Washington Street just got a new tenant: The First Steps Pregnancy Clinic, formerly the First Steps Pregnancy Center on West Street, hosts its grand opening and open house Thursday.
The clinic bought the building in March and after removing the 1970s-era wallpaper, carpet, curtains and bathroom fixtures, transformed the former insurance agency into a medically staffed facility where pregnant women can go to receive free ultrasounds, counseling and supplies for their pregnancies.
“My personal belief is that life begins at conception,” said David Wilkinson, executive director. “It is a human being ... and as a human being, it deserves a right to life.”
Wilkinson, originally a pastor from California who recently completed his first year at First Steps, moved to Vermont with his wife, Wendy, who directs the counseling center of the First Step Pregnancy Clinic, which works together with several other “pregnancy centers” throughout Vermont.
The clinic is not affiliated with Planned Parenthood, Wilkinson said, and currently sees 15 to 20 clients every month.
“We’re not adversarial,” Wilkinson said. “Some pregnancy centers are viewed as against Planned Parenthood or against abortion ... the difference between (Planned Parenthood services and ours) is that ours are free ...(and) we don’t perform abortions.”
But like Planned Parenthood, Wilkinson said the clinic’s counselors talk about options that the woman has, including adoption, and their facility is staffed by certified medical professionals.
Unlike Planned Parenthood, Wilkinson confirmed the clinic does not provide STD testing, contraceptives or birth control.
However, according to Lucy Leriche, vice president for public policy in Vermont for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, access to contraception and sexual education directly results in a drop in unwanted pregnancy, and that refusal to provide access to STD and STI screening ran “contrary to public health.”
“We don’t necessarily know what our partner has done, and it puts everyone at risk for infection,” Leriche said.
“For those that are single, the best guarantee against pregnancy and STDs or STIs is abstinence,” Wilkinson said. “We feel that every life matters, even children conceived under difficult circumstances like rape or incest ... even those babies deserve a chance at life.”
Wilkinson said the clinic talks the woman through how to talk to her parents about her pregnancy, discussing her relationship with her partner and identifying support systems.
“If we’re under pressure, or if we feel that we’re in a crisis, it’s usually not the best time to make a decision,” Wilkinson said. “So take some time, consider your options, cool down a little bit, and then you can make a smarter decision.”
Wilkinson said clinic policy holds that abortion is morally wrong and often results in regret, sadness and possibly medical complications.
Wilkinson said half a dozen registered nurses are being trained in ultrasound technology. Sarah Rich, an emergency room doctor at Rutland Regional Medical Center, volunteers her time to assess patients as First Steps’ medical director and to train, especially now that she’s on maternity leave until August, he said.
“We are a medical facility,” Wilkinson said. “And you need that (medical expertise) because you occasionally get the ectopic pregnancy ... it’s important to catch.”
The First Steps Center, as it was originally called, was on West Street before the transformation from a “center” to a “clinic.” First Steps acquired a mobile ultrasound machine with the help of $20,000, partially raised by the Knights of Columbus at their “Laugh For Life” comedy fundraiser. The ultrasound arrived at the clinic June 11.
“When women don’t know, or they believe that it’s not really a baby, that it’s just a blob of tissue or a clump of cells, that’s kind of the common belief that’s out there,” Wilkinson said. “When they see that ultrasound, and their baby is 15 weeks ... that makes a huge difference in helping them to make a decision.”
Wilkinson said seeing the ultrasound inspires the “maternal instinct.”
Leriche said ultrasounds can be used to guilt-trip someone out of having an abortion, which is one of the safest health care procedures in existence, with less than 1% resulting in complications.
“[The clinic has] a right to be opposed to abortion, but I take issue with using unethical tactics to try to coerce people into a decision that will affect their entire lives,” Leriche said. “They can be opposed to abortion, but that’s not a justification to use deceitful tactics.”
Along with free ultrasounds, the clinic conducts an “Earn While You Learn” program, in which patients can earn points by attending sessions and watching provided videos at the clinic, which can then be “cashed in” for diapers, clothes, strollers, pack-n-plays and other free supplies in their Baby Boutique, Wilkinson said.
“You take a class, you get a point,” Wilkinson said. “You bring the boyfriend, you get another point. ... They watch a parenting video, they discuss it, because being young moms they don’t necessarily have a lot of experience or knowledge about how to be a good mom.”
Leriche contends the free resources in exchange for the lessons constituted taking advantage of financially-constrained women, and instead of a medical facility, clinics like First Steps are really “persuasion machines” that aim to talk someone into being or staying pregnant. This can conflict with sound medical advice, she said.
“Abstinence is the most effective way to prevent pregnancy, but abstinence education is the least preventative way (to prevent sexual activity),” Leriche said. “We advocate for medically accurate, conclusive and comprehensive sexual education to decide what’s right for them.”
Additionally, First Steps provides a “Dad-to-Dad” program, which pairs up new or soon-to be fathers with experienced ones; currently, three have been trained to counsel the younger men. The program does not have any clients yet, Wilkinson said.
First Steps also offers “post-abortion counseling,” Wilkinson said. Going forward, First Steps would aim to provide schools with a “sexual integrity program,” formerly an abstinence education program, but Wilkinson said getting into the school system may be a challenge.
The open house will run from 5 to 8 p.m. All are welcome to attend and enjoy refreshments and a popcorn machine.