HERS(Health Evaluation and Referral Service) provided women with detailed information about health resources in the Chicagoland area. One of the CWLU's most successful projects, it lasted until 1990.
by Amy Laiken
THE EARLY YEARS
Healthcare was always a major focus of CWLU organizing. In the wake of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, largely unmonitored abortion clinics began to proliferate. As a response, the Health Evaluation and Referral Service (HERS) was founded in 1973 by two women who were students in the Urban Preceptorship Program, a course that dealt with the delivery of health care and social services in Chicago.
Believing that there was an unmet need for information on safe, reliable clinics, they visited several Chicago area clinics as their project for the Program. During these onsite inspections they inquired about fees, anesthesia, number of procedures performed per week, availability of counseling and aftercare, and other pertinent details.
As they needed a way to make their findings available, they decided that the Chicago Womens Liberation Union (CWLU) would be an appropriate place to house and disseminate the information, since one of the women was already a member. A second phone line (with what was likely one of the earliest answering machines in Chicago) was installed at the CWLU office.
Initially there was an idea to call the group Health Information Service(HIS), but, given the nature of the work, the acronym was thought to be inappropriate. It was finally named HERS. The number of volunteers expanded as women from the Abortion Task Force and others interested in women's health joined. Shortly after women began calling for information, HERS members designed a feedback form to send to those callers who agreed to complete and return it following their visits to a clinic. The volunteers answering calls were then able to share the reactions of many women who had actually used the clinics, as well as information obtained from the on-site visits.
In the early years the clinic visits were carried out largely, although not exclusively, by lay people. HERS volunteers found that although several clinics provided safe, compassionate care, some facilities clearly did not. Acting on their suspicions, three HERS volunteers who only the day before were certified as non-pregnant by a local gynecological clinic, visited an abortion clinic posing as patients and were told by clinic staff that their pregnancy tests were positive. They then took their findings to the press and to court, and the clinic was subsequently closed. Some callers began asking HERS phone volunteers for referrals to private physicians. As a response, the group began collecting information about individual physicians. That began with doctors recommended by friends of HERS and other CWLU members.
As it was not feasible to do personal visits to the doctors, much of the information about their practices was obtained through telephone interviews. A physician feedback form was designed and mailed to those callers who expressed a willingness to complete it following their appointments. Several HERS volunteers were psychotherapists in private practice, and started a feminist therapist referral list. Candidates were placed on the list only after having been personally interviewed by the HERS psychotherapists.
THE LATER YEARS
During the years that HERS was part of the CWLU there were periodic discussions about whether providing services could influence providers and health care policy, and if so, to what extent. There were other discussions about how or if some of the CWLU's theoretical debates related to HERS work. Some of those discussions took a back seat when we had to decide the fate of HERS when the CWLU disbanded in 1977.
HERS members still believed that there was an ongoing need for accurate information and consumer feedback about health issues and health care providers. In order to obtain funding as a separate entity, we formed a board, incorporated, and secured tax exempt status from the IRS, enabling us to apply for grants.
In the late 70's, HERS was awarded a two-year contract from the Illinois Family Planning Council to operate Private Line, a service that provided health information and referrals to teens. The group applied for and received grants from several foundations. This money enabled HERS to hire paid staff. When it was possible to rely on staff to answer calls, board members and other volunteers were then able to use their time to work on such projects as the HERS Healthy Kit. Written by HERS members in 1977, the Kit was a packet of information on several issues such as childbirth, abortion, nutrition, and environmental health. By that time, HERS had achieved a track record of providing reputable counseling and referrals.
During a Chicago Sun-Times/ Better Government Association expose of abortion clinics published in 1978, HERS was listed in the newspaper as a reliable source for abortion counseling. By 1981 HERS had served over 20,000 callers and had sold over 3,000 copies of the Healthy Kit. During that period we realized that to maintain credibility, the bi-annual abortion clinic evaluations had to be done by medical professionals. Sharon Lieberman, the coordinator of the evaluation project, writes: "HERS and Planned Parenthood/Chicago Area (PP/CA) negotiated a cooperative activity of clinic evaluation to be conducted on a bi-annual basis. The two groups came to a written agreement on the minimum medical and counseling standards for an approved provider."
The original HERS consumer-lead, feminist focused visits became professionalized. The first cooperative evaluation commenced in 1981, with two representatives of HERS and two from PP/CA visiting clinics to which they were invited. PP/CA provided a physician, experienced in abortion procedures, who evaluated actual terminations. The major aspects of abortion provision counseling, surgical procedure, aftercare, and clinic administration were observed directly by each evaluation team member with an interest and/or credentials in that service. Fact-finding reports from the teams were evaluated separately by each organization (HERS and PP/CA), with each developing its own list, although most approved referral lists were similar. The combined effort, from inception to referral list, took about two years. The evaluation cycles continued through the 1980's, but Planned Parenthood no longer participated after 1984. During the 1989-90 evaluation cycle, HERS suffered financial problems and disbanded in late 1990.
HERS was one of the few work groups of the Chicago Women's Liberation Union to survive the umbrella organization. It was able to do that largely because it provided education and services, and was therefore qualified for tax exempt status that enabled the group to apply for and receive grants. HERS was instrumental in raising the standard of care at area abortion clinics and other facilities by advocating for patients rights.
There were some areas in which HERS was less successful. While over the years the group served a large number of women, it might have done a better job at trying to reach under- served communities, both in terms of service and involvement in decision-making. In retrospect, HERS spent a tremendous amount of time on fund raising, but it is unclear if that could have been handled differently. However, among its successes, HERS left a legacy in the Chicago Abortion Fund, founded in 1985, in part, by former HERS members. In addition, what had been known as the HERS clinic evaluation project continued through the 1995-97 cycle, sponsored by the Chicago Abortion Fund, and finally the Illinois Pro-Choice Alliance.
Amy Laiken is active in the CWLU Herstory Website Committee and is a former HERS member. She recently retired from a career in the social services field.