'The low point was 1985, when the clinic burned down. We didn't give up. We did screenings from a van parked outside.'

It was almost 20 years ago when Carol Downer's battle began, and since then it has come full circle. A "vicious circle," as Downer, head of the national Federation of Feminist Women's Health Centers, calls it.

"Here we go again," she said, referring to the U.S. Supreme Court's plan to consider to what extent states may restrict access to abortion.

It was 1969 when Downer and others organized as the Los Angeles Abortion Task Force, part of the National Organization for Women. Abortions were legal only in California, New York, Hawaii and Washington and only in hospitals.

Downer, now 55, recalled: "We needed to do something dramatic. We were going to start an abortion clinic and get arrested to show the need for less-costly procedures." They learned how to perform abortions from nurse practitioners, but in the meantime, several private clinics opened. So Downer's federation formed the Women's Abortion Referral Service, the first of its kind to offer pregnancy screening. Women came from all over for help, Downer said.

While Downer claimed that the clinic never did abortions, she was arrested in 1972 and charged with practicing medicine without a license. A jury found her not guilty.

Then the Supreme Court, in the landmark 1973 Roe vs. Wade ruling, declared that women have a right to end pregnancy. Within 50 days, Downer's group opened the Women's Choice Clinic, which performed 2,000 abortions yearly. Others sprang up in Oakland, San Diego, Santa Ana and Chico.

For years, the clinics ran smoothly. But during the Reagan Administration, the anti-abortion, or "pro-life," movement began picking up steam. Clinics were hit with protests, some of them far from peaceful. The Los Angeles clinic was ailing financially, trying to keep costs low while paying high malpractice and fire insurance premiums and competing with private clinics.

"The low point was 1985, when the clinic burned down," Downer said. Fire officials suspected arson, but no perpetrator was found.

"We didn't give up," Downer recalled. "We did screenings from a van parked outside." The new Feminist Women's Health Center was set up at 6221 Wilshire Blvd. in a secure high-rise.

Last month the now more-conservative Supreme Court said it will review a federal ruling that struck down a 1986 Missouri law that forbade public facilities to perform abortions.

Meanwhile, groups that oppose abortion--banded together as Operation Rescue--have begun campaigns to disrupt clinics, including a protest last weekend in Los Angeles. Clinics responded with a counterdemonstration.

Downer said her own long crusade stemmed from "a scary, painful, illegal abortion with complications. In those days it wasn't the family doctor. I don't want women to go through that again."

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