RU ready? Abortion options widen with Jones

Though abortions have been offered at Charlottesville clinics since the late 1970s, local women with unwanted pregnancies now have access to another choice: RU-486, commonly known as "the abortion pill."

Available since May at the Charlottesville Medical Center for Women, the drug will now also be available from Planned Parenthood's new Herbert C. Jones Reproductive Medicine Center on Hydraulic Road, which opened on August 4.

Known for years as the "French abortion drug," RU-486 has been used by women in Europe since 1988, but it did not gain FDA approval until 2000.

Then– as they are now– private doctors were reluctant to prescribe the drug, officially called mifepristone– or at least to admit that they did.

Of the five area obstetricians the Hook contacted, only one office returned the call.

"If it were any other subject you were calling about, he'd be glad to talk to you," explained that doctor's receptionist.

David Nova, CEO of Planned Parenthood of the Blue Ridge, confirms that abortion services of any type are not generally provided by private doctors.

"Very few physicians will provide abortion services for women who are not their long-standing patients," he says.

Perhaps doctors fear the wrath of extremists like the one who shot New York abortion doctor Barnett Slepian in 1998 as he prepared dinner in his home following an evening at synagogue.

Violence is a concern, says Kim, the director of the new Charlottesville Medical Center for Women, which opened on Commonwealth Drive just blocks away from the new Planned Parenthood. Kim, who asked that her last name not be used because of the controversy of her profession, says she doesn't mind when people protest– even right in front of a clinic– as long as they are civil about it.

"It's the harassment and ugliness that I think cross the line," she says. Though there haven't been any such protests at the Charlottesville Medical Center, she says its affiliate, the Richmond Medical Center, "was firebombed in 1991 or 1992."

However, Kim doesn't appreciate the more graphic protests.

"When the dead baby van is out front," she says, the women who are undergoing abortions at the clinic "cry more, cramp more, bleed more." But, she adds, "They still go through with the procedure."

As for her clinic's proximity to the new Planned Parenthood center, Kim is unfazed.

"I think choices are good," she says. "We have very different facilities. We're glad Planned Parenthood is here, and we hope they're glad we're here."

Nova agrees. "It's very positive when women have multiple options to seek reproductive health care services," he says.

The difference in facilities is striking. While the Charlottesville Medical Center for Women is in a house and offers a cozy, homelike atmosphere, the new Planned Parenthood center is much more institutional– downright hospital-like. That's no accident.

In 2003 a series of bills, dubbed TRAP (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Provider), were brought before the Virginia General Assembly. If passed, they would have seriously affected abortion practice in the Commonwealth. One of those bills would have required all clinics that perform abortions to conform to hospital standards or be shut down.

Though that bill did not pass, Planned Parenthood's Nova says his organization recognized a need for action before such a bill made it impossible for women to find a clinic. In less than a year, the nonprofit organization raised more than $1.5 million for construction of the new facility. On August 4, the Center began offering services.

Nova says it's insurance for the day when a more conservative governor may take office.

"This new facility will be one of only two in the state currently able to meet those standards," he explains, referring to the requirements of the bill.

But whether such bills ever pass, the new Planned Parenthood center stands as a state-of-the-art facility that offers much more than pregnancy termination: pre- and post-natal care, teen education, STD and pregnancy testing.

While the Charlottesville Medical Center for Women is primarily an abortion clinic, Kim says they also offer a variety of services including several new birth control options: the "patch," a band-aid like contraceptive that releases hormones through the skin, and the Nuva Ring, a thin jelly ring that is inserted into the vagina and remains in place for three weeks of the month.

The two anti-abortion pregnancy centers the Hook contacted for their views did not return calls by press time. However, a big pro-life protest was scheduled for the August 11 meeting of the Albemarle Board of Supervisors (after the Hook's deadline).

Kim hopes birth control options will help prevent unwanted pregnancies. But for those women who do become pregnant, she, like Nova, says the fact that abortion of any kind is an option doesn't mean it's the right choice for every woman.

"I don't want any woman to abort when what she really wants is a baby," says Kim. "I'm glad that we do have the resources locally. Not all areas of the state are like that."

The new abortion clinic has already drawn protesters.