By REBECCA SANTANA Associated Press
SHREVEPORT, La. (AP) — Fielding a call from a woman seeking an abortion, the director of Hope Medical Group for Women tried to answer as best she could.
Yes, federal protections for abortion had been overturned, she said. The clinic was still open — but there’s a waiting list and a court hearing on Friday that could change everything, she added.
“We are still fighting,” clinic administrator Kathaleen Pittman told the woman before hanging up Wednesday.
By Pittman’s own description, you have to be an optimist to work in abortion services. Now, with confused patients calling for help and a looming court date threatening to put an end to almost all abortions in the state, that optimism is being tested like never before.
For years, Louisiana’s abortion clinics have operated under increasing layers of restrictions designed to limit who can get an abortion and when. Then the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that provided federal protection for abortions, leaving the decision up to individual states.
Like many states Louisiana has a trigger law designed to immediately halt abortions if Roe is overturned. But nearly two weeks after the June 24 ruling, the Shreveport clinic was still open and providing abortions to patients from all over Louisiana, as well as states like neighboring Texas and Mississippi.
The clinic filed for a temporary restraining order to allow the state’s three clinics to remain open, arguing that multiple trigger provisions in the law make it unclear exactly when the ban takes effect, and that the law’s medical exceptions are unclear.
A judge in New Orleans granted the temporary measure pending a Friday court hearing. The state’s attorney general appealed directly to the Louisiana Supreme Court but on Wednesday the court declined to immediately intervene, leaving the abortion ban on hold.
At Hope, which is open Monday through Saturday, doctors perform abortions three days a week. The other days, doctors hold consultations with patients, who are also given an ultrasound. There is a state-mandated 72-hour waiting period between the consultation and an abortion.
There were about 20 consultations Wednesday — a relatively light load, Pittman said. She attributed that to the confusion surrounding future abortion access in the state, and patients worried they would come for a consultation but not be able to get an abortion.
Outside, volunteers escorted clients into the clinic — giving them tips like backing into parking spots so protesters have a harder time getting their license plate numbers. On the sidewalk, two anti-abortion protesters handed out plastic bags containing a paper rose, a scrunchy and flyers encouraging women not to have abortions.
The ticking clock of the legal battle is not lost on the staff.
Nurse Charla Roshto has worked at the clinic for over a dozen years. Despite the leak of a draft opinion weeks earlier, she didn’t expect justices would go so far as to overturn Roe. She said she had to look at the news on a colleague’s phone to believe it.
Now it’s hard to figure out what to tell patients, she said. She used to be able to advise them clearly on when they’d be able to schedule their abortion and now she can’t promise anything. She can direct them to websites and hopefully funds that can help them pay for travel to get an out-of-state abortion.
But, she said, even that can be hard because funders are concerned about the legal ramifications of helping patients cross state lines. She tells them to stay positive and keep their spirits up and, pointing to the calendar hanging on the wall, says that hopefully come Saturday the clinic will still be providing abortions.
After Roe was overturned Roshto had to call patients and tell them that their abortion was canceled. Then when the temporary restraining order was put in place, Roshto called them back to reschedule. She was relieved when she saw many were able to come back.
But even with all this uncertainty, Roshto says that each day the clinic is open and providing abortions is another person they can help.
“If we’re fighting for one day, then we’re fighting for one day,” she said. “Some of these people really need that one day.”
Caught up in the legal back-and-forth was a patient from Texas who drove nearly two hours for her consultation Wednesday. She didn’t want to be identified due to the stigma still surrounding abortion.
She said she’d been in New Orleans for a family reunion when the news came down that Roe was overturned. She and her partner watched for over an hour, grappling with what it meant for them and others in a similar position. She already has two children — ages 9 and 13 — and said she and her partner weighed whether to keep this pregnancy, but finally decided it wasn’t the right time for another child. Child care is so expensive, she said, and even baby formula is scarce.
Eight years ago, she’d gotten pregnant and at that time there was no way she felt able to have a baby so she’d come to Hope for an abortion. This time, she’s prepared to keep the pregnancy if it turns out she can’t get one.
She explored going to Kansas or California but the cost and the hassle were too much. But she’s worried about other women possibly in much more desperate situations than she is.
“I feel like women should have rights, you know, my body, my choice. … I stand by that 100%,” she said.
In a small room, technician Nikki Jordan was giving patients ultrasounds. She has worked at the clinic since 1999; one of her daughters also works here. She empathizes with those coming in.
Jordan had her first child when she was 16. She had strong support from her mother but says not everyone has that. If women are no longer able to get legal abortions Jordan worries about what they’ll do to themselves, things they’ll find on the internet to terminate a pregnancy.
Working at the clinic, Jordan says she’s found her purpose— doing her “part in the world,” as she puts it. She tells patients her story, listens to theirs, and lets them know they’re not going to hell for their choice.
“I just believe in a higher purpose. And I believe in what’s right,” she said.
When the Supreme Court decision came down, Haley Brand, Hope’s director of patient advocacy, said her hand was shaking so much she spilled her coffee. But like everyone in the clinic, she’s not ready to throw in the towel.
She said everyone at Hope, whether they work full-time or part-time or volunteer believes in reproductive justice and the power to decide one’s own life course. She has been fielding phone calls from patients who are panicked or angry or just glad someone is answering the phone at the clinic.
“It’s been a rollercoaster of events. It’s been a rollercoaster of emotions,” she said.
“But in 10 years, when I look back on everything that’s happened over the last two weeks … I will know that we did the best that we can for the people that we’re trying to help. And I have no regrets over that.”
Follow Santana on Twitter @ruskygal.