‘Dobbs did not break us’: How West Virginia’s Katie Quiñonez plans to keep helping women
Katie Quiñonez is one of USA TODAY’s Women of the Year, a recognition of women who have made a significant impact in their communities and across the country. The program launched in 2022 as a continuation of Women of the Century, which commemorated the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote. Meet this year’s honorees at womenoftheyear.usatoday.com.
When the U.S. Supreme court overturned Roe v. Wade, the case guaranteeing women a constitutional right to abortion access, last summer, Katie Quiñonez felt utter devastation.
But heartbreak wasn’t the only emotion coursing through the executive director of the Women’s Health Center of West Virginia – she felt determination, too.
Quiñonez, 32, has been working for nearly six years at what was the only abortion clinic in West Virginia. After the court's June 24 decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, which sent abortion issues to the states, West Virginia enacted a total ban. Her clinic had to stop providing abortions. But it continues to offer annual exams, birth control, testing and treatment for sexually transmitted infections, and screenings for breast and cervical cancer – all on a sliding scale to ensure even the poorest women get the help they need.
“What Dobbs taught me is that you keep fighting for what matters even when it feels hopeless,” she told USA TODAY. “Roe fell, but we’re still standing. Abortion will be legal again in West Virginia in my lifetime, and I’ll be just one of many people who plays a part in that happening.
"Dobbs did not break us – if anything, Dobbs taught me how strong we are.”
For her commitment to consistently provide healthcare to women across her state, Quiñonez has been named USA TODAY’s Women of the Year honoree from West Virginia.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Why this work?
I came to this work because of my own lived experience. I’ve had two abortions, the first when I was a 17-year-old in high school who had dreams of pursuing a career in journalism in college. My second abortion experience was actually here, at the Women’s Health Center of West Virginia, and the care I received was so impactful – everyone was so kind and compassionate, affirming and supportive from the moment I walked in the door. A few years later, when I saw the development director job posting, which was my first role here, I thought to myself, "That seems like it would be my dream job."
I know personally how it feels to have an unplanned pregnancy, the feeling of desperation to have control of your body and to be able to live out the life you dreamed of – it’s an honor to be able to help people do that because it meant so much to me.
Who paved the way for you?
My mom. I really looked up to her. My parents got divorced when I was young and she pursued a college degree in her late 20s and early 30s and I just always admired her for doing that while she still had two young girls at home.
And then I really credit my predecessor, Sharon Lewis, who was the previous executive director at the clinic. She always challenged me and supported me. She was in this line of work for two decades, a Black woman running the state’s only abortion clinic in a state that’s predominantly white. I really admire her.
What is your proudest moment?
When I was development director I helped write a grant that funded a statewide billboard campaign. It came after a piece of legislation, referred to as Amendment 1, narrowly passed in 2018, ending Medicaid coverage of abortion in West Virginia. We received a lot of calls after that asking if abortion was still legal in West Virginia – which it was, at the time. So we dreamed up this campaign where we’d have billboards across the entire state that read, “Abortion is still legal in West Virginia.” There were more than 30 billboards across the state. To my knowledge, it’s the first pro-abortion billboard campaign that ever happened in West Virginia.
Around that time we also saw a large increase in aggressive anti-abortion harassment, so I set up the clinic’s first-ever escort program. I was often on the front lines with patients with big umbrellas and bright pink escort vests, getting patients in the door and shielding them from protestors, who were trying to intimidate us.
And then, the day the Dobbs decision came down, we did have to stop providing abortion care, and we couldn’t provide abortion care for a month. But we filed a lawsuit challenging our state’s abortion ban from the 1800s and in the month we had that injunction, we were able to provide abortion care to 100 more patients.
All of these moments wouldn’t be possible without the staff I work with. Everyone is so committed to the patients we serve and the work we do, they show up with energy, grace and humor every day.
Do you have a guiding principle or mantra?
Lean into your values, even when it hurts and it’s hard.
Who do you look up to?
The people who work at and lead independent abortion clinics across the country are who I admire and draw inspiration from. They are the most compassionate and creative badasses in the country. Despite all the hardship and challenges, despite roadblocks put up by politicians, they work around the clock to get patients the abortion care they need.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
You don’t have to be perfect – you can make mistakes. That will be the biggest way you learn and move forward. Also, take a nap and drink more water! You’re going to be in this for the long haul.
2022 Women of the Year: ‘Do something that frightens you’: USA TODAY’s Women of the Year honors West Virginian
Women of the Century: Olympic gold medalist Mary Lou Retton, author Pearl S. Buck among influential women from West Virginia
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Women's Health Center director fights for abortion rights despite ban