Health center is Jane McCabe's legacy for daughters of W.Va.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Thirty-seven years ago in the Kanawha Valley, the face of what one Episcopal priest called "Christian commitment" belonged to a 56-year-old woman helping other women gain access to contraception and to abortion services.
Jane Mason McCabe was that woman, and she believed that reproductive health care for women was a social justice issue. She used her personal faith and concern for the health status of local women to help found the Women's Health Center of West Virginia.
"I am really struck by how much she accomplished in such a short period of time," said Rita Ray, former board president of the center. "The Supreme Court ruled on Roe v. Wade in 1973; Jim Lewis arrived at St. John's in 1974; in 1976, the center was up and running."
Lewis was the first religious leader Jane approached about ensuring West Virginia women had access to reproductive health care. She served on the vestry at St. John's church when Lewis was the rector there. A small room upstairs in the church became the center's organizing home and office.
"She had the Christian commitment, belief in social justice and determination" to make the Women's Health Center a reality, said Lewis.
This year is the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the court case that legalized abortion nationwide. On April 1, the Women's Health Center will present its first Jane Mason McCabe Award in recognition of those who have made outstanding contributions to the cause of women's reproductive health in West Virginia.
In the summer of 1941, Jane's mother invited a college friend from West Virginia to visit her. That friend brought her son, Brooks Fleming McCabe Sr., with her on the trip. Within three days, Brooks and Jane were engaged.
Their only daughter, Maggie, became the catalyst for Jane's passion to establish the Women's Health Center. In 1972, Maggie was 16 and came to her parents with the news that she was pregnant. Terminating the pregnancy in West Virginia was not an option. Roe v. Wade was a year away, but Washington, D.C., had just opened its first abortion clinic.
"My father was raised mega old-school," said Maggie. "He was devastated about my abortion, but he and Mom were always there for me, for all of us. Dad completely supported my mother's work."
Jane's friends and family believe it was her organizational and political savvy that allowed her to negotiate the complex community work of making sure West Virginia women could control their reproductive lives.
She served as president of the Junior League of Charleston, an organizer and president of the Children's Museum of Charleston, and a trustee of the YWCA. From these and other service positions, she learned the importance of community buy-in, especially among the faith and social service communities.
"Jane 'got it,' and she used her incredible skills and talents to do what would have taken years to do by anyone of lesser access, devotion and inspiration," said former daughter-in-law Connie Ginsberg. "I accompanied her on visits to the bishops of the Episcopal Diocese and the Methodist Diocese as well as others as we carefully got buy-in before any announcement. She was masterful in explaining the need and the remedies and the importance of the faith and social service communities supporting, or at least not opposing, the efforts to establish a not-for-profit women's health center for birth control, abortions and broad women's reproductive health issues."
Jane used face-to-face meetings with local clergy to share the national policy positions of many denominations that supported a woman's access to safe, legal abortion and contraception. Ginsberg recalled that one of the most persuasive talking points during buy-in meetings centered on confidentiality. Jane used the parishioner-to-clergy relationship metaphor to demonstrate the importance of patient-to-physician privacy. She believed it was critical that the faith community knew exactly what was being proposed rather than being "caught off guard," said Ginsberg.
Brooks McCabe noted his mother's magic touch with a difficult issue.
"Jane McCabe was not afraid to speak her mind and was able to do it in a way that softened the rough edges of a volatile issue. She was also able to approach opinion leaders in the community and encourage them to enter the discussion, even if it was uncomfortable to do so," he said.
Jane McCabe's relationship with the St. John's Episcopal Church community was crucial to her success in opening the Center. The Women's Health Center established its organizing office at St. John's in 1976.
From its church home, the center relocated to Kanawha City close to CAMC Memorial Hospital and established nonprofit status, becoming the first facility of its kind in West Virginia providing pregnancy testing, first-trimester abortions and health education programs to the public. Funding for the center came from individual donors and a loan from the Planned Parenthood Federation of America supplemented with matching funds raised by volunteers.
Today, the Women's Health Center is on Washington Street West. It offers a full range of women's health services, provides educational and preventive services to promote wellness, including heart disease prevention. The center also advocates for a comprehensive system of health services for women and for reproductive choices.
Maggie McCabe said that although her father's family had established financial security, her mother was not raised with money. She understood that privilege alone allowed her to help her unwed teenage daughter avoid becoming a parent before she was ready. That awareness drove her to find a way to help all West Virginia women have the same access and opportunity.
Brooks McCabe said his mother understood the problem was providing health services and counseling based on accessibility and affordability to those with modest means, especially when abortion services and even some forms of contraception were only recently legal.
"It was at a time and place where candid discussions on such a topic were out of favor," he said. "Some issues were better discussed in private, and as such, were inadequately addressed."
Public dialogue about women's health issues is characteristic of former West Virginia delegates Bonnie Brown and Bobbie Hatfield, the first Jane Mason McCabe award recipients.
"Over the years, Delegates Brown and Hatfield have stood up for women's rights despite the potential of political backlash," said Ann Stottlemyer, Women's Health Center board president. "They have both been protectors of a woman's right to choose and to have access to birth control; they've been brave and strong and put their re-election at risk."
The Jane Mason McCabe Event will take place from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. April 1 at the Charleston Woman's Club. It is open to the public, and tickets cost $30. A reception with heavy hors d'oeuvres, beer and wine will be followed by an awards presentation.
"Jane McCabe had the confidence to pursue what she felt was right and was able to convince others to do the same. She was able to do all of this without ever passing judgment on anyone," said Brooks McCabe. "Understanding the needs and varying circumstances for different people consumed much of her effort. It was never about herself, it was always about the community."
For tickets to the Jane McCabe event or for more information, call 304-344-9838.
Reach Elizabeth Gaucher at Elizabeth.Gaucher@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1249.