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Pro-life center moves next door to abortion provider

Chip Ellis
Woman's Choice, an anti-abortion counseling service, just moved next door to Women's Health Center of West Virginia on the West Side of Charleston. Women's Health Center is one of only two abortion providers in the state.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Located right next door to each other on Washington Street West, Women's Health Center of West Virginia and Woman's Choice Pregnancy Resource Center have similar names but very different missions.

Women's Health Center is a full-service women's health-care clinic, and one of only two abortion providers in West Virginia. It moved to Washington Street West in 2001, after 25 years in Kanawha City.

The clinic's new neighbor, Woman's Choice, has been in Charleston since 1977, but just moved to Washington Street last month. It is a free counseling service that tries to persuade women not to have an abortion. Woman's Choice also provides free pregnancy tests, diapers and baby clothes, but no medical services.

Whether the two are neighbors by coincidence or by strategy depends on whom you ask.

"Well, it may be a coincidence or it may not. It might work out nicely because we are dealing with the same women," said Linda Chatting, the director of the anti-abortion Woman's Choice. "If we get to talk to some of those women, that would be great."

Chatting said Woman's Choice began considering the Washington Street location four years ago and that she can't remember if center officials discussed possible advantages or consequences of being next to Women's Health Center. She said they moved to Washington Street because the space was much bigger than their old location and it was affordable.

The building, which Woman's Choice bought for about $125,000 according to tax filings, was previously occupied by Trax, a gay bar and nightclub.

Sharon Lewis, executive director of Women's Health Center, thinks Woman's Choice moved in next door to confuse people.

"Yes, I would say that they did. Many crisis-pregnancy centers do move next to reproductive-health centers to confuse patients," Lewis said. "We will do everything we can to make sure that patients know where we are and that they don't mistakenly go to their door."

Matthew Jacob, a Woman's Choice spokesman, was circumspect when asked if their new neighbors were coincidental.

"No. Well, yeah, sort of. We didn't intend on being there, it's just that building came open and it was really close to where we were before," Jacob said. "I think it could be beneficial to women, because they have to pass by our building to get to the clinic."

Margaret Chapman, director of the pro-choice group WV Free, said groups such as Woman's Choice are deceptive and do a disservice to women.

"The tactics of crisis-pregnancy centers, not just the one located next to Women's Health Center but all of them across the state and the country, are intentionally meant to confuse women," Chapman said. "Women deserve honest access to reproductive-health care."

Woman's Choice has three peer counselors who "offer support services to women who are pregnant, maybe facing an unplanned pregnancy, not sure what to do," Jacob said.

"We're there to show them that there are other options, not just abortion," Jacob said. "When a woman walks into an abortion clinic, more often than not, the choice that they get is abortion."

That's a charge that Lewis vigorously disputes.

"We're a provider of family planning, breast and cervical cancer screenings, pregnancy-support services, as well as abortion services, Lewis said. "Not only do we inform women of all their options, we try to offer a comprehensive set of programs to support women in their options."

Woman's Choice does not offer medical services (although it plans on offering ultrasounds in the future) and its three volunteer counselors -- one of whom is a nurse -- are not professionally licensed or credentialed. They go through workshops with a local psychologist and take online training sessions provided by Heartbeat International, a Christian association with more than 1,000 anti-abortion pregnancy-center affiliates worldwide.

All Heartbeat International affiliates promise not to "advise, provide or refer for abortion" and to "encourage chastity as a positive lifestyle choice."

There are 46 anti-abortion pregnancy centers in West Virginia. Five are affiliated with Heartbeat International, and eight are in the Charleston area.

Woman's Choice, which is locally owned and operated, was known as Lifeline of Charleston for its first 25 years. In 2002, Lifeline changed its name to Woman's Choice -- to avoid confusion with other organizations called Lifeline, Chatting said.

Lewis said she suspects a more nefarious reason for the change.

"They've changed it to Woman's Choice, and my only conclusion is that that's part of a deceptive practice to get women in there because they're confused, thinking that they're going to a reproductive-health center," Lewis said.

Jacob said that the facility's intent is not to confuse but that employees are happy to serve women who call by mistake.

"Last time I checked," he said, "they haven't cornered the market on the word choice."

Reach David Gutman at david.gutman@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5119


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