The state’s passage Friday of the “heartbeat” bill could drastically change the landscape of abortion services in the state.
The bill, which has Gov. Brian Kemp’s approval, limits abortions after a heartbeat is detected, typically six weeks into a pregnancy. Currently, women can obtain an abortion up to 20 weeks in the state. If signed and not blocked in court, the law would take effect Jan. 1, 2020.
Abortion services aren’t provided in Hall County, with the nearest options located in Gwinnett County.
Services provided in Hall include the faith-based Choices Pregnancy Care Center, which offers counseling, free pregnancy tests, ultrasounds and STD panels along with post-abortion support for those negatively affected by the procedure.
Faith-based Center Point Teen Pregnancy Prevention also offers services including abstinence-based education and support for pregnant and parenting teens.
Prevention services are also available from local doctors, including those at the Hall County Health Department.
Pregnancy prevention and education
OB-GYN services are available at numerous practices in Hall County.
Dr. Rebecca Ando, who is certified with the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology and works at the Longstreet Clinic, said patients have an array of options.
“Obviously we want to find something that works for her, her lifestyle and future planning,” Ando said of counseling she provides her patients.
The short-term options include birth control pills, birth control patches, birth control vaginal rings or condoms. Long-term choices include a shot taken every three months at the clinic, an intrauterine device inserted in the uterus and a birth control arm implant.
Permanent contraception options include tubal ligation or removal of the fallopian tubes.
For patients who want an abortion, Ando said she refers them to the varous clinics around Atlanta including the Feminist Women’s Health Center in Atlanta.
Although Longstreet Clinic doesn’t require its patients to have health insurance, oftentimes Ando said she will point patients toward the Hall County Health Department to find affordable options.
The health department’s Women’s Health Services provides education, physical exams, counseling, minor gynecological treatments and numerous birth control methods.
Dave Palmer, spokesman for the public health department, said the services provided are charged on a sliding scale based on family income.
Palmer said all popular birth control methods are available at the health department like condoms, birth control pills, birth control patches, intrauterine devices, birth control implants and other options.
Clients receive information and counseling about the different methods — from contraceptives to abstinence — to help them determine the best fit for their circumstances.
Palmer said the health department acts as a low-cost provider for birth control.
Women’s Health Services also offers initial and regular checkups to monitor whether or not patients have at-risk conditions like hypertension, diabetes or STDs.
The faith-based Center Point Teen Pregnancy Prevention sends a qualified staff of social workers and community educators to meet with high school and middle school students to implement abstinence-based education, said Barbara Hicks, director of program development for the nonprofit.
Another local health care nonprofit, Good News Clinics, provides free medical care to uninsured Hall County residents, but Liz Coates, the nonprofit’s development and engagement director, said they do not offer prenatal care or contraceptives.
“If someone becomes pregnant and is on low income, they automatically get Medicaid,” she said. “They’re then insured, so we can’t see them.”
In the case a patient is pregnant, Coates said she refers them to the Hall County Health Department and Choices.
Choices Pregnancy Care Center has been providing its services for 31 years in Hall and operates two locations, one in Gainesville and another in Flowery Branch.
Lee Koz, the organization’s executive director, said his typical patients range from women ages 17-21. However, the nonprofit has helped women up to 40 and as young as 15. Since opening in 1987, Choices has received 41,884 patient visits.
“Our goal as a pregnancy resource center is to love that woman, no matter who she is, no matter what race or religion,” Koz said. “Wherever that woman is at, our job is to identify with her and help stabilize her.”
When a woman comes into the pregnancy center seeking help, Koz said the first step is a pregnancy test, followed by the choice of an STD test.
If the woman is pregnant, she then receives a free ultrasound at the center.
Ileana Ungurean, one of the nonprofit’s sonographers, said most of the time women at the center don’t expect to see something that resembles a baby when they receive an ultrasound.
“Most are amazed that they can see the heartbeat, even before the definition of arms and legs are seen,” she said. “They’re always in shock and are like, ‘Woah, it actually looks like a person.’”
Koz said when women see the ultrasound screen “the mama hormone kicks in” and does some of the convincing before staff explain the center’s mission.
After the ultrasound, the patient is brought into the nonprofit’s advocacy room where staff explain that mission and present the options of abortion, adoption and parenting the child.
He said the advocate presenting the information is usually an older woman who has experienced an abortion and wants to help others so they don’t make the same choice.
While they do mention the option of abortion, Koz said the nonprofit does not advocate for it.
He said the center has received criticism for intertwining a medical center with the Christian faith and disguising the nonprofit as an abortion clinic.
“When people ask me how I run a medical center as a Christian, I say I personally see no conflict between medical treatment and your religious position,” he said.
Koz said as far as the “deceptive tactics” are concerned, Choices has always been upfront and transparent about its services and stance on abortion.
The next step for the woman is to learn the health consequences and risks of having an abortion and the benefits of giving birth, Koz said.
He said the religious angle comes into play at the end of the visit. Advocates present the Gospel, give away a Bible and present their philosophy.
“Two columns hold up our entire strategy,” Koz said. “Saving babies and saving souls.”
In regard to contraceptives, the nonprofit strictly adheres to abstinence.
Although the organization is faith-based, Koz said the staff will not “slap a nonbeliever over the head with a Bible.”
“From a religious standpoint, we hold Christians only accountable for Christian morality,” Koz said. “We don’t hold nonbelievers and people in other religions accountable for Christian morality because biblically we have no right to do that.”
Center Point Teen Pregnancy Prevention also provides services to those who are pregnant, many of whom have already decided to become parents.
The staff works with pregnant and parenting teens to make sure they have healthy pregnancies.
“Everything we teach is medically accurate, free of value and of judgement,” Hicks said. “We teach the facts and hope everyone comes to a wise decision.”
When teens become involved with the pregnancy prevention programs, Hicks said they generally join a group of pregnant or parenting peers.
They meet around once a week to talk about pregnancy, parenting and the importance of staying in school.
Hicks was the executive director of Teen Pregnancy Prevention Inc. before it merged with Center Point more than three years ago.
With more than 23 years serving pregnant teens, she said the positive outcomes of the programs have made all of her effort worth it.
“The pregnancy rate is dropping and the graduation rate among participants is skyrocketing,” Hicks said. “They’re graduating at a rate nearly 20 points higher than the local average. That really shows the programs’ success.”
Since 1976 the Feminist Women’s Health Center in Atlanta has provided reproductive health care, self-help workshops, abortion care and community programs. The center is one of the closest health centers to Hall County that offers abortions.
Some of the reproductive health care services offered include testing for sexually transmitted infections and HIV and offering a range of birth control.
The Feminist Center’s abortion services include medical abortion, fetal anomaly, private abortion care, surgical abortion, trauma survivor care and abortion after care.
Wula Dawson, the development communications director for the center, said the women who typically come into the clinic fall between ages 20-40.
Dawson said the center’s staff is specialized in fetal anomaly circumstances. These include women and families who have decided to end a wanted pregnancy because of a fetal anomaly.
“This is a little bit more delicate,” Dawson said. “We’re specially equipped to understand the sensitivity around that.”
When a woman calls the clinic with the decision to have an abortion, Dawson said she talks with a qualified staff member to determine how far she is into their pregnancy. An appointment is then scheduled.
Before the patient ends the phone call, Dawson said a recording is played.
“Over the phone in the state of Georgia, we’re required to play a recording that includes inaccurate information about pregnancy and abortion,” she said. “For example, we know that pregnancy is a lot more risky than abortion.” She said the recording suggests an abortion may lead to infertility in the future.
Once patients come into the clinic, they receive an ultrasound.
They then undergo one-on-one counseling with health educators on what options they have concerning the abortion and what to expect from the procedure.
Dawson said this time is also used to assure the choice was not unduly influenced.
“What we’re doing is trying to confirm that this person is willfully making the decision on their own,” Dawson said.
A medical abortion is implemented through patients going home and taking a combination of pills to end the pregnancy.
Dawson said a surgical abortion is performed at the center and can take anywhere from five to 10 minutes.
“Our counselors and staff are really well trained with sensitivity, whether a sexual assault case or fetal anomaly,” Dawson said. “There’s never a point where we pressure anybody.”
The Feminist Center has teamed up with Access Reproductive Care Southeast to help provide transporation to those needing rides to and from the clinic.
They additionally work with the nonprofit and other organizations to assist patients who need help paying for the center’s services.