Kate Banfield and Tammy Romo-Alcala have never met. But more than 25 years ago, the two women found themselves in the same position: freshmen in college, pregnant and scared of derailing all they had worked toward.
Both women, on a day each recalls vividly, walked into a Dallas abortion clinic.
It’s what happened when they walked out, and in the weeks and decades that followed, that places them on opposite ends of the most significant abortion case to be heard by the Supreme Court in a quarter of a century.
Banfield, who graduated from college and is now a mother of three, said she has no regrets. “I knew I did what was right for myself,” she said.
Romo-Alcala, who dropped out of school and had two children before undergoing a hysterectomy at age 28, said she should have had the baby. “Women need to know your life doesn’t go on being the same,” she said.
The landmark Supreme Court case that legalized abortion nationwide, Roe v. Wade, was built around an anonymous woman. No one knew that “Jane Roe” was really Norma McCorvey (now an abortion opponent) until after a decision was reached in 1973. More than 40 years later, as the high court prepares to make a ruling in a case challenging Texas’s stringent abortion regulations, the justices have heard from more than 200 women in friend-of-the-court briefs who have publicly disclosed their private abortion experiences, along with their names.
Some of the women, including Banfield, had not previously shared their stories beyond immediate family and friends. Others, like Romo-Alcala, were open before lawyers and advocates encouraged them to be.
There is no way to know whether the justices will read their words as they weigh the issues in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt . But scholars who study the Supreme Court say that there has been a dramatic rise in the number of friend-of-the-court briefs filed to the high court — an increase of more than 800 percent since the 1950s — and that the justices are increasingly citing them in their opinions.
“As to whether they matter at the end of the day, nobody knows,” said Allison Orr Larsen, a law professor at the College of William and Mary whose research focuses on the Supreme Court. “What is known is that the justices are using amicus briefs with increasing regularity.”
In fact, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who is considered a key vote in the Texas case, cited an amicus brief in another major abortion ruling, in 2007. Kennedy wrote at the time: “While we find no reliable data to measure the phenomenon, it seems unexceptionable to conclude some women come to regret their choice to abort the infant life they once created and sustained. See Brief for Sandra Cano et al.”
Taken together, the stories in the briefs from both sides in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt present an intimate portrait of abortion in America that mirrors a larger social movement aimed at removing the secrecy and stigma surrounding the procedure, complete with hashtags such as #ShoutYourAbortion.
They also speak to the strategies of lawyers who may not agree on much, except that it’s time to talk about what was once unspoken.
“A woman’s abortion experience is often a deep, dark, and painful secret,” reads a brief from “3,348 Women Injured by Abortion.” “The information being offered to this Court by [these women] is crucial.”
Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, which is serving as counsel for the clinic in the case, echoed the importance of hearing from those who understand firsthand what’s at stake.
“It always makes a difference when the reality of our constitutional protections are brought to life,” Northup said, pointing to the court’s same-sex-marriage decision. “Every time you hear about a Supreme Court case, it’s not only about the principles. It’s about the people and what it means for their lives.”
At the core of the Texas case: How far can states go to impose restrictions on abortion clinics — restrictions that lawmakers say protect women’s health but abortion providers argue make it difficult for women to exercise their constitutional right to the procedure? Abortion providers say full implementation of Texas’s 2013 law would leave a state of nearly 28 million people with as few as 10 clinics.
Northup said it was not difficult to find women willing to share their abortion stories. One brief for the petitioners is signed by more than 100 lawyers. In another, Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis (D), Ohio state Rep. Teresa Fedor (D) and other elected officials describe their experiences. In yet another, the women range from educators to doctors to a minister.
In a brief filed by the nonprofit Advocates for Youth, 26 women are named, including Debra Hauser, the president of the D.C.-based organization. She begins her story this way:
“In 1995, at age 35, I found myself alone, pregnant and caring for my six-month-old son. My husband had gone to work one day and did not return.”
It ends: “To this day, I am certain that choosing an abortion was the most responsible, moral, and loving action that I could have taken — for me and for my son.”
Hauser said she wasn’t always open with her story. That changed in 2011, when a younger co-worker spoke about her own abortion in a meeting, and Hauser responded: “You know, we’re not that different. I’ve had an abortion, too.”
Now the group has collected about 1,000 stories and plans to publish a graphic novel and produce a second play based on some of them as part of its 1 in 3 Campaign, named for the commonly cited statistic that 1 in 3 American women will have an abortion by age 45 (that number was based on the 2008 abortion rate, which has since declined.)
Hauser is one of many mothers in the briefs who describe choosing an abortion rather than making the lives of their existing children more difficult. Others tell of dreams achieved and successful career paths that would have otherwise been derailed.
But there also are scores of women who recount ongoing sorrow, along with complications resulting from the procedure, including hysterectomies that kept them from ever having children.
Jacquie Stalnaker was a recent college graduate in 1988, new to the District and engaged to be married, when she found out that she was pregnant. After her abortion at a Bethesda clinic, where she begged the doctor to stop mid-procedure, she walked out to find her fiance gone and her life changed.
“Half my life I’ve been grieving a child that I’ve never met,” said Stalnaker, 50, of Alabama. She named the child Lilly Gabrielle, and said she later had a miscarriage and was never able to get pregnant again. “Now I’m in my third year of menopause, and that hope is gone.”
Stalnaker said she didn’t tell her parents about her abortion for 15 years, even after she hemorrhaged and ended up in a hospital. She now works as a pro-life lobbyist and wants the public and the Supreme Court justices to know what’s at stake. “They need to understand this is real, and it hurts and damages women, and sometimes the women don’t recover,” Stalnaker said.
Tammy Romo-Alcala was the first person in her family to go to college, so she didn’t give her boyfriend a choice when she found out she was pregnant in 1991. Later, they would get married and have two children together, but they wouldn’t speak about the abortion in Dallas until 2012. When they finally did, Romo-Alcala said, they cried for two hours.
“If I knew what I was getting into at the time, I wouldn’t have gone through with it,” said Romo-Alcala, now 44 and a registrar for a high school. She said that she battled depression and a drinking problem, and that painful scar tissue caused her to have a hysterectomy at 28.
This year, she will finally graduate from college, walking the same stage as her oldest child. Talking about her experience, she said, has helped her heal.
“For so long I thought I was the only one,” she said. “Now the reality is there are many women who feel the way I do, and we need to speak out about it.”
Kate Banfield had spoken to her husband and three children, ages 14, 16 and 18, about her abortion in Dallas almost 30 years ago. But before she could agree to participate in the Supreme Court case, she had one more person to tell: her father. Early one morning, she typed him an email describing how, in 1987, just as her first year at Stanford University came to an end, she found out she was pregnant. How more than anything she wanted to be a mother someday but knew she wasn’t ready then. How she mouthed the rowing phrase “power 10” — used to push rowers to find a new depth of strength — as she walked with a friend, arms linked, past a man shouting in her face and into a clinic that performed the procedure.
“I did not tell you and mom because I knew what I was going to do and did not want either of you to try to influence me otherwise,” Banfield wrote in that email. “I grew up that summer. I learned to trust myself.”
Banfield, 48, who met her husband at Stanford and dedicated her career to working with children, said she wasn’t sure how her father would react. But within hours, he responded. He told her he stood by her decision — both the one she made at 19 and the one she was making now.