Emma Goldman Clinic, one of the first and last feminist women’s health clinics in the U.S., faces fresh challenges

Francine Thompson, the Emma Goldman Clinic’s director of health services, stands in front of the original wooden sign. — photo by Zak Neumann

Update: On Tuesday, May 15, Emma Goldman Clinic, along with the ACLU of Iowa and Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the “fetal heartbeat” law and asking for an injunction to prevent it from going into effect.

The passing of a controversial anti-abortion bill in the Iowa Senate on May 2 — signed by Kim Reynolds on May 4 — puts the future of reproductive rights in jeopardy for many Iowans. As opponents plan to take up this fight with the courts, groups such as the Iowa City-based Emma Goldman Clinic (EGC) will continue providing education and services.

The EGC started as a collective of 12 women — made up of students, mothers and workers — operating out of the women’s center on the University of Iowa campus. They opened the clinic at 227 N Dubuque St in Iowa City in 1973, nine months after the U.S. Supreme Court decision on Roe v. Wade overturned Iowa’s archaic abortion statutes dating back to the 19th century. For 45 years, the clinic has provided gynecological services, birth control, abortion and assistance to those seeking it.

The clinic is named after the Lithuanian-born revolutionary Emma Goldman (1869-1940), who, after immigrating to the U.S., championed causes such as women’s rights and reproductive rights (birth control, abortion and free medical care) during a time when even speaking about such issues could land someone in jail. The organizers wanted to honor Goldman’s “challenging spirit” — a bit of an understatement for one of the founders of anarcha-feminism.

The EGC has changed their leadership model throughout the years in order to fulfill their mission statement to “promote respectful, client-centered and participatory health care through informed decision making, client rights, advocacy and expansion, and support of pregnancy choices.”

Director of Health Services Francine Thompson has been working at the clinic for more than 30 years (31 years in July). Raised in a family of activists, Thompson was carrying picket signs and attending protests with her mother to combat discrimination and support civil rights at a young age. Thompson is originally from Waterloo and learned about the EGC when she was visiting her sister in Iowa City.

“I saw an advertisement for a position, and I was excited,” Thompson told Little Village. Thompson is responsible for the services provided at the clinic and is involved with community outreach.

Since the founding of EGC, the organization has confronted numerous challenges. “Women’s healthcare has always been under a microscope,” Thompson said. “Just surviving has been an amazing feat. There are now only 13 clinics in the U.S. that identify as feminist, nonprofit and that provide abortion care. I believe that we may just be the oldest nonprofit clinic providing abortions that has been in continuous operation.”

Since the ruling on Roe v. Wade by the highest court in the land, there has been a backlash from the anti-abortion movement, with efforts often centered on targeting clinics and health professionals that provide abortions. Thompson recalled the time EGC was firebombed in 1978. According to an article from The Daily Iowan published shortly after the attack, the clinic “suffered minor roof damage from a fire caused by three Molotov cocktails thrown at the rear of the building.”

Forty years after the firebombing, the clinic continues to face ongoing threats of intimidation. Every Thursday and Friday protesters demonstrate outside the clinic with between two to 20 participants at a time. Representatives from the Newman Catholic Church and Johnson County Right to Life have dispatched protesters, as well as other activists.

The demonstrations are peaceful — often involving standing with signs or holding prayer along the sidewalk and right-of-way outside the clinic’s front entrance — but can be received as bullying or shaming by EGC’s clients as they enter or exit. The UI student group Hawks for Choice has worked with EGC by escorting clients to their cars for support and safety.

Lisa Heinemen of Emma Goldman Clinic addresses the crowd on the University of Iowa Pentacrest during the May 5 protest of Iowa’s “fetal heartbeat” bill. — photo by Zak Neumann

The biggest threats looming over the clinic come not from these protesters, but from the Iowa legislature.

Since the Republican party has taken control of the governorship (under Terry Branstad and Kim Reynolds) and the state legislature, its representatives have renewed their attacks on reproductive rights. For example, Planned Parenthood clinics were forced to close their doors in Bettendorf, Burlington, Keokuk and Sioux City due to a lack of legislative funding, shutting out nearly 15,000 Iowans from their health care providers. Aside from cutting necessary funds and limiting access, they have proposed measures to outlaw most abortions.

Other proposals would have a devastating impact on the work of EGC and other abortion providers, including requiring clients to provide reasons for seeking an abortion through paperwork and forcing clients to look at ultrasound pictures.

The most dangerous proposal, according to Thompson, is what has been called the “fetal heartbeat bill” or Senate File 359. Iowa already has some of the harshest restrictions on abortion on the books compared to other states, banning most abortions after 20 weeks. The heartbeat bill, which passed in the Iowa Senate after a late night debate in a vote of 51-46 on the morning of May 2, would criminalize most abortions if a heartbeat is detected, which can be as early as six weeks.

“Many people may not even know that they’re pregnant in six weeks,” Thompson said. “This puts a heavy time restraint on an already time-sensitive situation. Add in the time that people must take to take off work, find childcare and transportation — the bill’s intention is to eliminate abortions, but it is disguised as a concern for the fetus. It’s been proven by multiple medical studies that a fetus does not feel pain.”

Senate Bill 359 will be challenged by groups such as Planned Parenthood and the Iowa branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Thompson said it diverts time, energy and dollars to respond to these efforts. “These are resources that could be better utilized toward the provision of reproductive health care,” she said.

Donations for both Planned Parenthood and Emma Goldman Clinic were collected during the protest. Saturday, May 5, 2018. — photo by Zak Neumann

The stigma associated with abortion continues to be one of the most foreboding in U.S. culture. Many pro-choice activists, including Thompson, are calling for a widespread movement similar to Me Too and Time’s Up to help educate the public and remove this social burden from the shoulders of those who have had abortions.

“There is still a lot of silence and shame associated with the decision,” Thompson said. “Abortion is continuing to work on its Me Too campaign. If we can get a movement like that, it will make an impact.”

Thompson said she and her EGC colleagues will continue to move forward in the wake of the “heartbeat” bill’s passage in the Iowa congress.

“We are proud of the work we do and the care that we provide for the people of the Midwest,” Thompson said. “We plan to continue to reach out to marginalized groups that often get the short end of the stick when it comes to healthcare.”

Mike Kuhlenbeck is a journalist and a member of the National Writers Union UAW Local 1981 / AFL – CIO based in Des Moines. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 243.

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