Credit: American Life League on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC 2.0)
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WOMENSENEWS)-- Heather Smith is a 26-year-old native of Montgomery, a full-time worker at the Department of Defense and a part-time graduate student.
She's also glad she didn't have to have her abortion on a Saturday.
"When I had my abortion, I wasn't afraid of the procedure, but I was terrified at the thought of having protestors humiliate me," she said in a phone interview. "I didn't know where the clinic was so my heart was pounding at every turn because I just knew there would be people holding signs and yelling at me, calling me a terrible person. I was confident in my choice, but I just didn't want anyone to know."
But because she had the procedure on a Tuesday and her follow-up appointment on a Thursday, she came and went without a protester in sight. She used sick leave hours at her job for both days, citing an emergency medical procedure.
If she had gone on a Saturday, however, things would have been very different outside the West Alabama Women's Center in Tuscaloosa.
That's the day of the "Saturday women," women seeking an abortion, the majority of whom have low-to-no incomes, who can't afford to take off during the workweek if they have jobs or have to catch a ride because they are traveling out of the state or the county.
It's also the day when protesters, who also hold down week-day jobs and work schedules, often come out in force.
"Saturday mornings from 7:45 a.m., about 15 minutes before the first appointment, until 11 a.m. are the peak hours for protestors," said Amanda Reyes, a volunteer escort for the West Alabama Women's Center.
The Tuscaloosa clinic is the only clinic left in the state that offers therapeutic abortions, which are performed when there is a threat to the woman's health of life if she gives birth. All other therapeutic abortions in the state are performed in hospitals. It's also one of the few abortion clinics that will accept Medicaid, since Medicaid, by law, must cover abortions where life endangerment to the woman is present.
TRAP Law's Impact
There are only five abortion clinics in Alabama. That number will likely shrink further before March 2014, when the state's controversial Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers, or TRAP, law signed by Gov. Robert Bentley takes effect.
In addition to requiring levels of staffing and funding that are expected to be prohibitive for most of the remaining clinics, the TRAP law requires all doctors to have state licenses. Since many physicians in Alabama do not support abortion, the clinics depend heavily on out-of-state doctors.
All that means even more women will be turning to the clinic where Reyes volunteers. "Because of the TRAP bill, I feel that we will have patients that have traveled even further for a safe, legal procedure," she said. "They will also have to spend more money for the procedure because the renovations necessary to comply with the HB 57 have to come from somewhere."
The West Alabama Women's Center is one of two clinics, along with the Alabama Women's Center in Huntsville, that meets the physician requirement. But it can't do much to protect Saturday patients from protesters who, Reyes said, yell such things as "you don't have to do this!," "that clinic just wants your money!," "we know people who will help to raise your child!" and "choose life today!"
Reyes said something should and can be done to protect women from what she describes as a violation of their right to privacy. "I think governments should develop a buffer zone policy that will ensure protestors can exercise their right to organize and have free speech while allowing patients to have access to this legal procedure without fear or intimidation," she said.
She added that most of the shouters are men and they make false claims about abortion being linked to breast cancer, infertility and "post-abortion syndrome." The ringleader, she said, is an older white male, who is employed by the city. He holds a "Choose Life" sign with a black baby on it while he shouts at the patients.
"There is only one vocal woman protestor," said Reyes. "She claims she had an abortion 25 years ago and still regrets her decision. She has named her aborted fetus and assigned it a sex. She targets women by claiming to have suffered from post-abortion syndrome and depression after she killed her baby boy. She wears an I Regret My Abortion T-shirt."
Escorts Ease Burden
The clinic's volunteer escorts do what they can to help the Saturday women come and go.
"Because our clinic and most of our parking lot is on private property, we try to use different levels of defense," said Reyes. "Volunteers can help patients find parking away from the protestors and walk them to the door . . . We've found that many protestors are eager to talk to the volunteers and that some will take their focus off the patients just to argue with a willing volunteer."
Protesters, Reyes said, often call the volunteers names: whores, sluts, murderers. Her favorite: "cheap handmaids of Satan."
Earlier this summer a protester began to physically threaten an escort, Reyes said. "Luckily, a police officer was driving past the clinic and witnessed the assault taking place."
She said the police are often required to settle disputes. "It is obvious that there are some police officers whose bias against abortion affects how they handle each individual situation. When there are a lot of volunteers some are encouraged to take pictures and video if there is an incident. Unfortunately, we frequently don't have enough volunteers to make sure everything gets documented."
Local police declined the opportunity to comment on the complaint of bias.
"There are so many options for women besides abortions," one protester told Women's eNews in Montgomery. "There are too many families who would be willing to adopt these children and give them a home, instead of doing something so final." She spoke on the condition that her name not be used.
When asked how she feels about invading the privacy and rights of women who go into abortion clinics, she said: "If they can't feel any regard to the life that they are ending, then I feel protesting is needed to wake up their conscience . . . I support women's rights, but I also support life. As a Christian woman, abortion goes against everything that I stand for."
Christina Caldwell is a freelance writer who covers women's issues.
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