Listen to this article

CARBONDALE – As the nation’s attention lasers in on this southern Illinois community for welcoming women turned away for abortion care from neighboring states, one Carbondale group is taking a distinctly soft approach to their activism.

Soft socks. Skin-softening lotion. Hand-written notes. Candy, mints, tea, coffee, granola bars, gift cards for meals on the road … anything to make a person undergoing a medical procedure feel comforted.

Comfort bags for abortion care clients are how the Carbondale Unitarian Fellowship has chosen to focus on reproductive justice. The fellowship’s’ committee decided, through careful consideration, to choose comfort bags and direct support to abortion care clients and staff, over standing out at picket lines, creating protest signs, or shouting through megaphones.

Bags of comfort snacks and soft gestures, with an eye toward what people need while traveling, are assembled and passed on to CHOICES Center for Reproductive Health, a new abortion care clinic in Carbondale that opened as a satellite from its main office in Memphis The group is currently putting together 100 comfort bags per session — enough to comfort a month’s worth of abortion care patients at CHOICES.

Its next gathering is this Sunday. With the help of an $18,000 grant, ongoing donations and the involvement of other Carbondale area groups, the Unitarian Fellowship anticipates touching more patients more frequently with its comfort bags. People seeking transgender-related care may also soon begin receiving the comfort bags, organizers say.

“It feels so good to do something that is caring, and to be giving a message at a very tough time, a card that says, ‘you are loved,’ “ says Rev. Sarah Richards of Carbondale Unitarian. “We know we can’t change their minds (of anti-abortion protesters). So we’ve made the choice to be supportive and focus on the people most affected: the clients.”


Carbondale Unitarian’s abortion rights activism is low risk, focused on helping staff and patients

A breast cancer survivor’s sharing about her own experience with comfort bags helped the committee decide how it wanted to proceed, says co-organizer Kathy O’Laughlin, a former nurse.

“She talked about receiving a comfort bag similar to what we’re doing here, and how meaningful that was to her,” says O’Laughlin. “It meant so much to have that simple person-to-person conveyance of some type of message of support.

“She really galvanized the group. We realized it was something positive we could do, to try and make things easier on anyone going through this situation.”

Another factor in choosing the Comfort Bags project was the Unitarian Universalist Association’s “discernment circle” approach, says Richards. The process helps decision-making happen in a more inclusive way, and Richards said using the tool helped the group to sort out ideas for activism into low, medium and high risk. The committee also chose steps they could take that would provide the most direct benefit to those impacted.

That’s why the comfort bags will soon also include gift cards for meals at Subway, and why the group is also seeking to provide boxed meals for CHOICES staff.

“We’ve got to find these ways of making a difference by strengthening connections on the side of positivity,” Richards says. “We’re doing something out of joy and liberating hope. We don’t want to waste time in doing things that bring people down.”


comfort bags from carbondale unitarian 2

The comfort bags from Carbondale Unitarian provide comfort snacks and soft gestures to patients receiving abortion care at CHOICES Center for Reproductive Health.


Comfort bags project seeks donors, other groups’ involvement to meet increasing needs

When the comfort bags were first distributed in April, CHOICES was treating about 100 abortion care patients per month, says co-organizer Miriam Link-Mullison said.

That number is likely to grow. A second abortion care center, the Alamo Women’s Clinic, has also opened in Carbondale. Axios reports reports that more than a dozen states have “outlawed or severely restricted” abortion, including Tennessee, Missouri, Kentucky and Indiana, Oklahoma and Wisconsin. Iowa may soon restrict abortion, too, depending on how an Iowa Supreme Court decision turns out later this year.

CHOICES is also providing gender-affirming hormone therapy for transgender patients, another marginalized group that is targeted by many laws restricting procedures considered essential to their unique care needs. CNN reports that 19 states now restrict gender-affirming care in some way.

That means even more patients seeking abortion care in Carbondale, or transgender care, who could use some comfort. Carbondale is a focal point for filling these service gaps because it’s within a few hours of Nashville, and also along a pivotal bus line connecting the south to Chicago.

Today’s political debates are likely having a negative effect on the mental health of the patients whose care is being discussed, writes the Los Angeles Times.

“We’ve long lived in an environment that shames women for wanting healthcare, and I worry that the current political environment is just increasing the shame people have for wanting an abortion,” said study leader M. Antonia Biggs, a reproductive health researcher at UC San Francisco.

To support the comfort bag project with a donation, go to the Carbondale Unitarian donation page, and note “reproductive justice” in the memo line of your donation. To become part of the committee assembling the comfort bags, contact O’Laughlin at 618-529-2439 or
(cover photo courtesy of Miriam Link-Millson)