Reproductive Rights Take a Front Seat
In 1971 Ron Sachs, a newspaper editor for The Florida Alligator, ran an insert listing numbers to contact for abortion services in protest of the unconstitutional Florida Statute 797.02 that prohibited the distribution of abortion information (Independent Florida Alligator 1970s Reprint).
Several meetings later between University President Stephen O'Connell and the Board of Student Publications, the University of Florida pulled funding from the newspaper and disassociated itself from it. More importantly, Sachs' actions led to the overturning of the outdated 1868 legislation that prohibited the distribution of abortion information.
As a result, in 1972 feminists were able to start a legal abortion referral service known as the Abortion Information Dissemination Service, a student organization. Female students connected women to abortion services in New York. Yet not all women could afford to travel to New York to terminate their pregnancies. Byllye Avery, co-founder of the Gainesville Women's Health Center and National Black Women's Health Project, described this dilemma.
We found out this New York number we could give them, and they could catch a plane and go there for their abortions. But then a black woman came and we gave her the number, and she looked at us in awe: 'I can't go to New York...' We realized we needed a different plan of action, so in May 1974 we opened up the Gainesville Women's Health Center.11
Between the years 1972 and 1974, however, two important events would take place prior to building a feminist health clinic in Gainesville: Congress would pass the Roe v. Wade decision and the Jacksonville Clergy Consultation Service would begin serving women needing abortions. By January of 1974, it became undeniable that a women's health center had to be created in Gainesville as the Jacksonville clinic could not adequately provide for all women seeking abortion consultations in the region (WomaNews Feb. 1976).
At this time, Byllye Avery, Joan Edelson, Judy Levy, and Margaret Parrish, a group of women envisioning a type of health care that would "help women solve the crisis-producing situation of unplanned, unwanted pregnancy," at an affordable price for low-income and minority residents, founded the Gainesville Women's Health Center on May 2, 1974 at 805 Southwest Fourth Avenue.
In addition to abortion services, the Gainesville Women's Health Center also offered specialized services for African American women, such as sickle cell anemia testing, as well as other more general preventative health measures for all women. The health center staff published Sage-Femme as well, a newspaper that educated women on issues of women's health while training them how to intelligently consume services from the androcentric and sadistic medical establishment.
The co-founders decided against outside funding in order to ensure "complete woman control" of the clinic. This decision meant that Gainesville Women's Health Center's services would not be free - clients would have to pay "for services rendered" (WomaNews April 1976). In keeping the charge for service at a non-profit, affordable level, however, the health center ensured its mission: "Health Care for People, Not for Profit" (Gainesville Iguana May/June 1998).
In April of 1976, despite not receiving grant money to fund the expensive project, members of the Gainesville Women's Health Center brought well-known feminists Phyllis Chesler, Pauline Bard, Barbara Erinreich, and Rita Mae Brown to Gainesville for the most impressive event of the decade, the Southeastern Women's Health Conference. The conference featured several workshops such as Lesbianism and the Women's Movement, Motherhood Outside the Nuclear Family, Abortion and Birth Control Counseling, Black Women and Birth Control, The Healthy Lesbian, Feminism as a Way to Mental Health, Changing Attitudes Toward Menstruation, and Incestuous Relationships.
Prior to the event, incest still hid quietly in the social unconscious, far from being conceptualized in even the most enligthened American mind. At the conference, mental healthcare professionals shared what was considered the unthinkable at the time: stories about women who had been sexually molested by their family members. As a result, the workshop on incest brought the issue to the forefront of the social imagination, attracting both local and national attention to the shocking realization that incest was not only real, but rampant.
In the following years, while the local movement slowed down, the GWHC continued operating and the original leaders would develop additional women’s health institutions in Gainesville. In 1978, Judy Levy, Byllye Avery, and Margaret Parrish would establish the BirthPlace, one of only seven freestanding birth centers in the United States, where midwifery nurses provided traditional birth services in a comfortable, homelike atmosphere. Women’s increased education of their bodies and ownership of their reproductive rights, whether to have an abortion or to choose to have a natural birth, made both the GWHC and the BirthCenter successful institutions. Today, the Birth Center of Gainesville operates in conjunction with the Florida School of Traditional Midwifery. Furthermore, in 1983, Gainesville would be the site that inspired Byllye Avery to launch the National Black Women's Health Project, which today operates as the Black Women’s Health Imperative in Atlanta, Georgia.
Throughout its history, the Gainesville Women's Health Center endured "attacks by anti-abortion forces, hostile pickets, excessive IRS scrutiny, legislative assaults on abortion rights, and the failures of other small businesses" (Gainesville Iguana Oct. 1997) and improved the practice of medicine with such trainings as the "art of gentle pelvic examinations" and numerous other alternative healthcare ameliorations.12
In 1997, after nearly 25 years of serving women's health interests, the Gainesville Women's Health Center, "an isolated and embattled beachhead in a sea of for-profit health care providers" lost its foothold due to the persistent and escalating nature of the health care system's "for-profit dog-eat-dog climate" and would permanently close its doors in 1997 while the BirthCenter continued the legacy of woman-centered healthcare in Gainesville (Gainesville Iguana Oct. 1997).
For more information on how the Gainesville women's health movement has influenced healthcare today, see the video presentation given by Byllye Avery and Betsy David Randall at the University of Florida Changing the Face of Medicine conference.