The Abortion Rights Emergency—On the Ground

by Sunsara Taylor | September 16, 2013 | Revolution Newspaper |


There is an all-sided, many-fronted assault against women's right to abortion that is escalating across this country. In state after state, from Texas to Arkansas to North Dakota, legislatures are moving to effectively outlaw abortion, even as it remains a right "on the books." There are the violence, terror, and threats against abortion providers. There have been 278 new restrictions on abortion introduced in 2013 alone and laws passed which have closed down or endangered 37 of 42 abortion clinics in Texas. In North Carolina, four out of five remaining clinics may be closed because of new laws which have been passed in that state.

This is truly a state of emergency for abortion rights! In the face of this and to mount a national counteroffensive to the war on women's right to abortion and women overall, the Abortion Rights Freedom Ride was launched. Two groups of Freedom Riders, one coming from New York City and the other from San Francisco, joined together and then traveled through the middle of the country, making stops in states where abortion is under vicious and deadly assault.

This article draws heavily upon and has been edited from thoughts on the Abortion Rights Freedom Ride from Sunsara Taylor.

A bit on the overall terrain regarding abortion:

On the ground, the reality is even more extreme and even more of an emergency than almost anyone understands. Every single clinic we visited or heard from is severely under siege on many levels and from all sides from forces which have incredible initiative and are very deeply rooted. Very little, if anything at all, is being done to actually counter the situation or change the dynamic.

Every clinic has full-time protesters whose life mission is to shut it down. In Jackson, Mississippi, the week before we got there, a woman was taken by ambulance to the ER and the antis [short for anti-abortion lunatics], who are camped out in front every day the clinic is open, took photos and sent them to the local paper. The next day the paper had the pic and a big story about the woman being rushed to the ER and quote from the antis and a small counter-quote from one of the clinic's escorts. Also, the next day the antis showed up in front of the clinic with enlargements of the photo and were waving it in the faces of the women walking in, saying, "You are going to be next!" Of course that was absurd—any medical procedure has risks, and there is nothing inherent about abortions that leads to being rushed to an emergency room.

Our volunteers were told repeatedly by these protesters to kill themselves, that they should have their uteruses torn out, that they don't deserve to have children, that they were whores and sluts, that women should stay home, that women shouldn't be allowed to vote because it interferes with their pure status, and so much more garbage. In Jackson there is a small core of very exhausted and overwhelmed escorts who got very revitalized by our presence and work there.

In Little Rock, there is only one clinic that does surgical abortions in the state. (Other facilities will do medical abortions, but this clinic is the main one people come to.) It has an encampment of extremely aggressive and Taliban-esque protesters. There is a physical line the antis cannot legally cross that is just at the edge of the clinic's property and they are there every single day that abortions are done and they have built a tower that they climb up on and take pictures of the women who come in and the staff and yell and lecture them all day long. They curse them and they preach Bible verses. One of them openly walks around with a firearm. They go after the men in particular, telling them not to let the women kill their children and pointing out to the men that they are stronger than the women and should take charge. They give off no sense of concern for the so-called "unborn" but really are filled with the vengeance of being men on a mission from a vengeful god with a lot of hatred for the "wickedness of women."

In North Carolina, protesters are at that clinic every single day. They have loudspeakers that can be heard inside the clinic's waiting room and they are screaming lies like, "They call abortion a blind procedure because the doctor can't see what he is doing; it is blind as he rips the arms and limbs off your baby and then slips and rips right through your uterus. Do you know how many women DIE from abortion? It is a slaughter going on inside your womb...." And then when the doctor arrives, they announce that on the loudspeaker and say "The abortionist is now parking, he is now getting out of his car and walking towards the building, it is not too late to turn around and leave..."

In Omaha, Nebraska, the clinic can't get anyone to repaint their peeling clinic because all the contractors are afraid of a boycott if they do the work. And everything that the clinic does is found out and gone after. The woman who runs this clinic is a nurse who used to work with Dr. George Tiller (a doctor who performed abortions, including late-term abortions, who was murdered by an anti-abortion assassin in his church on May 31, 2009, while acting as an usher). She is extremely dedicated but is convinced that abortion will be made illegal and women will have to die before people wake up and start fighting for abortion. She also is going through a process right now where, because of the challenges of the antis, she is most likely going to lose her nursing license. Lots of doctors and nurses are facing suits and challenges to their medical licenses, for instance a woman who had briefly worked in Wichita previous to the current doctor there had intentionally taken an extremely minimalist approach to filling out her patients' medical records because she knew that the fascist Attorney General was trying to open up patient records—so then, when they did open up the records they took her license away and pushed her into bankruptcy over the fact that she didn't fully and extensively fill out patients' records!

In Minneapolis we met a young woman whose father does abortions and she shared with us that she never tells that to anyone because she is so scared what people will think. When she was in fifth grade she learned what her father did for a living because some older girls came up to her and said, "Your father kills babies," and told it to others in the school. She very movingly explained how she thought her dad was horrible for many years and how difficult this was for her until she got a bit older and then she told of her own abortion and how much she respects and loves her father for what he does. After speaking with us she said, "Wow, I think I am going to call my dad tonight and tell him about you guys and thank him." Her father was friends with Dr. Tiller.

In Cleveland, several young women from Planned Parenthood came to an evening appreciation event and got emotional as they heard the rap from the Ride about the state of emergency and its mission. They were really inured to the kind of harassment and hatred they experience and their patients' experience every day—being called whores and sluts and cunts and then being told they were killers and sinners and mothers of dead babies—but when they stepped back in this atmosphere they got very upset about it and also became very attracted to the idea of doing something about it. They described the women who come in to the clinic and just sob because they really believe those things about themselves and about what they are doing.

In Wichita, there were the women who explained they would rather get in a fistfight in an attempt to induce a miscarriage than to go get an abortion because the stigma is so high. Or people who will say they fell down the stairs—either they did and they miscarried, or they think that is more acceptable to say even to their close friends. Also, the very young women who clearly thought that having children was pretty much what their lives would be about anyway so by 16 they felt that they were ready to have children. Also, the (incorrect and, frankly, irrelevant!) idea of the fetus feeling pain was actively in their consciousness: They noted that they had been discussing that before we ran into them, in the context of several very young friends who were having babies. The MTV show 16 and Pregnant both reflects and has massively mainstreamed and normalized even further this notion of 16 being a reasonable age to have a baby and this was widespread among the people we met.

The doctors live every single day knowing they could be killed. It is an active and very present reality for them. People more broadly think that "the killing is over," but they are wrong. In Jackson, there is a anti—a guy everyone knows who is out every day. He can't come close because he has a restraining order, but he is there every day and he talks about death coming to the clinic staff a lot. The staff told of other individuals they fear the most and alarming details as to why.

The week we were in Wichita, the clinic in Birmingham, AL that was bombed in the '90s was closed down. The state department of health claimed that they do more than 30 abortions in at least two months out of the year which would require them to have a license that they don't have; the clinic owner and doctor contend that wasn't true, that they do up to 14 abortions on one day every other week—which gives you a sense of how few abortions are done and how difficult to attain they are in Alabama!—and that they have not gone over the 30-per-month limit). Anyway, the clinic was closed down—this after years and years and years of all kinds of fights to keep it open.

Many of these clinics are involved in big legal battles to challenge new laws and stay open. In North Dakota they expect a law that requires hospital admitting privileges for doctors who perform abortions to be thrown out by the courts, but in the process of pursuing this, the judge is allowing discovery on all the doctors and their medical records not only in North Dakota but in their practices in Minnesota and South Dakota, and on the patients' records. Even if the law doesn't stand, this is a further assault on the doctors and there will be more legal restrictions to follow. Plus, no one even challenged the 20-week ban that now is the law there (with the logic that no one performs abortions that late in the state anyhow). In Jackson, they will be in court in March 2014 because they have not been able to comply with the hospital admitting privileges law there and even since the Ride has left there, the state filed new paperwork to get the judge to let them close the clinic down while the challenge works its way through the courts (the judge had not granted an injunction against the law, but did issue an order that the clinic not be closed until the trial).

There are all sorts of other restrictions and bans being passed legally.

In the last three years, 50 clinics have closed their doors. And this is just the tip of the iceberg of what is being pushed through right now.

Broad ignorance of the state of emergency and stakes:

There is also very, very broadly just general ignorance as to the situation—and very, very wrong terms setting the terms. Here I am talking first about the broad reservoir of people who generally do not want to see women forced to have children against their will and who would even consider themselves pro-choice. The people who are "pro-choice, but..." Most, most, most people in this reservoir have NO IDEA—not even a tiny little clue—of just how much abortion rights are in a state of emergency. A big part of the victories of the anti-abortion movement (along with the main and defensive and economist responses of the Democrats and mainstream pro-choice groups) has been to turn people off to this whole issue and debate—to get them feeling that there are "two extremes" that will be forever debating things out. Also, many people think that there is something really unpleasant and undesirable about abortion so it is better not to think about it. No one knows that 1 in 3 women gets an abortion. Most people feel there is something undesirable about it (interesting to note that one of the volunteers admitted, after visiting the clinic in Fargo, how shocked they were to find out that the place wasn't dirty, was very regular and seemed very compassionate—they had been affected by the image of the "abortion mill" and were honest and reflective enough to share it).

My sense is that part of why the response was so big in Texas was that people actually were confronted more openly by how extreme the anti-abortion program really is and how far back it will push women. The huge and immediate stakes of all those clinics being slated to close smacked people who are usually tuned out or defensive and silent. Most of the time, most people are not aware of what is going on. There were other important factors in people stepping forward in Texas, including the fact that there were forces who, from more petty bourgeois outlooks, stepped forward to lead a fight around that. But I think people were forced to confront the stakes along with their feeling that they had to take matters into their own hands, and the hopes that they had a champion in power to listen and act for them. It was contradictory and I wouldn't mind exploring this a bit more—it is an important part of the terrain.

But even among those who spend their whole lives dealing with abortion—like many who work in and fight to keep the clinics open—they really don't understand the national state of emergency, the full agenda of the anti-abortion movement, or really the science and importance of abortion.

For instance, one clinic director who is extremely committed to her job and treasures the clinic with her life knew nothing of the fact that other clinics in other states were facing the same restrictions that threaten to close her clinic down. She didn't know that there were other states with only one clinic left and was stunned to learn about the fact that another clinic is in a comparable situation to hers—open temporarily due to a judge's order while legal challenges to the hospital admitting privileges law are heard. She also didn't know what the Hyde Amendment was—that there had been a special measure to keep women on Medicaid from being able to get funds for their abortions.

At one point she said how some of the harshest edge of the distances and restrictions and closing of other clinics in the state had been taken off by the abortion funds that have grown up in the last decade. But when I pointed out how outrageous it is that you should even need such things, she was totally taken aback. We got into the Hyde Amendment and she was outraged anew. She also then began speaking bitterly about how degrading it is for the women who come to have to go through the process of scrounging up the money. This director spoke very bitterly about the humiliations her patients go through and how most of them already have children and travel distances and have to wait overnight and some don't make it back the next day, or she'll see them early in their pregnancy but then they won't make it back for the second visit until they are right at the legal cut-off because they are so desperately trying to come up with the funds (or don't make it back at all).

In Charlotte, a clinic owner and director had invited the Abortion Rights Freedom Ride to stop by on its return trip from the South to New York City. The East Coast crew did so—stopping in to the "Moral Monday" protest being held in Charlotte that day and then staying overnight. When the crew visited the clinic the next morning, most of the staff—including the nurses and counselors—really did NOT understand almost anything about the political fight around abortion nationwide or the procedure beyond the most technical terms. To be clear, they were deeply committed to their jobs and to the women they assist every day—they have enormous heart for these women's real-life difficulties and they have a lot of hatred for the cruelty and viciousness of those who harass the women every day. But, they didn't understand so much why there is such a "big deal" being made about abortion.

The Freedom Ride volunteers visited the "call-center" (a room where about ten mainly young women work doing the over-the-phone scheduling and mandatory counseling session that takes place 24 hours before the abortion [in North Carolina they can do this by phone, in Mississippi this must be done by the actual doctor and in person 24 hours early]) and I spoke briefly about the situation facing women, the mission of the ride, appreciation for what they do, and a call for involvement. When I finished, one of the callers said, "Wait—what did you say, women aren't incubators? I am going to use that! I never thought about that before, but that is really true." Another wanted to write down the slogan that fetuses are not babies—and this consumed a lot of interest from the whole group. They feel these things on one level, but had never heard these things. They mostly gave answers to people in terms of "you have to do what is right for you..." or, "only you know your own circumstance, no one can judge you." They had no clear-cut answers for the women who called about why abortion is perfectly moral and shouldn't be a big deal.

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