Ellen Joseph of NCJW-Minneapolis spoke to NCJW Communications Associate Amanda Glickman about her years at one of Minnesota’s first abortion clinics, as well as her recent experience at NCJW-MN’s event “What’s at Stake for Women’s Health.”
I’m relatively new to NCJW, though my mother belonged for years and years. I don’t know why exactly I didn’t get connected sooner. A good friend of mine invited me to some of the events last year, and then, I started helping out with the finance committee. And then this program came up recently, “What’s at Stake for Women’s Health,” with Amy Hagstrom Miller, CEO of Whole Women’s Health – and it was very interesting to me because I worked at Meadowbrook Women’s Clinic, one of the first abortion clinics in Minneapolis at the time abortion became legal. Meadowbrook Womne’s Clinic still exists in a way, because Whole Women’s Health actually owns them –it’s Whole Women’s Health-Twin Cities now!
A bunch of clinic popped up at once and I would say Meadowbrook was the largest. I started in 1975, and was first hired on as a receptionist. After two weeks, I asked “What else I could do here?” I ended up running the business office, and stayed for seven years. My best women friends, all abortion counselors at the clinic, came out of that job – it was a real coming of age experience for all of us.
What strikes me is how difficult it is now to get an abortion. Back in 1975, there were three or four abortion clinics so close to each other. Two in the same building! Another was in a suburb and another in another part of the city. There may have been more. They were staffed by physicians who were OB-GYNs who decide they were going to expand their practice and work on a rotating basis. They were so thoughtful, and had such compassion for the patients from the moment they called to the time they were released from the recovery room. Now I don’t want to say it wasn’t a big deal, because making the decision is a big deal, but you could go in and have your abortion and know that you were going to be taken care of safely. I’m 65, soon to be 66, so during my teenage years abortion wasn’t legal, but some of the women here in Minnesota now, at these NCJW events, they haven’t lived in a time where abortion hasn’t been legal.
I think of the women that I now have continuing friendships with, and every single one of them started when the clinic opened in what I believed in ‘73 – right out of college with a social work or some other social services undergraduate degree. They were not necessarily trained as counselors. As far as I can tell, they invented abortion counseling – there was nothing else out there, they had to figure out how to counsel women who wanted to terminate their pregnancy in a way where they maintained their distance from the stories and gave them good guidance. And I will say, there were plenty of women who walked out of that clinic deciding not to have an abortions, it was always very much their own decision.
My friends always wrote really good notes from their sessions. I learned from them how to be impartial in reporting a story because when they reported stories of patients, I would read their counseling notes and you learn that you say “so and so states this or that,” with no bias attached. Some women didn’t know their own bodies and didn’t even know how they got pregnant, but you never inserted judgement. The notes stayed in each patient’s chart, and then the charts stayed in the clinic and I dealt with the charts. We were doing a fair amount of reporting to the CDC, actually, two of my good friends did nothing for two years except compile statistics and worked with local organizations to get numbers and stats for the state health department and the CDC on the demographics of the women coming through. There was nothing computerized, written charts were how we collected data. If someone came in during their first trimester, they were one color chart, and if they came in their second, another color. I can still remember the sequence.
I also remember the script of the films we showed them, we would group women five to six at a time to go look at how their experience would unfold. First you’ll see the lab tech, then the NP for exam, then your counselor, then your counselor will walk you to the procedure room and then recovery. The film would be on an endless loop, and I memorized every word. One of my (still) best friends, a counselor, had to do a film project in school or doing some project, and she said “I’m going to make a new film for the clinic.” Her intent was to make it a personal story, and for reasons of confidentiality, she couldn’t use any of the patients. But I had just had an abortion – I was in my early to mid 20s and it was not very difficult for me to decide. And she said “Will you be in the movie? We’ll change your name, but I want your head in there, we gotta tell your story.” We would occasionally show her film at the clinic after she made it, and at the time I didn’t tell my mother I had the abortion – but when the film was done, it was so good I had to show her. Flipping the script from employee to patient was easy, and it made it easier to relate to patients.
Our patients were often very young girls from upstate Minnesota, I don’t know how they got to Minneapolis – in the cars with their boyfriends or hitching other rides. I dealt with patients who didn’t have money and we had to make special arrangements because most people weren’t comfortable running it through insurance. We tried to make it work. It was the hardest thing about my job, seeing women have such difficulties getting the money to pay for the abortion. The physicians told us, “Don’t ever turn anyone away, we’ll make it work.” But after a while, it got really tough seeing one situation after another. But I put in my seven years, a good amount of time. What kept me at Meadowbrook so long, it was all about the management: the doctors, the employees, everyone focused in the same direction.
I’m still best friends with all of the counselors. All went on to be successful in their careers, each and every one of them continuing to be supportive of women’s health issues. One of them unfortunately passed away two years ago – she had three kids after getting married, and her oldest daughter is going to have a baby this September We all just attended her baby shower. We’ve got to pay it forward for our friend Susan.
What I’ve learned from my short time at NCJW is the notion of reproductive justice – I’ve never thought of it as an issue of justice until now. I knew choice but not justice. I see that’s a lot of what CEO of Whole Women’s Health Amy Hagstrom Miller is trying to do in her reproductive justice work – justice is about having a clinic close enough by, about whether a woman can get to the clinic, get childcare, get support in her community and support from her partner. That to me has been a big lightbulb. Amy Hagstrom Miller is a dynamo. She’s amazing, articulate, smart – there’s got to be someone like her leading the charge.
The Trust Project MN, which Amy co-presented with – boy, those women are so cool. They are the young, outspoken women of their generation, completely rebellious like we saw ourselves being in our 20s. No-nonsense, going say what their truth is, and say it proudly without mincing any words. One of the women said “People don’t even like saying ‘abortion’ now” – and it’s true. Sure, we used to kowtow around it, say “procedure” because you never knew who your audience was. I was happy that someone pointed it out as still being a problem today.
I don’t have many young women friends, that’s the fun thing about NCJW – I sit at the table with young women and think “I remember that.” And we’re still fighting for the same cause, but we’re together.