Heather Wood Rudolph
March 11, 2014
Sixteen years after her mentor Dr. Barnett Slepian was murdered by an anti-choice extremist, Dr. Katharine Morrison has transformed the clinic he once led into a groundbreaking new venture. On Valentine’s Day, Buffalo Women Services became thefirst abortion clinic and natural birthing center in the country. The facility provides both abortion services and the full spectrum of reproductive care — pap smears, prenatal visits and natural delivery, which is free from drugs, IVs and a schedule.
Dr. Morrison talks to Cosmopolitan.com about the greatest challenge of her life that has turned out to be her most rewarding.
You’ve owned Buffalo Women Services since 2004. What have been some of the major obstacles in providing abortion care over the years?
Buffalo was one of the epicenters of the abortion wars. We had [the anti-choice organization] Operation Rescue here in 1988 and again in 1992. They would protest outside doctors’ homes, follow their kids — really terrible things. When I came to work here in 1998, I asked the owner, “Isn’t it dangerous to do abortions? It’s so political.” She said, no, it’s not anymore. Three months later, Dr. Slepian was killed.
In Buffalo since then, it’s just become evermore oppressive. When I started in Buffalo in 1988, you could have an abortion at any number of doctors’ offices or clinics, and if you had any medical issue or just wanted general anesthesia, you could have [an abortion] in any number of hospitals. Fast-forward to today and you cannot have an abortion in any hospital in Buffalo, N.Y. We’re hanging on by our fingernails.
When were you first introduced to natural birth?
In 2007 I went to a meeting led by a midwife, Eileen Stewart. She had a thriving home birth practice, but she was retiring because she couldn’t find an OB/GYN to collaborate with her. At that point in New York state, a midwife needed to have a written collaborative agreement with a doctor. It occurred to me that, although I had delivered 2,000 to 3,000 women, I had never actually seen a natural birth. I asked Eileen if she would take on a few clients so I could go with her to a few home births and see what it was all about. So I signed a written collaborative agreement with her and started attending home births in July 2007.
What’s the difference between the deliveries you were doing and natural birth?
It’s a different culture of birth. A woman isn’t subjected to anything she doesn’t want. She doesn’t need an IV [for drugs or fluids]. She can eat and move around. No one’s checking her every hour. She can go at her own pace, and even have a water birth. There’s no rush to cut the umbilical cord as there is at a hospital. And if labor is progressing slowly, no one’s pressuring the patient to have a C-section, as can happen at a hospital. All of these things were part of my routine in my previous practice. But when I saw this woman-centered care, I was hooked.
The traditional medical community is not typically approving of home births, is it?
There’s insane criticism against midwives and home births. That was also eye-opening to me. The same contempt that people have for women choosing to terminate a pregnancy and the person providing that care, I’ve seen for women who want to have natural births and for the women providing them. It’s this idea that these women are selfish and insufficiently caring about these babies. All the parallels you see with abortion.
Anti-choice rhetoric is pretty extreme. You saw the same prejudice against natural birth?
Oh, they hated these women. They really believed that if Eileen wasn’t there to provide a home birth, women wouldn’t want it – in the same way that the people who were trying to make abortion inaccessible think that if abortion isn’t there no woman is going to want it. What that speaks to is the idea that pregnancy drains a woman of her ability to make important decisions about her body.
So you willingly joined another fight where you were the target of ridicule?
I took a lot of heat. But when you’ve been taking heat for doing abortions for so long — you know, I’m called a murderer every day I come to work. So, really, the fact that you’re mad that I won’t clamp the baby’s cord immediately at birth [a guideline for hospital deliveries] doesn’t really bother me.
Why open a birthing center if midwives like Eileen were already providing natural birth in their homes?
There are 9,000 births a year in Buffalo alone. Eileen does about 100. We can do more with a birthing center. And it’s an acceptable middle ground for many women. In part that’s because theAmerican College of OB/GYN is implacably opposed to home birth. They approve of a hospital birth or a birthing center birth. They approve of the birthing center because it must be owned and operated by a physician. But this is a fraud in New York because there’s only one birthing center (the Brooklyn Birthing Center) in the state. What good does it do to say you can have a baby in a birthing center if there isn’t one?
So how do you go about transforming your business?
When I applied [to the Department of Health] in 2009, the angle that I took was not that I was trying to change the culture of birth in Buffalo or that they were doing a crappy job at the hospital. I took the angle that the American College of OB/GYN doesn’t want a woman to deliver at home. I presented it as let’s corral these deluded women into going to a place safer than a home, somewhere with doctors on staff and access to a hospital if necessary. That was an improvement in public health that they couldn’t ignore. Then I proceed on a five-year odyssey of paperwork.
The fact that your facility is an abortion clinic had to be a major obstacle.
I knew it was going to be the elephant in the room. I knew that upon hearing I wanted to open a birthing center in an abortion facility, everyone would react with disbelief. I pointed out that 60 percent of women having abortions are already mothers and that athird of American women are going to have abortions at some point in their life. The women who were having abortions wouldn’t object to women coming here to have babies. And the women who would come to a freestanding birthing center value choice not just for themselves but for everyone.
Have you had patients who have both had an abortion and a full-term pregnancy?
I have patients who have had an abortion with me, had a baby, and had an abortion, or had a baby, had an abortion, or had a couple of abortions and had a baby, then had a couple of abortions. There are so many doctors out there in Buffalo who think their patients don’t get abortions. I can’t violate patient confidentiality, but I think,Well, I do them all day long on your patients. These doctors think they have the “good patients” who get pregnant and have the baby and I’ve got all the “lousy patients” who get pregnant and have abortions. But it’s the same patient.
Were you motivated by your career to open this center, or was it a decision based purely on principle?
It was a career move when I started working at Women Services. I believed in abortion, but I came here because I needed to make a little extra money. It was a career move when I went to buy it because I didn’t want to work for anyone else anymore. But when I went to do a birthing center, that was not a career move. That was a passion for reproductive choice. To be honest, it probably isn’t a good career move. The money I spent on this, I could have bought an apartment building and be collecting rent. Except, there is incredible satisfaction in all of this.
How can this opening change the birth and abortion options for women across the country?
I think this could be a model for the state. Abortion facilities in New York — and there are tons in New York City — could open freestanding birthing centers and give women more options for natural birth. Now we have two birthing centers. But maybe we could have 10. Maybe then, other states will follow. Wouldn’t that be fantastic?
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