First-Ever Abortion Clinic Directory Celebrates 25 Years of Service

Abortion Clinics Online—the first abortion clinic directory—celebrates 25 years of service, despite legal restrictions, court battles and anti-abortion terrorism.

First-Ever Abortion Clinic Directory Celebrates 25 Years of Service, Abortion Clinics Online
Washington D.C., May 2017. (Paul Sableman / Flickr)

This year, Abortion Clinics Online announces its 25th anniversary of continuous service. Through its online directory and hotline, Abortion Clinics Online directs women to reputable abortion clinics and continues to fight back against fake clinics.

The site first went live in September 1995, as—at a time when the internet was a new world. (Just 14 percent of Americans had an internet connection!) The National Abortion Federation and Planned Parenthood did not yet have websites. At its height, Abortion Clinics Online had about half of the country’s abortion clinics listed.

Some of the site’s earliest clients were skeptical, but founder and director Ann Rose knew that an online directory could make abortion more accessible while offering unprecedented confidentiality. There would be no more calling around to clinics desperately seeking help. For the first time ever, people could find a clinic from the comfort of their own homes, without even talking to another person.

“Before the Internet, there was no abortion clinic heading in the phone book. Women often had barriers to locating an abortion clinic near them. The advent of the Internet really opened new avenues for women to get good and accurate information about abortion services available in their area,” Rose told Ms.

One of Rose’s first clients in 1995 was the now-legendary Dr. George Tiller—who was later assassinated in 2009. He didn’t really understand what he was signing up for, or why.

From left to right: Yvonne Morris (Abortion Clinics Online’s web designer), Dr. George Tiller and Ann Rose in 2005. (Courtesy of Ann Rose)

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Then a patient desperately seeking a therapeutic abortion from England contacted him. Her doctor had told her things were hopeless. Dr. Tiller gave her hope, and soon after he became an internet convert.

First-Ever Abortion Clinic Directory Celebrates 25 Years of Service, Abortion Clinics Online
A vigil for Dr. George Tiller at San Francisco City Hall in June 2009. (Steve Rhodes / Flickr)

Since then, the online presence of abortion clinics has grown into a powerful force. Clinics have activated a new generation of activists online, through social media and blogs. Most abortion-seekers now begin their search for a clinic online. Several abortion directories have followed Abortion Clinics Online’s lead, providing new options and alternative models.

Abortion advocates have always occupied a dangerous world. Hundreds of clinics have been bombed or burned. Clinic workers routinely face threats and violence. Rose has been the subject of smear campaigns and threats for her entire career.

This 1996 anti-abortion poster featuring Ann Rose’s face was put online shortly after the launch of Abortion Clinics Online. (Courtesy of Ann Rose)

But she and her team remain undaunted. Rose says the wonderful people she’s met over the years have kept her motivated.

“In every great tragedy there’s got to be comic relief—and I’m not saying abortion is a tragedy. I’m just saying it’s a serious issue and to get through it, clinic workers, I have found, are some of the kindest, most compassionate people I know,” Rose said.

At a time when choice is under attack, keeping abortion legal is not enough. Women must have ready access to safe, quality abortion clinics.

Rose also emphasized how men benefit from the Roe v. Wade decision: If their partners can’t access an abortion for an unwanted pregnancy, their own economic freedom is at risk, too. Therefore, for Rose, reproductive rights are the foundation for all rights.

“I believe all other issues of importance to people in the world revolve around abortion. We don’t have rights to education, we don’t have rights to equal opportunities in the workplace [and] I think abortion rights are central to human rights.”

— Ann Rose, founder and director of Abortion Clinics Online

Today, one of the directory’s biggest challenges comes from fake abortion clinics, known as crisis pregnancy centers. These well-funded anti-choice centers offer no medical services. They may threaten or even stalk women to convince them not to have abortions. And because they are not governed by medical privacy laws, they can use the information they get from prospective patients to humiliate or terrorize them. They invest heavily in search engine ads, and often appear before real abortion clinics.

Rose and her team have fought to have them removed from these searches, and to outrank them so that panicked women never have to listen to scare tactics and threats from zealots on the far right. Along with others, they were successful in getting Google to label fake clinic paid ads with a disclaimer stating they do not offer abortions, and abortion clinic ads with a statement that they provide abortions.

From left to right: Ann Rose, Diane Derzis, Kathy Spillar, Susan Hill, Debbie Walsh and Eleanor Smeal at Feminist Majority Foundation HQ in Los Angeles during the late 90s. (Courtesy of Ann Rose)

The future of the abortion industry is perennially mired in uncertainty—now more than ever, in the wake of the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the seeming inevitability of an extremist new Supreme Court justice.

According to Rose, the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court is “frightening” because “she seems to be very together and very sophisticated but there’s a darkness underneath there in her position [on abortion] that doesn’t go with how she’s presenting herself.”

Still, it’s not the first time Abortion Clinics Online and the businesses it serves have faced threats. And it won’t be the last.

“We’ve seen over the years [how] male paternalistic society wants more power and they figure the way they can get that is by controlling our reproduction,” Rose said.

One thing remains certain: As long as clinics, the women they serve, and all people who care about choice remain hopeful, there is hope. Abortion Clinics online will continue to serve as a source of hope and choice to all people, without judgment, for the next 25 years and beyond. The hope Ruth Bader Ginsburg inspired can and does live on.

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Giselle Hengst recently graduated from Vanderbilt University with degrees in Women's & Gender Studies and Medicine, Health, & Society. She is currently an editorial and social media intern at Ms. magazine.