If you’ve never been to an abortion clinic, here’s what you can expect: Protesters outside will gather as close to the clinics as state laws allow, some right outside the door. Their voices grow louder the closer you get to the clinic. Your jaw will tense for the few minutes it takes for the clinic staff to unlock the door after they assess you through the security cameras. You will check over your shoulder many times before you are safely inside.
The first time I visited an abortion clinic in Jackson, Miss., I made my way through the protesters holding photos of smiling black babies next to gruesome photos of purported botched abortions. They told me they were praying for me.
Back in 2012, I wasn’t aware that abortion clinics across America were struggling to stay open — fighting a losing battle against laws enacted by anti-choice governments. Once I read that there was only one clinic open in the entire state of Mississippi, I decided to make a film. I spent three years filming at abortion clinics in Alabama, Mississippi and Texas, documenting the struggle of the clinics to comply with regulations commonly known as TRAP laws. While I was shooting, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a challenge to the laws, but such cases take time, and while the lawyers battled in court, the clinics struggled to stay open.
One of those clinics, Whole Women’s Health, brought the case that the Supreme Court ruled on Monday morning, overturning the restrictions there for placing unconstitutional obstacles for women seeking abortions. Like so many other people around the country, I closely watched the Internet for news on the ruling all morning Monday. When it came out, I could feel myself start to cry.
Making a film about abortion triggered every emotion possible for me. Hearing women tell me through tears that they would love to have another child if only they could feed the one they have broke my heart. Listening to white protesters tell me that as a black woman, I am a disgrace to my race for being pro-choice made my face flush with rage. Walking through lines of angry men shouting at me to repent terrified me. And all of it made me wonder how we got here. The answer is a coordinated political campaign. And it is one we should study.
In 2013, Texas passed HB2, a sweeping law regulating abortion clinics and providers. HB2 was based on model legislation drafted by Americans United For Life, an anti-abortion group that has been fighting to overturn Roe v. Wade for decades. The law banned abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, required doctors to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the clinic providing the procedure and mandated that abortion facilities meet the standards of ambulatory surgical centers.
Texas legislators claimed that HB2 was passed to protect women’s health and safety, even though studies show only .03 percent of abortions result in injuries requiring emergency transfer to a hospital. In fact, the far greater danger to women’s health was the dramatic closure of abortion clinics. In Texas, 54 percent of pregnancies are unintended. It has refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act and does not provide sex education in schools.
TRAP laws decimated access to safe medical abortion. Overnight, Texas, a state with 5.4 million women of reproductive age, suddenly found itself with fewer than 10 abortion clinics. For some women, an unwanted pregnancy became a true health hazard. This was evident in places like McAllen, Tex., a Mexican border town that is home to many undocumented women. After HB2 went into effect, the only clinic in the region, Whole Women’s Health of McAllen, shut down twice before the Supreme Court granted an emergency stay allowing the clinic to resume seeing patients.
In McAllen, the clinic operator told me that while the clinic was closed, she received calls from women desperate for an abortion. One woman listed the contents in her medicine cabinet, asking if the clinic could tell her how to self-abort.
In fact, a study from the University of Texas revealed that attempts at self-abortion spiked across the state, with between 100,000 and 240,000 women trying to terminate their own pregnancies since the law went into effect.
The stories I heard left a lasting impression on me — I will never forget the faces of the women and girls I met. The women who told me they sold their possessions to afford an abortion; the 11-year-old the clinic suspected was a victim of incest; the 13-year-old who was gang-raped and traveled hundreds of miles for an abortion only to be turned away because the clinic did not have a nurse to put her to sleep during the procedure.
Through it all, the clinic workers continue to field death threats, receive packages with suspicious powders and check under their cars for bombs. I’ve seen what real courage looks like: It is working at a clinic like the one in Colorado where three people were killed by a man shouting about “baby parts.” It is going into work at a clinic the very next day, because the abortion providers, doctors, clinic owners and caring and dedicated support staff at clinics across America refuse to give up despite an incredibly hostile environment. Their determination and resilience even in the face of very real danger is something I will always remember.