Not so long ago, one of the most formidable abortion providers in the country could be found in the reproductive healthcare desert of Toledo, Ohio. Her name was Carol Dunn, and for three decades, she owned and operated the Center for Choice, one of the city’s only clinics. Like abortion clinics today—the ones that can remain open in an effectively anti-abortion country—it faced waves of violence aimed at it by those who thought they knew better than the people who sought its care.
In 1986, Toledo housewife, anti-abortion activist, and arsonist Marjorie Reed famously set fire to the Center for Choice. The damage forced Carol to relocate. That same year, her new clinic was broken into and the hoses of the machines used for first-trimester vacuum aspiration abortions were cut. In 1989, nearly 60 protesters were arrested after jumping from a truck and blocking the clinic’s doors for more than 10 hours. Two years later, a man jammed the office’s answering machine by repeatedly calling and reciting Bible verses. There was even an anthrax hoax in 1998. As Carol described to me during an interview in 2016, an employee at the clinic opened an envelope postmarked from Cincinnati to find a suspicious powder substance inside. The building was evacuated, and Carol and the employee were treated as though they had been infected with a deadly bacterium.
Later, Carol would recall zipping up the Hazmat suit officials from the health department had given her and thinking, in the midst of the uproar: “This son of a bitch better fit.”
When the attacks on the Center for Choice were no longer enough for anti-abortion protestors, they began picketing Carol’s home and community in Toledo’s Old West End, a 25-city-block stretch of Victorian and Edwardian homes. She told me of a year in which swaths showed up to her neighborhood’s annual summer festival, armed with posters of fetuses and distributing fliers that warned there was a “murderer” living in the Old West End. In response, Carol’s neighbors made buttons emblazoned with “We Love Our Neighbor Carol Dunn” to wear on their chests.
Carol wanted to be “the Merle Norman of abortion clinics.” The privately owned, women-founded and led makeup franchise—credited for pioneering the “try before you buy” philosophy—was a model for her as she sought to create medical spaces that didn’t feel sterile, and instead, maintained an air of sophistication patients could take comfort in. The Center for Choice opened its doors in 1983 on the second floor of a building in the downtown warehouse district, looking more the part of a loft belonging to a New York nepotism baby than an abortion clinic in Ohio. Its waiting room featured exposed brick walls, overstuffed chaise lounges, floor-to-ceiling windows from which natural light streamed, and evocative artwork awash in muted tones on every wall.
One of the canvases, captured in a photograph of the waiting room, appeared to depict the entangled limbs of a couple’s embrace. Years later, I asked Carol if my interpretation was correct. “No, honey. That’s a woman bent over in anguish,” she said. She felt it was appropriate for a place in which her patients might experience a complex collection of emotions, from torment to relief. “I wanted to make something ugly and painful and traumatic as pleasant for women as possible,” Carol told me.
Oftentimes, pro-abortion discourse centers a person’s trauma in an attempt to legitimize an option that’s already inherently justifiable. Rape, incest, and the like are listed as if they’re non-negotiables for a procedure to be performed in a colorless facility, devoid of warmth and offering only the distraction of an out-of-date People magazine and a smattering of water-stained pamphlets. The Center for Choice was no such place, because Carol treated abortion with aplomb, as if it were every bit the experience one wanted. In her mind, it was not a last resort, but a dignified decision. A more trained eye would see past the impeccable aesthetics to understand that the wicker chairs, plush carpeting, and art were a covert extension of Carol’s brand of radical activism, and her commitment to cultivating joy—even if it didn’t make sense, and especially when the circumstances didn’t feel very joyful at all.
Her reason for doing so was simple: She didn’t want anyone to suffer the circumstances she had. In 1964, when she was in her early twenties, Carol underwent a botched abortion. She’d been given potassium permanganate—an oxidizing agent, a tissue-destroying chemical, and in significant quantities, a poison—by a man who was not a doctor in a Toledo apartment. Hours later, she drove herself to the hospital, bleeding profusely. Because she wouldn’t reveal the name of her abortionist, doctors threatened to refuse treatment. Ultimately, she was admitted for an extended stay. Six years later, after abortion became legal in New York, Carol became a referral agent for Planned Parenthood, directing community members in need of the procedure to a nonstop flight from Toledo to New York’s LaGuardia airport. She remembered that airline staff called it “the abortion flight.”
In Targets of Hatred: Anti-Abortion Terrorism, Patricia Baird-Windle wrote that Carol “worked hard to make the health center feel homelike,” despite relentless protests. In fact, the word “home” was most used by former employees and volunteers to describe what the Center for Choice was to its community. Abortion, it appeared, was merely the thing that impelled people to cross its threshold. It was Carol’s space that made them stay.
Sometimes, they even lingered beyond operating hours. Every Friday night after closing the clinic, Carol held what she called a “jam night” for anyone who wished to attend, where guests—employees, volunteers, and their allies, mostly—would drink wine, listen to music, and decompress from the week. In a photograph taken in the mid-eighties, a band complete with a drummer behind a full kit, bass guitarist, and tambourine player are poised to play in what appears to be the clinic’s waiting room.
When the clinic reopened after the fire in 1986, Carol threw a soiree that attracted guests like Sarah Weddington, none other than the attorney who represented “Jane Roe” in the Roe v. Wade case. But instead of showing me the photographs of her clutching at Weddington as though they were a pair of estranged sisters—photographs I have seen—she preferred to tell me the clinic’s story through different images: women behind desks, pressed cheek-to-cheek in comfortable embrace. A group of faculty members in matching t-shirts, protesting together at a pro-choice march in Washington, D.C. Carol and her late husband at the wedding of a transgender woman who volunteered at the clinic. A burly man hired to escort patients into the building on days when protestors were particularly aggressive, grinning triumphantly into the lens with both of his thumbs up.
Apart from providing countless people with a choice, she gave many of them jobs, volunteer opportunities, and support far beyond any one abortion. A former patient remembered that prior to meeting Carol, she identified as a staunch conservative. But when she found herself pregnant as a teenager, it was Carol’s door she knocked on first. Her story is common among women in the area. Other anti-abortion protestors outside of the Center for Choice would become patients and then, volunteers and employees. It wasn’t an inexplicable phenomenon. Carol simply understood and honored growth—in people, and in movements—and amidst unrelenting hostility, humbly provided family to those who’d been abandoned, and fleeting happiness to those who found it hard to come by. Anyone whose life overlapped with Carol’s would likely say she’d far surpassed Merle Norman.
“How many people do you think you helped at the Center for Choice?” I once asked her. “Nearly 50,000,” she estimated, shrugging me off as if to suggest one would’ve been sufficient.
I first met Carol in June of 2016, the summer of Harambe memes, Simone Biles, and the Zika virus. My graduation from the Ohio State University was just weeks away, and I was as eager to prove myself as a serious journalist as I was emphatic about getting the hell out of Ohio. In the interim, I was reporting on the GOP’s systematic shuttering of abortion clinics across my home state. In 2011, there were 16 surgical abortion providers serving over two million people in Ohio. By 2015, eight were left. Only Texas lost more clinics during this period of time, according to FiveThirtyEight. In my hometown, all but one, Capital Care of Toledo, remained.
The Center for Choice withstood remarkable opposition before it fell to the predation of policy enacted by then-Governor John Kasich and encouraged by the host of anti-abortion religious groups he courted during two terms in office. “It was like working with a bullseye on your back,” Sue Postal, a former employee of Carol’s who “bought” the clinic from her on a handshake in the early 2000s and maintained it in its final years, told me at the time. “Kasich had us all in a corner.”
The most harmful measure Kasich introduced to kneecap family planning and abortion access, among many damning provisions, prohibited ambulatory surgical centers and public hospitals from entering into “transfer agreements,” or mandatory pacts between an abortion provider and a hospital that ensure patient admittance in the event of an emergency. While only a fraction of such facilities are public, in the end it was this stipulation that forced the Center for Choice to close in June 2013, after leadership couldn’t find a private alternative willing to partner with it.
It was Postal who introduced me to Carol. Days later, I’d knock on the door of a hulking house in the Old West End that groaned each time its occupants disturbed it. Carol wore thinning gray sweatpants, a matching boatneck sweater, a pair of aging socks, and a broad grin. A herd of rescued cats and dogs followed at her heels as she welcomed me in. After a brief tour, wherein she introduced me to her own eclectic accumulation of tchotchkes from her travels to far-flung places like Latvia and Nairobi, we settled in at her kitchen table for the interview. We talked about the clinic’s opposition and her more recent venture—an animal rescue agency she coined “Planned Pethood”—but she was most keen to discuss how the Center for Choice had unintentionally become a family. I remember her tone becoming wistful, and I could glean that she missed the patchwork of people who had made the attacks of antis feel worth it.
Hours passed, and after she served me pirouette cookies (“from Costco!”) while we discussed the possibility of a Trump presidency, I excused myself. As I left, I asked to snap a photograph of her to accompany the story.
“Of me?” she asked, incredulous. “Alright, let me put on my lipstick.”
I took the picture and Carol muttered something about being thankful to a certain doctor for a facelift she had years earlier. She embraced me like a grandmother who irons the ten-dollar bills in birthday cards, and watched from the screen door as I drove away.
I remained in touch with Carol over the years—visiting her whenever I was back from New York, bringing flowers I’d picked from my mother’s garden to her in the hospital after a scare in 2017, and often asking for her wisdom and wit on life matters. She always had a way of making my trite, 20-something worries feel important, urgent even.
As the coronavirus pandemic ravaged the country and I temporarily moved back to Toledo, I briefly lost contact with Carol until one evening in August 2020. Around midnight, she called me claiming it was only a “butt dial.” And yet, the second sentence to leave her mouth was an admission I never thought I’d hear: “I’m not ready to die.” Her health was waning and the isolation of the time hadn’t helped. Days later, I wore an N-95 mask and sat with her for a few hours under the shade of her pergola. I noticed there were fewer animals.
Carol had never been one to linger on the impact of her life’s work, so I didn’t ask. Instead she spoke about death more than she ever had before. In moments of silence, she smiled at me like she knew a secret. Afterward, I held her walker as she gingerly moved up the small set of stairs into the house. One of the remaining dogs had shit on the floor while we were outside, and even with severely limited capability, she refused not to be the one to clean it up.
We said goodbye that day, and I knew it was likely the last goodbye we’d ever have. Even still, when she asked if I’d bring over printed copies of the story I had written about her from 2016, I said yes. Only a fool would’ve said no to Carol Dunn.
Even if she wasn’t interested in discussing her legacy, others were. “Carol brought things to the clinic that made people feel,” Postal recalled of her knack for sharing her many collections with the community. After she passed, a number of people—an amalgamation of those who intimately knew her or met her only once—wrote on social media of the impact Carol made; that she contributed more than words to the reproductive justice movement, but “actions and lifelong dedication.”
Postal’s own work at the Center for Choice is inextricable from that legacy now, too. Recently, she told me a story about bumping into a woman who had sought the clinic’s care years ago and still recognized her: “She told me she felt like all she was doing was trying to process other people’s shit, and the first time that she felt like she could think was when she came to the clinic. Like, we gave her the space to breathe and only focus on what she needed to—being a parent, or not being a parent.”
“That’s the thing,” Postal continued. “We touch so many people’s lives in different ways that we don’t even know what’s out there. And most of it, you only run into later.”
In 2014, the lot that had housed the second location of the Center for Choice was purchased at auction for $61,000 by a formidable coalition of anti-abortion organizations, including the Catholic Diocese of Toledo, after an “appeal to God.” The group announced plans to bulldoze the clinic and transform the leveled land into a “memorial park for the unborn.” Today, it’s an empty patch of pavement, faded and marred by decay; one would have little trouble imagining it soon overgrown with buckhorn and other wayward vines. No such park has been erected, apart from a solitary stone placard with a bible passage: “The oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garmet [sic] of praise instead of a spirit of dispair [sic].”
Just over a mile away from the property, at a park near her home, hundreds gathered last September for a remembrance of life—to share stories about the matter-of-fact observances Carol had a proclivity for, the discernible flecking of mischief in her eyes, and the passion she passed onto anyone willing to accept it. I didn’t attend the celebration thrown in Carol’s memory. I’d already moved back to New York, but I could’ve been there. Some goodbyes remain too overwhelming.
There were hundreds—perhaps even thousands—of Carol Dunns in the United States, offering a certain care that has become deliberately, cruelly inaccessible. As more clinics meet a fate similar to the Center for Choice and unfathomable risks are taken every day to avoid forced birth, will we remember the providers and the communities they built? How will we preserve the legacy of those who chose to honor life each time they empowered people to decide for themselves?