The well-being of women is often forgotten as lawmakers make decisions that affect their health.
Across the street from a liquor store on Oakwood Avenue stands a tall building that resembles a home. It has blue shutters, a walkway filled with small bushes and other plants, and a tall sign near the street that reads, “FREE PREGNANCY TESTS AND ULTRASOUNDS.”
The clinic opens at noon, but CEO Lisa Miller arrives much earlier. First Choice for Women has been in Delaware County since 1986. It doubled in size in early September, opening a second clinic 20 miles away in Anderson. Between the two locations, there was plenty of work to do.
Lisa arrives to a very tidy office. Her redwood-colored bookshelves are filled with white binders labeled for different subjects of law, finances, and general records. Near the window stands a lamp with a small ceramic cross tied to the knob to switch the lamp on and off. The cross is from Dollar General, as the bar code sticker still on its back shows. On a pale, slightly yellow wall across from Lisa’s desk hangs a sign bearing a reminder that all things are possible through Christ.
Leslie Hatcher, interim center director of the new facility in Anderson, is at the Muncie center today. Before coming to work, she’d already answered two calls for the 24-Hour Care Line provided by First Choice for women who have no one else to call. One call was from a mother who recently found out her daughter was pregnant. She told Leslie that her daughter trusted First Choice and wanted to come in and talk about her options.
Around 40 people would come to First Choice that week for anything from pregnancy tests to counseling sessions to ultrasounds to baby supplies to parenting lessons. None of them would pay anything for it.
The pro-life, pro-choice debate has been one of the most divisive political issues in American history. The debate takes stage in churches, on bumper stickers, in television shows—most people seem to have opinions on whether or not women have a right to get abortions.
First Choice is unique in its neutrality. The organization stays apolitical, focusing on helping women regardless of race, religion, socioeconomic status, or political beliefs.
From the moment each client first contacts the clinic, First Choice responders are trained to make the caller feel comfortable without any judgement, Leslie says. This strategy helps ease the stress a woman might feel for being unexpectedly pregnant and free of any judgement. Leslie was adamant that First Choice does not participate in what she calls the “life” issue.
That issue in itself can sway elections. According to a 2012 Gallup poll, 17 percent of registered voters will only vote for a candidate who shares their view on abortion. In the 2016 presidential election, many voters may have chosen Donald Trump due to the Supreme Court nomination that was waiting for whoever won the election. Eight Supreme Court justices would be needed to overturn the 7-2 decision that legalized first-trimester abortions, a rule established by Roe v. Wade in 1973. Any hope of overturning the decision would require the court to be loaded with conservative justices if an abortion case were brought before the Supreme Court again.
The abortion debate is usually one of great passion because one side believes thousands of babies are being murdered every year, and the other side believes it is a woman’s right to do what she believes is best for her and her body. It can be tough to discuss either of these views with someone who doesn’t agree. Madeleine Robling, co-president of the Ball State Democrats, says she’s been called a “baby-killer” for being pro-choice.
Madeleine believes it isn’t fair to stigmatize a woman for making the decision to have an abortion. She also thinks that the growing polarization between pro-life and pro-choice advocates is separating at a constant rate with the growing divide between conservatives and liberals, and that those who try to find common ground are demonized while those who throw the rocks are idolized.
As far as whether or not women are educated on their bodies and contraceptives, Madeleine believes there’s a lot more to be done, and that if women are more informed, they can make better decisions for their bodies.
Lisa agrees, saying that fewer girls would be coming to First Choice at age 17 concerned about a pregnancy if they received adequate sexual education at a young age.
Planned Parenthood operates and is affiliated with more than 650 clinics in the United States. Most Planned Parenthood clinics offer basic health care services such as STD testing, Pap smears, and cancer screenings. They also offer abortions or abortion referrals, contraceptives, and general health care for both men and women.
Most funding for Planned Parenthood comes from the federal and state governments. In 2014, Planned Parenthood received $528 million in government aid—40 percent of their yearly revenue, according to their annual report.
Many conservatives and pro-life supporters do not want their tax money going to Planned Parenthood, who conducted more than 300,000 abortions in 2014, according to their annual report. Liberals argue that many low-income individuals rely on Planned Parenthood’s services because they accept most insurance plans and provide basic health care and contraceptives with no copay.
Scott County, Indiana, population 24,000, received national attention during their extreme HIV outbreak in 2015. At the height of the crisis, around 200 people, or 0.5 percent of the county’s population, had been diagnosed with HIV. Scott County’s only HIV testing center, a Planned Parenthood clinic, closed in 2013 due to a lack of state funds.
Critics blamed Vice President Mike Pence. As an Indiana congressman in 2011, Pence approved a bill that cut funds to Planned Parenthood. Pence responded to the outbreak by opening a needle exchange center in Scott County, where residents could safely dispose of HIV-infected needles and get new, clean ones. This program reduced the recycling of dirty needles among drug users, a common transmitter of STDs.
Madeleine said that Pence was an enabler for the outbreak and failed the citizens of Scott County due to the fact that he reduced Indiana’s health care spending and refused to act quickly enough to open up a needle-exchange center sooner.
Muncie’s Planned Parenthood closed in June 2016, joining the 17 other Indiana-Kentucky Planned Parenthood clinics to close in the past 10 years. Unlike Planned Parenthood, First Choice doesn’t offer birth control or abortion referrals. But despite having what Lisa called a “pro-life stance,” First Choice still provides information about abortions and doesn’t turn away clients who are considering that option.
Leslie says many women’s clinics with a philosophy similar to First Choice are often accused of caring about the interests of the baby in the womb more than the health of the pregnant client.
But Leslie says that is the farthest thing from the truth. First Choice cares about the woman, first and foremost.
Stanley K. Henshaw, author of “Induced Abortion: A World Review,” estimated that there were around 1.2 million illegal abortions per year before abortion was legalized in the first trimester. During that time, thousands of women either died or were treated for severe injuries at hospitals every year, according to the National Abortion Federation.
If abortion became illegal tomorrow there would still be a need for pregnancy resource centers, Leslie says. She says this is because women would still be facing unplanned pregnancy and still need the information to help them to make an informed and empowered decision.
Both Leslie and Lisa talked about “empowering” their clients. Leslie says they never tell a woman what to do. They just discuss the options and support whatever decision the woman makes.
In a video on First Choice’s website, Cally, a junior at Ball State University in 2016, describes when she visited First Choice after finding out she was pregnant. She says they treated her with respect and understood what she was going through, which helped her make the decision to keep her baby.
Leslie can see Ball State’s Worthen Arena from the second story windows of the First Choice building. That close proximity to campus means students can walk to First Choice if they ever need any of the free services or counseling. First Choice also welcomes several Ball State students as volunteers during the school year.
The Women’s Center on Ball State’s campus also provides many different medical evaluations and treatments for women, including regular Pap smears and contraceptives. They offer birth control, emergency contraceptives, and free condoms. The center also provides counseling on unexpected pregnancy, domestic and sexual violence, and depression.
Madeleine says the Women’s Center has been very helpful for her, and that they educate women on different alternatives to birth control, allowing the client to make the best decision for herself.
Lisa says one of strongest motivators for the founders of First Choice was the financial burden that follows a pregnancy, whether the woman chooses to keep the baby or not. They wanted a place to help those women who might be in need of their services.
Leslie estimated that around 75 percent of the pregnant women who come to First Choice expect to raise the child on their own, without the support of the father. Many women also have little to no support from their own families, and most don’t have a clue how they’ll pay for it all.
Decades ago, Lisa was in the same position as many of the women she helps every day. Like many of the volunteers and workers at First Choice, she’d had an abortion. She didn’t know her options at the time. She didn’t know she had a choice.
First Choice officially closes at 5 p.m., but, just like the 24-Hour Care Line, the task never really ends for Lisa and Leslie. Next week, 40 people—some new, some old—will come to First Choice in need of help.