Many people think of abortion and birth as opposite experiences. In fact, they exist on a continuum of reproductive health care. After all, pregnancy is a reproductive health care issue; not all pregnancies are intended or lead to live births, and 59 percent of women who have an abortion have already given birth to a child.
Recognizing that all women need access to a full range of reproductive health care options, Katharine Morrison ’79 founded the first freestanding center in the United States that offers both abortion and natural birthing in the same place. The facility’s comprehensive reproductive care also includes routine gynecology exams and medical services tailored to the LGBTQ community.
The Birthing Center of Buffalo—part of Buffalo Women Services—is important not only because of the health care it provides but also because of its place in history. Buffalo, N.Y., was targeted in the 1990s by Operation Rescue, an anti-abortion group that conducted marches, blocked abortion facilities, and harassed patients and health care staff—picketing providers’ homes, screaming epithets at them, and intimidating patients.
Dr. Barnett Slepian, who worked at Buffalo Women Services, had been one of three doctors providing abortions in the region. After returning home from synagogue on a Friday night in 1998, Slepian was murdered, in the presence of his family, by someone affiliated with Operation Rescue. The governor of New York at the time, George Pataki, called the murder "an act of terrorism."
Morrison had just started working at Buffalo Women Services as an abortion provider, and Slepian had been her mentor. “I was stupid when I came, thinking it wasn’t still dangerous,” she says. Scared but stubborn, she continued his work. “Most local abortion providers closed after the murder,” Morrison says. “I didn’t want the anti-choice terrorists to win.”
Morrison became interested in advocating for women’s health care while at Barnard. “At the time, boys became doctors and girls didn’t,” she says. “Yet there I was, among the smartest women I’d ever met, women who aspired to careers.” She didn’t feel like their equal, she says, coming from a working-class California family where her father taught typing at a community college and her mother was a homemaker. “But I figured that if they could aspire, I could, too.”
Graduating with a biology degree, she worked as a laboratory assistant at Columbia, then attended the University at Buffalo Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. She completed her residency in obstetrics-gynecology at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center (now Mt. Sinai St. Luke’s) in New York City, moving to Buffalo in 1988 to practice ob-gyn care.
Morrison bought Buffalo Women Services in 2004. She added full-service gynecology and, in 2007, began working with a homebirth midwife named Eileen Stewart. “I had delivered 2,000 to 3,000 babies, but not outside a hospital setting,” Morrison says. “It was a revelation. None of what I saw routinely in hospitals happened at a home birth. I saw, instead, this beautiful process in which women had a say in the childbirth experience.”
Knowing that some women don’t want to deliver in a hospital, she realized that a birthing center with pre-natal care, low-key doctors, a staff that includes a nutritionist, social worker, and lactation consultant, and hospital access if necessary, would be an attractive alternative to home birth. After spending six years on paperwork and construction, the Birthing Center of Buffalo opened in 2014. Some 120 women have since given birth there.
Morrison is now on a mission to inspire the opening of other freestanding centers. “People are still sometimes shocked at having an abortion clinic and birthing center in the same place,” she says. “I’m simply advocating for every woman to have medically sound, respectful care that recognizes the importance of her choices, whether she chooses to access transgender support, conceive or prevent conception, terminate a pregnancy, or welcome a child into her life.”
Having a facility that offers a spectrum of services, Morrison points out, puts women, not doctors, at the center of reproductive healthcare.