she said. “That and the endless meetings.”

People can be found praying outside Emma Goldman Clinic almost every week. Other anti-choice demonstrations against the clinic over years have been less peaceful. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

The Iowa City community was supportive of the clinic at the time she joined, Arbogast said, and rallied around the clinic as it celebrated its 10th anniversary a few years later. But the clinic has also faced near-constant protests from anti-choice demonstrators since day one. In 1978, Emma Goldman was firebombed. The three Molotov cocktails used only caused minor damage.

“I also remember the firebombing was a really big event for me because we actually had — this is going to sound really crazy — we had a gal who worked with us who had psychic abilities,” Nye said.

“Don’t tell this story,” Kaefring said. Their laughter fills the conference room.

“No, but it’s like an amazing story,” Nye continued. “And she came to me, and she said, ‘You know the guides told me for you to pay attention to your dreams.’ And I’d had a dream just the week before. I woke up, in fact, was so disturbed by it that I told my husband about it. And the dream was that there was a package on our front porch at the old house. And that I pushed it off and it just burst into flames. And I told her, ‘That’s the only dream I’ve had lately.’ And so, we started closing the fire doors, taking precautions, and then shortly after that was that attempt.”

“But it was just kinda amazing that, you know, it didn’t burn down those buildings.”

Nye worked at the clinic for about 13 years. She shared another story about an underage girl. Her mother brought her into the clinic for an abortion, but after speaking with her in private, Nye learned that she wanted to keep the pregnancy. The mother took her daughter back to the car and began hitting her until she agreed to make the appointment. They called Child Protective Services and made arrangements for them to come on the day of the appointment.

“She came in, and we walked her right out the backdoor,” she said.

‘In it for the long game’: What’s next for Emma Goldman?

None of the founding mothers where surprised by the leaked draft opinion. Nye knew this would happen once there was a conservative majority on the Supreme Court. Her initial feelings were overwhelming concern and compassion for the next generation.

“I had an illegal abortion back before Roe v. Wade. I know what that meant. It doesn’t stop abortion. It stops safe abortion,” she said. “The feelings of shame, and guilt, and ‘Nobody supports me,’ and that kind of thing. I lived through that, and that’s a terrible, terrible thing for anybody.”

Arbogast felt that Roe was effectively overturned right after the 2016 presidential election.

Rebecca Arbogast talks about how to move forward following the overturn of Roe, on June 6, 2022. – Adria Carpenter/Little Village

Barb Yates, who is a lawyer, didn’t think the Supreme Court would actually upend the right to privacy. It opens a can of worms that has consequences far beyond abortion, she said. She still had hope that the draft was simply a draft. But even with the final ruling, she thinks that the post-Roe world won’t be the same as the pre-Roe world.

“A whole generation has grown up with that now,” Yates said. “You’ve grown up with a whole different set of values, and understandings, and concepts of rights and entitlement, and that’s good.”

Thompson, who joined the clinic in 1987 and has served as the executive director for the past five years, said restoring reproductive rights won’t be easy.

“You’ve got to be in it for the long game,” she said. “Now we just have another battle, which is historically what’s happened the whole 35 years I’ve been here. Just as soon as we get one thing kinda solved, it’s something else.”

While the founding mothers argued over strategy, they all agreed that the Emma Goldman Clinic isn’t going anywhere.

“No matter what we’re going to have a clinic here,” Nye said. “It doesn’t matter how we have to do that; we’re going to do it because that’s the bottom line … We’ve got to be there for the next generation of women. And the next generation of women need to be there for themselves as well.”

Gina Kaefring, Rebecca Arbogast, Deb Nye, Barbara Bailey and Francine Thompson pose for a photo on June 6, 2022. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village