By Sharon Lau
This week we celebrate the one-year anniversary of Whole Woman’s Health of South Bend. Though the clinic did not begin seeing patients until June 2019, the work to open the clinic started over 5 years ago. The path to opening has been both a labor of love and a path full of anti-abortion and politically motivated obstacles meant to prevent us from succeeding. However, as is our way, Whole Woman’s Health Alliance (WWHA) and our steadfast supporters persisted.
In March 2015 Whole Woman’s Health (WWH) visited South Bend for the first time following an invitation by the Michiana Choice Coalition who wanted to bring abortion care access back to South Bend.
In 2016 WWHA secured funding to open WWH of South Bend and began a search for an appropriate space that took into consideration our medical and security needs as well as providing ample access for our patients. The search took us over 8 months as lease after lease fell through due to anti-abortion stigma.
With our leasing options exhausted, in 2017 we finally found a location and began renovations on our current space at 3511 Lincoln Way West. After pressure and protests by anti-abortion extremists caused our contractor to quit, we had to hire a new contractor to finish the job, causing delays and increasing the cost. In the meantime, WWHA applied for a license to operate an abortion clinic as required by Indiana law.
2018 was a long year! The Indiana State Department of Health (ISDH) unfairly denied the license application after a behind the scenes pressure campaign by anti-abortion politicians, claiming we failed to meet the requirement to be “of reputable and responsible character.” WWHA appealed the license denial and in September an ISDH Administrative Law Judge ruled that we should be issued a license. The state then appealed and a 3-person panel appointed by ISDH overturned that ruling and denied the license again.
We faced another challenge when the Women’s Care Center (WCC), a fake women’s health center with several locations in South Bend, purchased the house directly next door to the clinic with the intention of opening another branch. The property was zoned residential so WCC needed the approval of the Common Council to re-zone it for commercial use. The Council initially approved the rezoning in a 5-4 vote giving WCC a green light to open a site where they would be well positioned to confuse and mislead patients seeking care at WWH of South Bend. However, due to advocacy from supporters of WWHA, the mayor vetoed the ruling and the Council did not override it, meaning WCC could not open next door to the clinic – a huge victory!
Meanwhile, in July, along with our co-plaintiff All-Options, and guided by our counsel at the Lawyering Project we filed WWHA v. Hill in federal court. The case is a comprehensive repeal of Indiana’s abortion restrictions including: the 18-hour waiting period; ban on telemedicine abortion; onerous clinic licensing and admitting privileges requirements; often redundant and medically unnecessary ultrasound exams; mandatory disclosure of irrelevant, medically inaccurate, and ideological information; a de-facto second-trimester ban, and others. This case is scheduled for trial in early 2021.
After getting nowhere with a second license application, in March 2019 WWHA filed for an injunction in Federal court to get emergency relief from the abortion clinic licensing laws. In May the district court granted the motion for preliminary relief, determining that the licensing law imposes substantial burdens on women seeking abortion care in northern Indiana that outweigh any benefits. In June, the Indiana Attorney General appealed that ruling but a federal judge denied his appeal and cleared the way for the clinic to open.
On June 27, 2019 Whole Woman’s Health of South Bend opened its doors and began seeing patients!
But that’s not the end of the story. While we were able to remain open, Attorney General Hill appealed the district court’s decision to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. In August, the 7th Circuit ruled that the clinic could continue to operate while the legal process moves forward. Hill appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court in December. That appeal is still pending.
We have been part of the South Bend community for four years and in the year we have been open we have provided services to 272 patients in the NW Indiana area. We will continue to provide compassionate, essential medical care to our patients without shame or stigma and we look forward to a day when the state will support our efforts as well as those working to providing Hoosiers with the resources to access comprehensive reproductive health care including, birth control, pre-natal care, maternity care and abortion.
We have so many people to thank including our partners in the South Bend community and nationally! Folks like Pro Choice South Bend, Shout Your Abortion, the escorts who shield our patients from the anti-abortion protesters, volunteers who plant flowers to beautify our yard, the team at Abortion Access Front who make us laugh, and most importantly our doctors and staff who show up every day despite threats to their own health and safety, political interference and harassment from protesters to take care of the patients who need us.
Thank you for your unwavering support!
Sharon Lau is the Midwest Advocacy Director for Whole Woman’s Health Alliance.