This is how hard it is to keep an abortion clinic open in the GOP convention state
A preview of Trump-Pence America
Cleveland is a circus this week – a mad gathering of thousands of journalists, party officials, law enforcement, delegates and protestors. It is the show that will beam set-piece speeches from the Republican nominee Donald Trump and his new running mate Mike Pence into millions of American homes. But it won’t show America what might happen if they win.
For that you need to get out of Cleveland, and take the 90-minute drive to Toledo, Ohio. There I met a woman who knows the kind of radical conservatism espoused by Trump and Pence not as political theory but as lived experience.
Carol Dunn is a very difficult woman to find. For much of May and June, I made a routine of typing her name into search engines only to be greeted by a handful of locally written articles with a solitary quote, or a style profile featuring her impressive collection of statement necklaces.
She isn’t wearing one of those necklaces when she all but commands me into her home in Toledo’s historic Old West End neighborhood, last Wednesday. Instead, she dons a pair of thinning gray sweatpants, a matching boatneck sweater and a pair of aging socks.
Not long after I choose a rocking chair parallel to her on the sweeping sun porch, two of those dogs are asleep at my feet and more cats have emerged from every crook and crevice of her gargantuan house.
“There’s eleven of them if you were wondering,” she says beaming at me, her elegant fingers splayed on either arm of the chair.
Dunn has devoted much of her life to advocacy. These days, it’s pioneering a local chapter of Planned Pethood. But years ago, it was making a woman’s choice a reality.
In 1983, Carol Dunn opened Toledo’s Center for Choice, welcoming women from Ohio, Michigan and Indiana until it was closed after failing to procure a transfer agreement with a local hospital in 2013.
“I wanted to be the Merle Normann of abortion clinics,” she says.
When I ask for some context, she suggests we relocate to the kitchen.
“I think I have some old pictures of the clinic in there.” The herd of animals follow at our heels.
She presents me with an outdated shoebox filled to the brim with photographs. The first office, which occupied the second floor of a building on Michigan Street, looked more like the loft of a New York sophisticate than an abortion clinic in Ohio: exposed brick, overstuffed chaise lounges, floor to ceiling windows.
“Is that a couple embracing?” I ask, pointing to one of them.
“No, honey. That’s a woman bent over in anguish,” she corrects me. “I thought it was appropriate for the waiting room,” her elfin shoulders rise to graze the length of her silver bob.
As Carol continues to pull more photographs of the clinic from the box, I notice a slight change in scenery.
In 1986, Toledo housewife and anti-abortion activist, Marjorie Reed, set fire to the building, and the damage forced Carol to relocate to the 22nd Street building that would be shuttered years later.
In its thirty years of operation, the clinic had been a target for anti-abortion activism. In 1989, nearly 60 protesters were arrested after jumping from a truck and blocking the clinic’s doors for more than 10 hours.
Two years later, a man jammed the office’s answering machine by repeatedly calling and reciting Bible verses. Perhaps the most notable however, was an Anthrax hoax in 1998. As Carol explains it, an employee at the clinic opened an envelope postmarked from an address in Cincinnati to find a suspicious powder substance. The building was evacuated and Carol and the employee were treated as though they had been affected by a deadly bacterium.
“I remember zipping up that Hazmat suit just thinking, ‘this son of a bitch better fit.’ Isn’t that funny? The things you remember from a traumatic event.”
When the attacks on the clinic were no longer enough for pro-life protestors, they began picketing Carol’s home. She describes a year in which they paired her photograph with one of Adolf Hitler surrounded by stacks of infant corpses.
The group then printed the image on t-shirts, posters, and fliers and hand-delivered them to residents in Carol’s neighborhood. In response, her neighbors made buttons emblazoned with, “We Love Our Neighbor Carol Dunn.”
I have not been in her house for any longer than thirty-five minutes when she reveals the reason for which she became a pro-choice advocate: A botched abortion in 1964. It’s a prototypical tale of a man masquerading as a doctor, a twenty-something year old unprepared to be a mother and a lethal cocktail of Potassium Permanganate, a strong oxidizing agent, a highly caustic, tissue-destroying chemical, and a poison.
“I entered a hospital wearing three pads. I was literally gushing blood. Yet they still threatened to refuse treatment. They already knew what I had done.”
In the 1950’s and 60’s Potassium Permanganate was commonly used on women seeking an abortion. Most, like Carol, became dangerously ill and were hospitalized. But for a number of women the procedure was fatal.
We continue sifting through the pictures, pausing periodically for her to tell me about a particular memory.
I come across a picture in which a band complete with a drum-set, bass guitarist and a tambourine player appear to be poised to play in the clinic’s waiting room. She tells me that every Friday night after the clinic’s operating hours, they held a ‘jam night,’ for anyone who wished to attend.
“We’d drink wine and decompress from the week and listen to the music, of course.”
I wanted to ask how the hell one holds a weekly party in the same place that houses both canvases of women in anguish, in addition to actual women in anguish. But then I remember that I am speaking with the Merle Normann of abortion clinics. So, I hold my tongue.
When the facility was reopened after the fire in 1986, Carol held a soiree that attracted guests like Sarah Weddington, former member of the Texas House of Representatives and the attorney that represented “Jane Roe” in the landmark Roe v. Wade case. But instead of showing me the photographs of her eagerly clutching at Weddington as though they are a pair of estranged sisters, she slides a select few across the kitchen table.
Women behind desks, pressed cheek to cheek in comfortable embrace. A group of faculty members in matching t-shirts, protesting together at a pro-choice march in Washington D.C. Carol and her late husband at the wedding of a transgender woman that volunteered at the clinic. A man hired to escort patients into the building on days when protestors were particularly aggressive, grinning triumphantly into the lens with both thumbs up.
All products of a community built by the woman seated across from me.
I tell her so, and she nods.
“We were a family,” she tells me.
Before she sold the clinic to employee, Sue Postal, ‘on nothing but a handshake,’ Carol helped nearly fifty thousand women receive the care they needed. And yet she is almost unsettlingly cavalier about that fact.
I understand now that the numbers mean little to her. Instead, it is the men and women in those photographs. The patients who later became volunteers and employees. The protestors that put down their signs to coordinate their own procedures in secret. The women that cautiously approach her in the grocery store even now, to express gratitude and sometimes to weep for the tremendous loss they’ve tried to leave in their teenagedom.
“I wanted to make something ugly and painful and traumatic as pleasant for women as possible,” she tells me. “I understand that it’s killing. But I also want people to know that this is not a decision women aspire to. I’ve never met a woman who has ever woken up one day wanting to have an abortion.”
Of course, Carol has witnessed her fair share of horror stories. Yet, much of them involve women who chose to put their children up for adoption. She tells me about a young woman and her boyfriend who both suffered from profound depression years after their child was adopted by older couple, and another woman who later discovered that she had given her child to a single mother that smothered her own biological child years after the adoption took place.
“We didn’t do too many open adoptions. It’s just too hard for everyone involved,” she says, her gaze downcast. It’s apparent she is referring not simply to the parents, but to herself.
Before she can reflect for too long, I begin collecting the photographs strewn across the table and propose I take a photograph of my own. “Of me?” she asks, slightly concerned. I nod. “Alright, let me put on my lipstick.”
I take her picture and she utters something about being thankful to a certain doctor for a facelift she had years earlier. Our time is up, but I want nothing more than to sit on that porch with her for a little while longer.
She embraces me like a grandmother who irons the ten-dollar bills in birthday cards, asks to me to scrawl down the web address where her story will be published, and later watches from the screen door as I walk to my car.
I didn’t realize how deeply I was impacted by my two hours with Carol Dunn until days later as I recalled the more remarkable anecdotes to a friend and found myself collecting tears from my cheeks with the pads of my fingers. All at once the details like the jam nights and the yearly staff reunions make sense.
Carol Dunn may be difficult to find. But she is even more difficult to walk away from.