Inside D.C.’s Luxury Abortion Clinic
Carafem’s surroundings may speak of plush comfort. The experience their clients undergo is anything but.
“Abortion. Yeah, we do that.” That’s the message that Carafem, a new medical clinic in Washington, D.C., will plaster across D.C. Metro stations as part of an ad campaign in the coming weeks.
Billboards advertising abortion services are a rare sighting, even in the predominantly pro-choice District of Columbia, where abortion is relatively easy to access.
But Carafem, a nonprofit clinic that opens in April and offers only pharmaceutical abortions, is intent on destigmatizing the procedure at a time when many states are enacting laws that do the opposite.
On Monday, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey signed a bill that requires abortion providers to tell patients that a pharmaceutical abortion can be reversed. (Those who voted against the legislation, like State Senator Katie Hobbs, have argued that reversing the procedure is medical malpractice.) Last December, a federal court finally struck down a 2011 law in North Carolina that required physicians to narrate sonograms and forced women to look at images of their fetuses.
“We wanted to reduce the obstacles and barriers in place right now for so many women in America,” says Carafem president Christopher Purdy, who spent the last 20 years tackling family planning and abortion issues overseas, primarily in Ethiopia and India.
“One idea was to offer a service that was demedicalized and client-centered. Women in this situation are already going through enough difficulty, so our goal is to ameliorate that and make the procedure a high-quality professional health care experience.”
Comfort is crucial to that experience, so the atmosphere inside the facility is more like a spa than a sterile clinic, with wood paneling and stone backsplashes on the walls and warm colors and textures throughout.
Clients are offered tea during one-on-one consultations with health-care practitioners. They wear cotton robes in examination rooms instead of the customary disposable paper ones.
“By eliminating the sights, smells, and sensations associated with a typical doctor’s office, we felt we could create a better experience for our clients,” says Melissa Grant, Carafem’s vice president of health services, who has 25 years of experience in reproductive health care in the U.S. and founded the clinic with Purdy nearly two years ago.
Clients pay a flat fee of $400 for Carafem’s services, which includes the abortion pill, counseling, a follow-up consultation, and a pregnancy test kit in the very rare event (in 5 percent of cases) that the termination fails.
If women are choosing Carafem for its comfort and high-quality services, one would think they’d prefer to be there during the most physically and emotionally discomfiting part of the process—that is, when the pills they take (one at the clinic, the second at home) cause them to miscarry.
But the reason most women opt for medical rather than surgical abortions is so they deal with the procedure in the privacy and comfort of their own homes.
“We provide medication to help with pain and other possible effects of the medication, like nausea, and so most women report feeling fairly comfortable at home in familiar surroundings during this time,” says Grant, adding that more than half of women have a successful abortion within four or five hours after taking the second pill.
Those who can’t pay $400 out of pocket can apply for financial assistance. If Carafem’s model is successful in D.C., it will expand to other states.
Despite the high-end model, Carafem’s services are less expensive than the average pharmaceutical abortion, which costs $500, according to the Guttmacher Institute. (One out of every three women will have an abortion by the time she’s 45.)
Carafem clients who can’t pay $400 upfront can apply for financial assistance. The clinic takes most types of insurance, including Medicaid, and offers appointments at odd hours—evenings and weekends so that women don’t have to skip work for the procedure. And clients can expect to leave Carafem’s offices within an hour of arriving.
All of this sets Carafem apart from most abortion providers. Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest provider, doesn’t publicly flaunt its abortion services. Nor are its facilities any different than the average OB-GYN office.
Carafem isn’t the first clinic to promise a comfortable, client-oriented experience. In Manhattan, EastSide Gynecology offers “exclusive and VIP surgical services,” according to its website, including “VIP rooms designed to make you feel at home, with a luxurious mahogany bed, oil paintings, and TV for complete privacy and comfort” while patients wait to undergo surgery.
But an abortion clinic unabashedly advertising its services in commuter stations with matter-of-fact slogans is an unprecedented move—and one that many people will likely denounce as tone-deaf, if not immoral.
“Women’s ambivalence about abortion doesn’t arise from the setting, but because a life is at stake,” says Dr. Charmaine Yoest, president of the anti-abortion group Americans United for Life.
Indeed, it’s unlikely that clinics like this one will destigmatize the procedure on a national level, or increase access to abortion in states where it’s already limited.
But progressive abortion clinics like Carafem are a step in the right direction and should be celebrated by all pro-choice women. And if abortion is something you strictly oppose, it’s not going to affect you if a clinic wraps its patients in cotton robes instead of paper ones.
Having an abortion is a personal choice—and women should be allowed to choose to have it however they wish, with or without hot tea.