Women’s Lives on the Line – the Abortion Ban in Alabama

Illustrations by Zaira Aguilar

The past few weeks, the American South has been in the news far beyond the USA’s borders. In many of the Southern states, laws have been passed that severely restrict women’s right to access an abortion, or ban abortions completely. It has been obvious to the lawmakers that these laws are outrageous – that’s in many cases the whole point: many state level conservative politicians actually aim for the state to be sued by human rights organisations, so they can achieve their true goal, which is getting the case to the Supreme Court and use it to challenge and overturn Roe v Wade, the world-famous court case that made abortion legal in the United States in 1973 (We’ve also interviewed one of the lawyers in this famous case – read about Gloria Allred here).

In Alabama, a law that was just passed bans abortion in the state completely, with the only exception being if the pregnant person’s life is at risk - no exceptions are made in cases of rape or incest. The potential victims of this ban are overwhelmingly female, and disproportionately young, poor and of colour – people who are already disenfranchised by an unjust system. We have seen the consequences of such bans in other countries, such as recently in Argentina, where an 11-year old rape survivor was denied abortion, thereby being forced to give birth while still a child herself; risking her life and health for a baby that experts deemed unlikely to survive.

Although Alabama and Argentina are far from The Doyennes HQ in Oslo, Norway, this is a matter that concerns people all over the world – women, children and trans people who can get pregnant especially, but also society at large: when the right to bodily autonomy is taken away from one group in one place, who is to say who and where’s next?

To understand the reality of the women in Alabama and in the other American states affected by this ban, we decided to go straight to the source, and called Helmi Henkin for an interview. Henkin is the Chair of the West Alabama Clinic Defenders and until recently, Vice President of Public Outreach at the Yellowhammer Fund, an organisation that provides financial and practical support for the three remaining abortion clinics in Alabama. She was happy to provide us with information about what they do (Helmi was still VP at the Yellowhammer Fund when we called her):

 

- The Yellowhammer Fund is a grassroots abortion fund. Since the organisation was founded two years ago, all its funding has come from donations from people in our community or from fundraising events. The fund really would not be where it is today if it wasn’t for the community support! In the past two weeks, after the ban passed, we’ve been overwhelmed by support from all over the world - overwhelmed in the best way! The money we receive primarily goes to provide practical and financial support to people seeking abortions, whether that means helping them pay for the procedure, paying for gas so they can drive to the clinic, or help them get a hotel. In Alabama, it’s really hard to get an abortion as it is; there are only three clinics and there is a 48-hour waiting period, which means that if you decide to have an abortion, you have to go to the clinic and get state-mandated counselling first, which is meant to dissuade you from having an abortion. Then, you have to go home for 48 hours. Most people wait longer, because they need to get two days off work and find transportation and potentially lodging for two visits - the initial appointment and the main procedure. The first appointment is always $150 dollars, but the procedure itself usually starts at $500, and it can be more expensive too; depending on how far along you are, it can cost thousands of dollars.

The Roe v Wade ruling makes abortion legal in the USA, but legality doesn’t always mean that it’s accessible: the anti-abortion politicians do everything they can to make it as hard as possible to get an abortion. We get a lot of visitors from out of state too, for example from Mississippi, which only has one abortion clinic in the whole state - in Jackson, the state capital. For people in East Mississippi, going to Tuscaloosa in Alabama would be easier. We also get patients from Florida, Tennessee, Georgia and Louisiana, and even from as far away as Texas and North Carolina.

The abortion ban didn’t come as a surprise to us in the abortion-access community in Alabama - it’s one of many abortion restrictions that have been passed over the past few years, in several states. The anti-abortion lobbyists and legislators have been talking about passing this ban for a long time. In November last year, Alabama passed what’s known as Amendment 2, which is a trigger law, a state constitutional amendment that entails that if Roe v Wade is overturned, abortion will be completely banned in this state.

 

“The Roe v Wade ruling makes abortion legal in the USA,

but legality doesn’t always mean that it’s accessible”

 

The law that is being discussed now, the HB314 bill, is one of the sections in Amendment 2, and has been passed with the same purpose: to overturn Roe v Wade. All the conservative states are in a race to get a case that can be used to overturn Roe v Wade - there are already 14 cases in the federal district pipeline, from states like Mississippi, Ohio, Georgia and Missouri, up to the Supreme Court, where Roe v Wade can be overturned. All these states have passed 6- or 8-week bans, partly because they want to ban abortion in their own state, but also because they want to be the state that has the case that overturns Roe v Wade, now that we have a very conservative Supreme Court.

 

Henkin now works with providing practical support for persons seeking abortions in Alabama, as having an abortion already is stigmatized, and going to a clinic can be a challenge in itself. She is head of a clinic escort program called The West Alabama Clinic Defenders in Tuscaloosa, who walk people to and from their cars and the abortion clinic, and monitor the activities of the protestors who stand outside the clinic every day. The protesters are anti-abortionists, and are often trying to get the patients to change their minds by, as Henkin explains, “yelling at them, shaming them and making them feel guilty about their choice.” With such vocal opposition to women choosing abortion, we ask Henkin what the best ways to engage on this matter is:

 

- There are things people can do in every state, or on a local level: if you go to postroehandbook.com, you can find a state by state map of all the reproductive health organisations in your state. After the ban that was passed in Alabama, I have been getting e-mails from people all over the country who want to help out by escorting at the clinics here, but the thing is…  there are clinics all over the country that need help. You can engage where you are. Even in states that are pretty blue (states where the majority of voters vote for The Democratic Party. -Ed), there is legislation that people can advocate for. If Roe v Wade is overturned, states like California, New York and hopefully Illinois too, are passing legislation that protect the right to an abortion in those states. That’s something people can be advocating for there, or for other kinds of legislation that protect pregnant people.

The Yellowhammer Fund operates according to the idea of reproductive justice. This is a concept that in the US was developed by black women, and it includes the right to bodily autonomy and the right to decide if and when to become a parent. It’s encompasses more than reproductive rights, it also deals with people’s access to those rights. People need to know that just because this ban has been passed in Alabama, it doesn’t mean their state is safe. There are organisations that work to create anti-abortion bills, and they usually test these bills in the Deep South, and if they stick, they copy-paste them all over the country, just changing the state name. People need to be vigilant about what’s going on in their state legislature, get involved in local groups and support abortion funds all over the country. In the US, you can go to abortionfunds.org for example, where you will find a list of all the abortion funds in the country. I’d encourage people to reach out to their local abortion fund and see what kind of support they need, whether that’s funding or help with practical support. There are plenty of ways to engage with abortion funds and reproductive rights groups, not matter what skill set or schedule you have. Even overseas – I’m happy to see people all over the world being inspired to support the fight for reproductive rights in their own countries.

We ask Helmi more about the practical consequences of the ban:

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed a lawsuit that will hopefully block the ban, which is, like I mentioned earlier, what the creators of the ban want… But let’s say hypothetically, that it went into effect: performing an abortion would be a Class A felony, so abortion providers would be prosecuted as criminals. Even just normal healthcare providers would be scared away from moving to Alabama in fear of being prosecuted, because abortion is healthcare, and sometimes a necessary procedure. We already have a dire shortage of physicians, we already have hospitals closing down because of the state’s refusal to expand Medicaid, and over half the counties in Alabama don’t have an obstetrician-gynaecologist, so even people seeking necessary care when they want to carry a pregnancy to term, have to travel a long way, especially if they live in rural areas. The ban will affect healthcare in many ways - with this new law, if people wanted an abortion, they would have to self-induce or travel to another state. There are already statutes in Alabama that makes self-inducing abortion illegal, and people all over the country are already being prosecuted for self-inducing abortions, because they resort to taking drugs while pregnant or other methods.

I don’t like the rhetoric that lack of legal abortions means a lack of safe abortions, because there you can find safe pills and instructions for taking them online, but… it becomes way more risky, also legally, and people are literally going to die if they can’t get access to proper care. This ban will be dangerous for many different people – also those who experience miscarriages or people who for medical reasons need an abortion. I know people who have experienced loss of pregnancy later than 20 weeks and had to travel out of state to get the healthcare they needed. This ban will make Alabama a more dangerous place for pregnant people to live, and we already have one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the country. People have enough difficulty accessing reproductive healthcare as it is, this ban will just worsen the landscape for everybody. It would also disproportionally affect people with low income and people of colour. Upper- or middle-class people have the money to fly to another state, but those who are already disproportionally affected by these bans could be driven further into poverty, by having to raise kids they cannot afford. The foster care system in Alabama is already at capacity too, and even before this ban there was talk about how the money that we use fighting it could go to helping pregnant people and families instead, help children live healthier lives. In my opinion, the conservative legislators are just gambling with taxpayer dollars for political grandstanding.

 

Do you think the abortion ban in Alabama is part of the wider conservative, populist backlash we have seen in recent years, or does it have deeper roots?

Hundreds of abortions restrictions have been passed in the past decade alone, hundreds have been introduced for consideration just this past year, and it’s ramping up. I think part of that ramping up is definitely related to the rhetoric of this administration, the increased rhetoric around infanticide, which abortion is not, the increased rhetoric inciting violence against people who have abortions and against abortion providers - these anti-abortion legislators feel more empowered to pass these laws now. Just a few years ago, they wouldn’t think 6-week bans would be worth fighting for in court, but now, they think they have a standing chance. And so, over the past year in Alabama, after Amendment 2, our clinic has seen an increase in the aggression of the anti-abortion protesters. The week before the ban was passed, one of our escorts was hit by a car while I was standing right next to her, because some random anti-abortion member of the community felt empowered to come to the clinic and try and run us over.

This rhetoric around abortion is becoming more and more dangerous and hostile, and climates in conservative states are increasingly matching it. Anti-abortionists are feeling empowered by this rhetoric, they’re feeling empowered by having their ways of thinking and their beliefs justified, and it’s catalysing an uptake in violence at clinics and against abortion providers. In Alabama, we only have two abortion providers that live in-state, so one of the clinics, the Montgomery clinic, can only provide abortions one day a week, because they have a rotation of five doctors flying in. It’s an incredibly dangerous job to be an abortion provider in the South, due to this increase in violence. Combined with the stripping away of abortion access, it just creates a very dangerous climate in this country.