Civil war on abortion: Read this troubling dispatch from a divided US
America’s civil war on abortion: It’s a picture that sums up the divide tearing the US apart – an abortion clinic next to a pro-life centre. With the Supreme Court ending the right to a termination, read this troubling dispatch from a divided heartland
- Since Roe was overturned, a series of horrific events have played out in the U.S
- In Louisiana, lawmakers debated murder charges for women who have abortions
- In Wisconsin, an anti-abortion centre was fire-bombed with Molotov cocktails
- In Indiana, a doctor who performed an abortion was investigated by the state
- As mid-term elections approach, abortion has become the defining issue in US
- This harrowing dispatch highlights just how divided America is over the issue
On the night flight from Atlanta to Detroit, I meet a woman who embodies many of the complexities of America’s abortion debate.
Sitting next to me on the two-hour journey north from the steamy bayous of Georgia to the industrial city on the Canadian border is Keysha, 24. Exhausted and burdened by bags and baby gear, she accepts my offer to help change her eight-week-old baby’s clothes during the flight.
We balance her little boy on the tray table, me supporting his head and Keysha tenderly pulling his tiny arms through the sleeves of his onesie.
And then, 36,000 feet above the dark Appalachian Mountains, Keysha makes an extraordinary and brave confession.
Seneca, a non-profit organisation, offers free second-hand baby and maternity equipment, pregnancy support and even ‘anti-abortion pills’ that can reverse medical terminations, should a woman change her mind
She tells me she was pressured by her boyfriend into having her son, Mason. She has ‘no life’ and no support.
‘I thought I really wanted a baby’, she tells me quietly in the dark confines of the night flight. But I really wish I’d waited.’
One day, her beautiful baby boy will grow up and perhaps learn the truth about his mother’s dilemma during her pregnancy. Maybe she will watch him thrive and come to change her mind about choosing to keep him.
Her decision to take me into her confidence (and give permission for her story to be told) seems desperately poignant at a time when the subject of abortion is once again tearing America apart.
In June, a decision by a conservative-leaning Supreme Court overruled the landmark Roe v Wade ruling of 1973, which enshrined the constitutional right to an abortion for American women.
The ‘pro-choice’ movement, which favours abortion rights, argues that the move erased almost half a century of women’s freedom overnight. Their ‘pro-life’ opponents, who believe life begins at conception, welcomed the move as a step that will save millions of ‘babies’ from being ‘murdered’.
The current legal position is that ‘reproductive rights’ are a matter for individual states to decide. Some conservative-leaning, Republican states have since outlawed abortion altogether.
Suzanne Guy, 55, and Rachel Guy, 24, hold a vigil outside Planned Parenthood Southeast Region in Marietta, Georgia
The resulting uproar has become the defining issue of the U.S. midterm elections, due this Tuesday, which will determine whether the Republicans or the Democrats control Congress. Tomorrow, voters will cast their ballots in what some are calling a national ‘referendum on abortion’.
Since Roe was overturned earlier this year, a series of horrific events have played out in the U.S.
In Louisiana, lawmakers have debated imposing murder charges — and the death penalty — on women who have abortions.
In Wisconsin, an anti-abortion centre was fire-bombed with Molotov cocktails by pro-choice activists who claimed responsibility for the arson.
In Indiana, a doctor who performed an abortion on a young rape victim was investigated by the state government, who said ‘she used a ten-year-old girl to push her political ideology’.
The country is convulsed over the issue. And yet here’s a surprising fact. Hardline ‘pro-life’ positions do not necessarily win votes. A clear majority — some 61 per cent, according to the latest polling — of Americans argue that abortion should be legal in ‘all or most cases’, compared with just 37 per cent who say it should be illegal in all or most cases.
In August, in the first major test of the issue since the Supreme Court ruling, the people of Kansas overwhelmingly voted against a state ban on abortion. Kansas — Midwestern farming country — is hardly some liberal utopia: the state has been solidly Republican since 1861.
In June, a decision by a conservative-leaning Supreme Court overruled the landmark Roe v Wade ruling of 1973, which enshrined the constitutional right to an abortion for American women
In Tuesday’s midterms, voters in seven more states will decide directly whether to enshrine or remove the right to abortion, and across the republic, states will also determine abortion laws which will affect millions of women.
‘Life is on the ballot,’ say some — so I’ve come to America to see this febrile debate for myself.
The town of Columbus, Georgia, lies along the Chattahoochee River on the border with Alabama. Nestled among liquor stores and Dunkin’ Donuts is the Columbus Women’s Health Organization. Women seeking terminations drive for hours to reach this clinic.
Just 10 ft away is Seneca Choices for Life, a religious facility whose mission is to prevent abortion at any cost.
‘Pregnant? You are not alone’, reads a huge banner outside the Seneca clinic. Many women visiting the abortion clinic must see it — and think again about their decision.
The two facilities symbolise the rancour between both sides of this debate.
Seneca, a non-profit organisation, offers free second-hand baby and maternity equipment, pregnancy support and even ‘anti-abortion pills’ that can reverse medical terminations — should a woman change her mind after visiting the clinic next door.
Since Seneca opened here in 2014 there have been screaming arguments in the car park, failed ‘summit’ talks and even a suspicious package disabled by a bomb squad.
An abortion clinic escort watches Catholic groups pass Northland Family Planning during a prayer march to demonstrate against the ballot measure known as Proposal 3, which would codify the right to abortion, in Michigan
Activists protest in the Indiana Statehouse during a special session debating on banning abortion in Indianapolis, Indiana
But Amber Snipes, Seneca’s executive director, is frank and honest when I ask what motivates her.
‘I have a child who is completely disabled’, she says. ‘He’s 21, he can’t feed himself, he can’t toilet himself, he is in a wheelchair, he is in [nappies].
‘He will always be dependent upon me for his care. But he has a great life.
‘We were told by doctors not to have any more children, because there was a 95 per cent chance they’d all be disabled’.
But Amber and her husband went on to have six more children — none of whom has disabilities.
‘I’m 44 years old and I just had a baby seven months ago’, she says proudly. ‘And he’s fine’.
‘I think a woman and her unborn baby are equally important.’
Georgia, in the heart of America’s ‘Bible Belt’, was one of the many Southern states that had established a series of anti-abortion ‘trigger laws’, ready to be effected if, and when, Roe was overturned.
Democrats narrowly control the state Senate, but powerful Republican Governor Brian Kemp is a staunch advocate of the ‘Heartbeat Law’ which prohibits terminations beyond six weeks, when foetal cardiac activity can be detected.
Running against him is the pro-choice Democrat Stacey Abrams who, if elected, would be the first black female governor in U.S. history.
Doctors from across the U.S. came together this week at an action to protect abortion access and demand an end to the current and future criminalization of providers who perform lifesaving abortion care
Republican Governor Brian Kemp (L) is an advocate of the ‘Heartbeat Law’ which prohibits terminations beyond six weeks. Running against him is the pro-choice Democrat Stacey Abrams (R) who, if elected, would be the first black female governor in U.S. history.
Also on the ballot is Herschel Walker, the Donald Trump-endorsed anti-abortion U.S. Senate nominee and American football star whose candidacy descended into farce last week when two of his former girlfriends claimed he had pressured them into having abortions.
Uniquely, Georgia’s ‘Heartbeat Law’ also decrees that the foetus is a person — with the same rights as any living child. Parents can even claim state child support for their unborn foetuses.
If the law is passed next week, state officials will even count these foetuses in Georgia’s population figures — a measure critics say will cause havoc for civic government.
Yet Georgia is seen as an abortion haven due to its location next to states with even more prohibitive laws, such as Tennessee and Alabama.
Since July, abortion has been illegal in Tennessee from the moment of fertilisation, with no exceptions in cases of rape, incest, or maternal health.
As a result, women are increasingly making last-minute dashes across the border to Georgia, and through the doors of the Columbus Women’s Health Organization.
‘These women are experiencing frustration and anger’, says Diane Derzis, owner of the Columbus centre.
‘It’s amazing we are having this conversation in 2022. We have given a fertilised egg more rights than a woman. Women are imprisoned by their own bodies now. This is why there is so much rage.’
Georgia is in transition: This once solidly Republican state, with its Baptist churches, verdant forests and Gone With The Wind backdrop, is shifting to the Democrats, led by the black population in the sprawling city of Atlanta
Georgia is in transition: This once solidly Republican state, with its Baptist churches, verdant forests and Gone With The Wind backdrop, is shifting to the Democrats, led by the black population in the sprawling city of Atlanta.
One of the largest cities in the South, this is where Martin Luther King Jr was born, preached and is buried.
Suki, who lives in a suburb outside Atlanta (and has chosen to give her first name only), had an abortion when she was 23.
Now 48 — and working as an ultrasound technician in an abortion clinic — she says that since Roe was overturned, she has found it very hard to be forced by law to refuse some women abortions.
‘It’s crazy to see a woman lying there on the table, hold her breath until she is told she can either obtain an abortion or that she has to leave,’ she says. ‘Women will cry uncontrollably because they are seven weeks pregnant and can’t get a legal abortion. It took them their last dime to get here into the clinic and they can’t go anywhere else, all for something that measures 0.33cm.’
Suki adds that since terminations post six-weeks had become illegal, ‘folks here go into hospital bleeding because they have had a spontaneous abortion or spontaneous miscarriage, and they are being looked at like “did you take a pill?”, like they did it on purpose.’
Georgia has exemptions to its six-week law for women who became pregnant via rape or incest. But procedures in such cases can take place only after a police report.
Demonstrators march past the US Capitol during the annual Women’s March to support Women’s Rights in Washington, DC
Activists protest during a “Bans Off Our Bodies” rally in support of abortion rights at Old Bucks County Courthouse in Doylestown, Pennsylvania
‘If a child is pregnant, she is most likely to have been abused by someone in her family — her parent or step-parent or someone close to them,’ says Britney Whaley of the Working Families Party.
‘If a child has been raped, what is the likelihood they will be in a position to get a police report to prove it?’
It’s a question I’m eager to put to a group of pro-life protesters outside an abortion clinic, urging women — sometimes forcefully — to choose to keep their ‘babies’.
40 Days for Life is a nationwide organisation that maintains ‘constant vigils’, praying outside clinics with ‘sidewalk counsellors’ working in shifts to persuade women not to have a termination.
In Marietta, northwest of Atlanta, outside a branch of Planned Parenthood, I meet mother-and-daughter Rachel and Suzanne Guy, and their labrador Ellie.
As a woman emerges from her car, Mrs Guy shouts across the car park: ‘Honey, we’d love to talk to you!’ She walks on by: it turns out she was visiting the nearby supermarket instead.
‘Sometimes people scream at us: “Leave me alone!” ’ says the kindly Mrs Guy, 55. ‘But we’re not a protest, we’re a loving presence.’
‘One woman going to Planned Parenthood came over to yell at us’, she adds. ‘She grabbed one of our leaflets, then I saw tears dropping down on to the paper.
‘She said to us: “Where were you two weeks ago? I just moved from Ohio. I did not want to have an abortion. I felt like it was my only choice.” We are still in touch now.’
Her daughter Rachel, 24, tells me: ‘Three doctors told my parents to abort me because they thought I would not live long after the birth, because I had a chromosomal abnormality. My parents knew my value wasn’t based on how long I’d live and that I was worth fighting for, even if I was stillborn.’
Rachel was born at 26 weeks, weighing 1 lb 2 oz.
‘My friend Joyce was five weeks along when I met her. She chose life for her first baby and she now has two more — it’s a testimony to the culture of life continuing.’
Rachel’s church offers alternatives to terminations, including paying for things such as food and clothing once the child is born.
‘No woman needs to kill her baby to “solve her problems,” ’ Rachel insists.
In faraway Michigan, 700 miles from Georgia, abortion is literally on the ballot.
On Tuesday, as well as deciding whether to support the Republicans or Democrats, voters will make a decision on ‘Proposal 3’, which would enshrine the right to abortion in the state.
Throughout my time in Detroit I constantly see a plane flying overhead bearing a banner which says: ‘Vote Anti-Abortion’.
Abortion rights activist Fabian Hill holds a sign while waiting in line to see former U.S. President Barack Obama and Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer before mid-term elections, in Detroit
Proposal 3 signage is displayed for volunteers at the RFFA Dearborn site in Michigan
When Roe was overruled during the summer, Michigan was plunged into chaos as a 1931 state law banning abortion in almost all circumstances came back into effect. For 72 hours, abortion became legal and then illegal every few hours until a state court paused the law.
Michigan’s 1.8 million Catholics and other anti-abortion groups are implacably opposed to Proposal 3. But the pro-choice movement supports it.
‘I have been a doctor for 34 years,’ says Dr Shari Maxwell, an obstetrics and gynaecology specialist at Detroit’s Beaumont Hospital.
‘There was a time when abortions were illegal and people were having back-alley abortions and coming into the hospital, septic, with uterine perforations and dying. I remember that time. I don’t want us to go back 50 years. Lawmakers need to “stay in their lane” and let us practise medicine.’
Gretchen Whitmer, Michigan’s Democratic governor, has made abortion rights the crux of her re-election campaign as she tries to overcome a challenge from Donald Trump’s favoured candidate, the Republican Tudor Dixon.
National polling last night showed that the battle for the Senate was a dead heat.
But my mind continually goes back to little Mason, just weeks old. Will he ever grow up in an America that settles this fractious debate once and for all? It seems unlikely.
Roe v. Wade: The landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in America
In 1973, the United States Supreme Court recognized a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion in Roe v. Wade. The landmark ruling legalized abortion nationwide but divided public opinion and has been under attack ever since.
The case was filed in 1971 by Norma McCorvey, a 22-year-old living in Texas, who was unmarried and seeking a termination of her unwanted pregnancy.
Because of state legislation preventing abortions unless the mother’s life was at risk, she was unable to undergo the procedure in a safe and legal environment.
So McCorvey sued Henry Wade, the Dallas county district attorney, in 1970. The case went on to the Supreme Court, under the filing Roe v. Wade, to protect McCorvey’s privacy.
Supreme Court Decision
The Supreme Court handed down the watershed 7-2 decision that a woman’s right to make her own medical decisions, including the choice to have an abortion, is protected under the 14th Amendment.
In particular, that the Due Process Clause of the the 14th Amendment provides a fundamental ‘right to privacy’ that protects a woman’s liberty to choose whether or not to have an abortion.
The landmark ruling saw abortions decriminalized in 46 states, but under certain conditions which individual states could decide. For example, states could decide whether abortions were allowed only during the first and second trimester but not the third (typically beyond 28 weeks).
Among pro-choice campaigners, the decision was hailed as a victory which would mean fewer women would become seriously – or even fatally – ill from abortions carried out by unqualified or unlicensed practitioners. Moreover, the freedom of choice was considered a significant step in the equality fight for women in the country. Victims of rape or incest would be able to have the pregnancy terminated and not feel coerced into motherhood.
Pro-lifers contended it was tantamount to murder and that every life, no matter how it was conceived, is precious. Though the decision has never been overturned, anti-abortionists have prompted hundreds of states laws since then narrowing the scope of the ruling.
One such was the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act signed by President George W. Bush in 2003, which banned a procedure used to perform second-trimester abortions.
McCorvey lived a quiet life until the 1980s, when she revealed herself to be Jane Roe
Norma McCorvey (Jane Roe)
Following the ruling, McCorvey lived a quiet life until the 1980s, when she revealed herself to be Jane Roe. McCorvey became a leading, outspoken pro-abortion voice in American discourse, even working at a women’s clinic where abortions were performed.
She performed an unlikely U-turn in 1995, becoming a born again Christian and began traveling the country speaking out against the procedure.
In 2003, she filed a motion to overturn her original 1973 ruling with the US district court in Dallas. The motion moved through the courts until it was ultimately denied by the Supreme Court in 2005.
McCorvey died at an assisted living home in Texas in February 2017, aged 69.
‘The Heartbeat bill’
Multiple governors have signed legislation outlawing abortion if a doctor can detect a so-called ‘fetal heartbeat,’ part of a concerted effort to restrict abortion rights in states across the country.
Under the ban, doctors will be prosecuted for flouting the rules.
Abortion-rights supporters see the ‘heartbeat bills’ as virtual bans because ‘fetal heartbeats’ can be detected as early as six weeks, when women may not even be aware they’re pregnant.
Anti-abortion campaigners have intensified their efforts since former President Donald Trump appointed two conservative justices to the US Supreme Court, hopeful they can convince the right-leaning court to re-examine Roe v. Wade.
Georgia, Ohio, Missouri and Louisiana have enacted ‘heartbeat laws’ recently, and Alabama passed an even more restrictive version in May, amounting to a near-total ban on abortion from the moment of conception. Other states have similar legislation pending.
Similar laws has also been passed in Arkansas, Mississippi, North Dakota, Iowa and Kentucky, though they have been blocked by courts from going into effect as legal challenges have been brought against them.
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