story by Melinda Lejman

 

Many women of color are not afforded protections in the U.S. healthcare system. CHOICES Memphis Center for Reproductive Health intends to create seamless access to high quality healthcare for expectant mothers when it opens a new birthing center. CHOICES’ focus is on exceptional patient care and education for the entire community.

Imagine telling your doctor you want an abortion. Now imagine the response from your doctor being, “Do you think that God would forgive you?” This is just one of the many stories Holly Calvasina, Director of Development and Marketing at CHOICES, shared when we sat down to talk about their capital campaign to fund a new, comprehensive wellness center. “At CHOICES, we value choice above all else,” says Calvasina.

Courage Now, the campaign for CHOICES’ new facility, isn’t simply a campaign for brick and mortar – it’s an opportunity to integrate exceptional patient care and education. The new 16,000 square foot facility will serve the community with a focus on providing continuity of care, healthy families and educated choices. Located on Poplar Avenue near Belvedere, the space will also serve as Memphis’ first birthing center.

CHOICES’ new 16,000 square foot facility will serve the community with a focus on providing continuity of care, healthy families, and educated choices. Image: Peter Warren, Warren Architecture.

 

CHOICES decision to begin the process of integrating reproductive care and reproductive health under one roof stems in part due to the reproductive justice movement. While most are familiar with the terms reproductive health, which pertains to providing services, and reproductive rights, which advocates for things like abortion access and birth control, reproductive justice is a larger, broader movement, mostly led by women of color, according to Calvasina.

“The idea is that it’s bigger than just abortion access or birth control access…[it’s] whether or not you have a safe community in which to raise your children, whether or not you have choices in how you give birth and whether or not the system in which you give birth is designed to protect you, which it’s not for a lot of women of color,” says Calvasina. “Can you really say someone has a choice if they don’t have access to high quality care?”

According to research by March of Dimes, whose mission is to fight preterm birth, there are major disparities in preterm birth based on race and zip code. Statistics on their website reveal that in Tennessee, the preterm birth rate for African American babies born between 2013-2015 was 14.3 percent compared to 10.2 percent for Caucasians. The site also states that in Tennessee, the preterm birth rate among black women is 43 percent higher than the rate among all other women.

CHOICES has been working with March of Dimes to integrate their centering pregnancy mode within their midwifery services, which is very effective at reducing preterm birth rates, according to Calvasina. “We’re focusing on providing data based midwifery care that will improve outcomes,” she says. “We hope that not only will it improve outcome for people that come to us for care, but that it will be a catalyst for other providers in Memphis to start offering, if not midwifery care, then centering pregnancy care or other outcome, data driven models to decrease this problem.”

They’ve already been contacted by an abortion care provider in Toledo who will be coming to shadow them later this year and learn from their full spectrum model. “We don’t want a monopoly in the birth industry,” says Calvasina. “We want to be a place that helps change birth care in Memphis.” An important part of CHOICES plans for the new facility includes a Center for Excellence in Midwifery, which will not only provide midwife led care in the birth center, but also training and practicum for new midwives. “There’s a big disparity between who can become a midwife and who can’t,’ says Calvasina.

“We don’t want a monopoly in the birth industry,” says Holly Calvasina, CHOICES’ Director of Development and Marketing. “We want to be a place that helps change birth care in Memphis.” Photo: Greg Campbell.

 

Currently, those needing practicum hours have to go to Vanderbilt University in Nashville. “There’s a certain level of privilege involved in just being able to say, ‘I’m going to be regularly commuting to Nashville to get my hours,’” she says. “We’re hoping that by offering this Center for Excellence in Midwifery that more people, especially for women of color, can be trained locally and start doing birth work in their communities.”

According to Calvasina, abortion numbers are down nationally due in large part to widespread availability of low cost, highly effective, long lasting birth control. However, as those numbers go down, clinics are becoming less and less financially sustainable. “It’s important as providers that we start expanding our services, especially in the South,” she says, speaking to the need for trans and LGBTQ affirming care. “It’s important that we be this voice, and continue to think about how we serve our communities, and who else is not getting access to care that they need.”

Thanks to an anonymous donor, CHOICES received a matching grant to fund construction of the $4.2 million-dollar facility. Calvasina also credits many individual donors who have already made gifts towards the campaign. The official launch of Courage Now will take place at CHOICES annual fundraising event, Condomonium, on March 31. The goal is to complete the campaign in 2018 and move into the new space in 2019. You can make your gift or get more information about the campaign at memphischoices.org.

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