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Speaking With Power, Acting With Compassion
an interview with Marcy Bloom
by Kristy Leissle

Marcy Bloom is a familiar face and a female hero to her local pro-choice community. As the executive director of Aradia Women's Health Center in Seattle, she oversees a feminist clinic that provides abortions up to 14 weeks, STD testing, lesbian health care, contraception, menopause consultations, post-abortion counseling, and will soon offer massage therapy and gynecological acupuncture.

When I arrived for our interview on April 20, Marcy gave me a tour of Aradia. I was surprised by the attention to detail that created a nurturing, female environment: the walls painted in soft colors, sprinkled with vibrant posters of artwork, wildlife, and feminist philosophy; the soothing music playing in the background; the comfortable couches and pillows in the sunny recovery room. The life-affirming atmosphere, however, could not conceal the unnerving signs of war: under the telephone, a sheet with instructions on what to do in case of a bomb threat is taped to the desk; the windows are impenetrable and the back door crisscrossed with heavy bars; a bulletproof vest hangs in the closet.

After this revealing tour, Marcy and I settled into a pleasant room to discuss the day-to-day reality of providing family planning services, both the dangers and the fulfillment; the politics of abortion rights; and the spiritual perspective Marcy has developed during her years of serving women's reproductive health. Her thoughtful comments reflect her extraordinary devotion to supporting women at critical junctures in their lives. Meeting her left me with a much more profound understanding of and respect for family planning workers everywhere.

KL: What does the word 'Aradia' mean?

MB: Aradia is the goddess of healing arts in Greek and Roman mythology. Aradia was founded in 1972, and was the outgrowth of the women's movement and the women's health movement. It has such a unique name, but nobody knows what it means, so we do have to explain it.

KL: Tell me about your job as executive director.

MB: My job. That is a good question. An executive director in a medium-sized organization is the person who manages employee relations, public relations, does a lot of the fundraising along with the fundraising manager. And basically sets the tone for what kind of organization we want to be, not only in terms of how we perform the services for women who come here, but how we treat ourselves. And ensuring not only the survival but the growth of the organization.

KL: What compelled you to begin working in family planning?

MB: I have worked in this field for a really long time. I'm of the generation where abortion was not legal, so a lot of my attraction to women's health care services in a compassionate feminist setting, as well as the political aspect of preserving abortion rights, came from my personal experiences and those of my friends. As a young woman in the sixties and seventies, when you had a pregnancy scare, it was very, very frightening because your options were so incredibly limited. Yes, you could always find a safe provider somehow, some way, but you had to have a lot of resources. In this case, resources meant money, transportation, and the wherewithal to research a safe and legal provider.

KL: Were you aware of the dangers involved when you started? Were there even dangers back then, or have they increased with time?

MB: They have increased with time. The anti-choice bombings, shootings, they didn't occur for a long time. There have always been pockets of that throughout the country, in the bible belt and very conservative areas, but at the beginning there were no security doors, no bullet proof windows. The clinics were very open and "here we are." It was different at the beginning, because it was such a victory. And then, of course, the Catholic Church and fundamentalist forces started to reorganize after Roe vs. Wade, which they saw as a loss. Also, there can be a backlash [after rights are won], because a segment of society becomes fearful, whether of women or people of color. There are a lot of people who now feel that they are disenfranchised as a result of the typically disempowered getting some power, or at least attempting to gain some power, in the last twenty to thirty years. The women's movement, the civil rights movement, and the gay and lesbian movement all caused the evangelical right, the political right wing, the Christian Coalition, the Promise Keepers, to truly come out of the woodwork and start fighting the gains that had begun to be won by those movements.

KL: I had to push a button and identify myself before I was let into the clinic today.

MB: Yes, if I had forgotten to tell my coworkers that you were coming, they would have looked for me. They would not have let you in if I had not left them a note saying you were coming to speak with me.

KL: Why is this necessary?

MB: We only put that in after Dr. Gunn was shot in 1993. Before that, anyone could walk in. It was very open. But Dr. Gunn being killed did indeed change the feeling of a need for safety, for controlling the ingress and egress of the clinic.

KL: You mentioned before that each Saturday you have picketers outside the clinic. What do they do?

MB: They sometimes shout at women, "You're killing your baby, you're a butcher, you're a baby killer," any number of comments such as that. "Don't go in there. Don't bring your baby to a holocaust." They try to give them pamphlets. They have huge signs. They occasionally have a big tape deck that has the booming sound of a church bell. Occasionally they have come with what they claim is very loud fetal heartbeat. So they are there to intimidate and frighten women, and convince them that abortion is not the right choice.

There are state and federal laws that keep them from blocking the entrance, so they can't do that. We also hire an off-duty police officer every Saturday, who monitors the situation and makes sure that even though it might feel emotionally unsafe, it is physically safe. The picketers are there to obviously try to intimidate women and stop them from entering the clinic, and trying to change their minds about abortion.

KL: What is the motivation behind their agenda?

MB: Anything they can do to stop her is, of course, the glory of God, and anything they can do afterwards to cause a woman to feel regret and guilt is also part of their agenda. If they cannot stop abortion, they want to make it difficult to obtain. They are not trying to help women be safer, they are trying to make women feel as hassled and guilt-ridden as possible. If a woman is clear that this is what she wants to do, and she has examined her heart and her beliefs, and in some cases, if she has spoken to her conscience and her god about it, then abortion is simply a safe, compassionate, and respectful choice that should be available in every society.

No one should be forced to bring a human life into the world if they feel they can't nurture it financially, spiritual, physically, emotionally. Bringing a new life into the world is an amazing, incredible responsibility, and if you don't have the many resources to nurture that new life, why would you want to do that to yourself or a child?

Unfortunately, the anti-choice people don't have that perspective and we often say that their interest in human life stops at the time of birth. They want babies to be born, but what happens to babies afterwards is a different story. It is well known that the states with the most oppressive anti-choice laws also have the most oppressive anti-woman, anti-child laws. These have to do with funding of childcare, of Head Start programs, resources for low-income families such as food banks, and so on. Their interest in the child does not continue after the baby is born. "You're out of the womb, that's it, you're out on your own."

KL: I want to talk about the way you spoke about abortion at the Mobilize for Women's Lives rally on April 7. You made some religious references, and most of us are not used to linking religious motivation with the decision to terminate a pregnancy. How did you develop this perspective?

MB: Some of this is personal, and some of it is the wonderful women I work with and am surrounded by all the time, and that includes the clients. If one believes in God — and that is an "if," because that is not true for all of us. But if one believes in God, and if you believe that God, Goddess — whatever gender neutral term there might be — is a good and loving God and wants us to be happy, healthy, safe, and figure out our role in the world, then God's role is to give us spiritual sustenance to figure out what we need in life.

I believe in a loving God. I was not raised believing in a punitive god, and I believe that God wants us to be safe and happy. He/she does not want women to bring children into the world that they can't afford to nurture physically, spiritually, financially, and emotionally. God wants us to be loved. God understands when we make difficult, painful decisions, and God loves us no matter what we decide.

So to me, choice — choice — is about God loving us and saying, "Do what you need to do. Just be clear that this is the right choice for you." Women are moral and ethical decision- makers. When it's appropriate, when women bring up God in a punitive way, as in, "I need to have this abortion but I think God's going to punish me," we say, "Well, let's talk about that. Why do you think God would punish you? What is your view of God?" God loves us and wants us to be happy in this world, isn't that also true?

Another side of the coin is that God understands why you are making this choice of abortion. I just think it has taken a long time to see it that way. For those women who need it, it is very comforting to say, "That's true, God does understand because God is supposed to know and understand all." He/she knows.

KL: That is such a beautiful understanding. Its the type of understanding we really need.

MB: I think it is good to talk about abortion. It is a loving choice, the choice of an abortion. It is also a loving choice to have a baby. They are both loving choices. A woman should not be stigmatized or vilified for making either one. They look within and they decide.

KL: I imagine that this view of abortion is what sustains you in your work. Were there women along the way who have reinforced this perspective?

MB: A woman was having an abortion recently and she was holding a rosary, and she told us that the anti-choice people had given her the rosary. But she kept it because she found the rosary comforting, which was interesting. They gave it to her for a different reason, and to her it was comforting because she believed in a free, giving, and loving god.

It was fascinating to see that she took what for them was a symbol of punishment and she made it her own. That's the way it should be. Spin it in the loving-God way, because that is what God and religion are supposed to be about, though they have gotten seriously distorted over the last few thousand years.

KL: Let's talk a little bit about the laws governing abortion. What are your thoughts about the global gag rule?

MB: Well, of course, it was the first thing Bush did on his first full day in office, even though there have been no U.S. funds used for any kind of family planning and abortion care, international or domestic, since 1973. So it was clearly a ribbon, a lollipop, to the anti-choice movement and the Christian right — who clearly helped George W. get elected. It is a punishment, choosing the poorest, most disenfranchised women in the world. If Bush and Cheney had a consciousness about the impact the gag rule will have on the lives, health, and rights of women and their children, particularly in the developing world where the bulk of this money would have been going, they would not have done it. To them it was political. "Thank you for getting us elected and now here's a little present for you, even though no tax dollars have been used for this purpose for more than twenty years anyway."

KL: How does Washington state compare with other states in terms of abortion rights and access?

MB: We are considered one of the best states. In fact, if abortion did become illegal or inaccessible in other places, we still have our own Roe vs. Wade law, which passed here by the vote of the people in 1991. This would be one of the states that women would come to from other places.

KL: Which they are already doing.

MB: Exactly. But even more so, and from even further. It would be just like before Roe vs. Wade.

KL: What are your predictions about the future of abortion rights in our country? Are we looking at more restrictions?

MB: I believe so. Tommy Thompson wants to look at RU486 again, despite the fact that the FDA has spoken, "Leave it alone. Move on." We are facing some difficult times ahead.

KL: While pro-choice activists are fighting to uphold abortion rights, are there ways women can take this matter into their own hands? Are herbal methods viable, or are there options beyond the medical establishment?

MB: If you are asking if women should use methods of pregnancy termination that are not supervised by the medical professions, I would say I don't know enough about that. But certainly if a woman does some research and knows what is safe, those options are out there. It is very interesting that herbal abortifacents have not been studied enough. What we need are true studies of what works, what does not, what are the side effects, what dosages to use at what stage of pregnancy. Same as with RU486, mifepristone studies. As far as I know, those studies have never been done. With the rise in interest in naturopathic and homeopathic care, that may change in the very near future. So that information is perhaps on the horizon.

KL: Let's talk about access to family planning skills. Is it becoming more difficult for medical students to learn how to perform the abortion procedure?

MB: Yes. Most medical schools do not provide a course or even part of a lecture on abortion or abortion services.

KL: So it's not required?

MB: Oh, no. Nor should it be in my opinion because not everybody has the wherewithal to be an abortion provider. By that I mean that not everyone wants to be an abortion provider because of their anti-choice religious concerns, and that is to be respected. You would not want an anti-choice person to be a provider because that would be contradictory to that person's soul. At the same time, the opportunity [to learn] should be there and it is shameful that it's not.

KL: Can you give some suggestions to the pro-choice community, some strategies for protecting abortion rights?

MB: Be aware, read the paper, online or otherwise. Support and join organizations like NOW and NARAL, or volunteer at Aradia Women's Health Center. We have a lot of opportunities for volunteers, in grassroots community outreach and at the clinic. Spread the word about women's health issues. Donate money, attend fundraising events. Write letters. Being aware, speaking out and supporting a pro-choice organization are a critical first step, but they are not enough.

Elect pro-choice politicians. Don't vote for anyone unless you know what their stand is on choice. Support women. If you know a woman who had an unplanned pregnancy and she confided in you, offer her support, emotional or whatever she might need. Be a friend. Do not treat her as a victim. Extend yourself. So there is the personal and the political. That's what feminism is all about. The personal becomes the political once you move from, "This is what I'm experiencing" to, "Oh, a lot of other people experience this too." It is a societal issue, and therefore becomes political.

KL: Well, I know that the next three and a half, four years will be something of a political struggle...

MB: We hope for brighter days. That is a good way to think about it —brighter days, more sun! But this gives us an opportunity to do a lot of outreach and education, recruit new volunteers, staff, doctors, donors. If out of all this strife comes a stronger organization, both here and among other pro-choice groups, then that's okay. There has to be a silver lining to the cloud. There has to be. And politics is like that. There is a crisis, people react. It's supposed to happen.




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