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Originally published Monday, September 7, 2009 at 12:02 AM

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Yakima-based women's clinic marks 30th year

It was the mid-1970s and the feminist health movement had started to blossom.

Yakima Herald-Republic

YAKIMA, Wash. —

It was the mid-1970s and the feminist health movement had started to blossom.

Beverly Whipple and a friend she had met while waitressing at El Cid, then a popular Yakima eatery, had learned how to examine their cervices with a speculum and mirror. It was a simple act that thousands of women were learning at the time to understand their reproductive systems and take charge of their bodies.

Whipple and Deborah Lazaldi traveled around the state to share their knowledge, and talked about opening a clinic to give women access to safe abortions.

Then, they did. In 1979, they opened the Feminist Women's Health Center in Yakima, which has been operating ever since, surviving the violence and turmoil of the anti-abortion movement at its height from the late 1980s to the mid-'90s.

But the shooting death in May of her friend and colleague, Dr. George Tiller, in a Wichita, Kan., church by an alleged anti-abortion activist confirmed what Whipple already knew - that the fight for safe, legal and accessible abortions is not over.

Whipple, a soft-spoken but energetic and unapologetic champion of her cause, has seen the ugly side of an issue that continues to gnaw at the nation's moral psyche. She has faced down protesters, been called a baby killer, seen one of her own clinics firebombed out of existence and helped identify a suspect who was stalking a woman who obtained an abortion.

It's been a longer journey than Whipple expected. After the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973 affirmed a woman's right to abortion in Roe v. Wade, she believed the shame and stigma surrounding the decision to end one's pregnancy - not to mention the protests and violence - would eventually disappear.

"We thought the struggle would go away. Women would have control over their lives," she said.

At 56, Whipple continues with quiet determination.

Now in its 30th year of operation, the original clinic and two others in Renton and Tacoma operate under the umbrella of Cedar River Clinics, providing safe abortions, birth control services, testing and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases and Pap smears to about 11,000 visitors a year. The Yakima clinic provides approximately 1,000 to 1,200 abortions per year.

So far this year, patient visits and abortions are down about 15 percent, reflecting a national trend. Abortions have been on the decline since 2000, which most experts attribute to better contraception methods and the morning-after pill.

Lisa Stone, executive director at Legal Voice, a women's legal rights advocacy group based in Seattle, has known Whipple for more than 20 years.

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She attributes her staying power to tenacity, a commitment to keeping the clinics up to date and a certain degree of diplomacy and savvy in a business borne of controversy and emotion.

"Beverly thinks differently from other people," said Stone. "She is able to navigate what can be very treacherous waters from a medical, legal and safety perspective. She's very inoffensive in the way she talks about her position and deals with people."

For a while, the idea for a clinic was just talk.

Whipple and Lazaldi finished their degrees at Central Washington University. Whipple, then in her late 20s, taught beginning band for a time in the West Valley but left teaching to drive a truck, crisscrossing the country in an 18-wheeler.

She realizes now she was searching.

"There was something calling to me and I didn't know what it was," she said in a recent interview. "It wasn't truck driving."

One day she and Lazaldi read a story in the Yakima Herald-Republic about a woman who tried to induce her own abortion and ended up in surgery for a hysterectomy.

"We said, 'If we had started the clinic, that wouldn't have happened,'" Whipple recalled.

With $3,000 in cash between them, she and Lazaldi opened the Feminist Women's Health Center.

Getting the clinic up and running wasn't easy.

Whipple and her supporters initially signed a lease for an office in the Yakima Medical Center downtown, near what is now Yakima Regional Medical and Cardiac Center.

But at the time, the complex had covenants that allowed only doctors to lease space. The Feminist Women's Health Center had a doctor on call, but because Whipple and Lazaldi were not doctors, their lease was canceled.

Next, they found an office at Englewood and 20th avenues and furnished it with their own belongings. The reopening in May 1980 was delayed because of the ash that covered the city after the eruption of Mount St. Helens.

Finally the clinic opened, providing services for free. Whipple and Lazaldi worked nights to pay the bills but soon realized they would need to charge patients to make ends meet.

After a few years, Lazaldi left to attend law school in Seattle.

In 1983, Whipple and her supporters on the west side opened a second clinic in Everett, a blue-collar town north of Seattle. But three firebombs over about six months cost the clinic its insurance policy and its lease.

The financial loss in Everett nearly shut down the Yakima clinic, but supporters raised enough money to keep it open and buy the building where it resides now on E Street - a measure of operating security against landlords.

After the E Street clinic opened in 1987, Whipple added a day care center but ultimately closed it because of concerns for the children's safety: Anti-abortion protesters had begun regular picketing.

In 1989, protesters set up blockades to try to prevent women from keeping their appointments for abortions. They denied affiliation with the national group, Operation Rescue, but their tactics were similar.

Some chained themselves to the building with bicycle locks. Twenty-nine people were arrested for trespassing, including prominent Yakima businessman Jere Irwin. Irwin was also charged with disobeying a police officer's orders to stay back from the area.

The case against the protesters was dismissed over a technicality. Irwin was tried separately three times because of hung juries. Charges eventually were dropped.

Irwin said through his company's receptionist that he was not available to comment for this story.

Though the protesters commanded headlines, they also brought out supporters of the clinic and a woman's right to an abortion.

"Strangers would come by and say, 'How can I help?' Or they would leave money," Whipple said.

The Unitarian Church loaned its basement for the training of volunteers to escort women into and out of the clinic. The YWCA assisted as well. The 1990s brought more violence nationwide, prompting Whipple to brick over all the glass windows at the Yakima clinic.

Since those days, the disruptive faction of the anti-abortion movement has died down, making the murder of Tiller this spring all the more shocking. Though he was reviled by opponents for his willingness to perform late-term abortions, his shooting death was denounced by right-to-life groups.

The Rev. Rick Harpel, senior pastor of Yakima's West Side Baptist Church, attributes the relative quiet to a certain fatigue on both sides. Harpel wasn't involved in the protests of the '80s and '90s but followed the debate.

He said the message of anti-abortion groups has evolved to become more encompassing, embracing what he calls "pro-life" issues such as civil rights and the causes of the homeless and elderly.

"People in the pro-life movement are not anti-woman and they've done a lot to clarify that point," Harpel said.

That said, he added, the two sides have not met in the middle.

"There is no middle ground because we're talking about life and death," Harpel said. "We are going to try and respect each other, but the battle is certainly not over."

Americans themselves remain divided when asked to describe themselves as "pro-life" or "pro-choice," polls show. According to a USA Today/Gallup poll in July, 57 percent said abortion should be legal only under certain circumstances.

Although she's been active in the National Abortion Federation, testified before Congress against violence at clinics and spoken out against legislative efforts in Olympia to curb the practice, Whipple hasn't been a lightning rod for local abortion critics.

The annual Walk for Life rally draws hundreds to a procession along Yakima Avenue. As part of this year's walk, participants were recruited to take part in prayer vigils outside Cedar River Clinic and Planned Parenthood, another abortion provider.

Whipple said her relatively low profile in Yakima isn't intentional. Running three clinics - two of them on the west side - keeps her busy and on the road. She also cooks special meals for her 90-year-old mother, who is in a nursing home and on a special diet.

To unwind in her spare time, Whipple, who is divorced, enjoys outdoor adventures with her longtime boyfriend. They scuba dive, compete in triathlons and ride motorcycles.

Despite her hometown's conservatism, Whipple doesn't shy away from talking about her work.

"I'm quite open about it," she said.

"And when I talk to people around town or wherever I might go, I rarely find someone who is not supportive of choice."

Those conversations are worth having, Whipple said, because women continue to experience what she sees as unjustified fear and shame when they undergo one of the most common surgical procedures in the country.

She objects to those political leaders who still heap shame on abortion. In 2005, Hillary Clinton, testing the presidential waters, called it a "sad, even tragic choice to many, many women."

"To me, that waters down the debate," Whipple said. "Abortion is not a tragedy. It's a tool for freedom, and we're proud to make it available to women."

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Information from: Yakima Herald-Republic, http://www.yakima-herald.com

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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