CREDIT: Reuters/Molly Riley
Heather Smith is grateful she didn’t have her abortion procedure on the weekend. She made two trips to the West Alabama Women’s Center in Tuscaloosa, first on a Tuesday and again on a Thursday for a follow-up appointment.
“When I had my abortion, I wasn’t afraid of the procedure, but I was terrified at the thought of having protesters humiliate me,” she explained in an interview with Women’s eNews’ Christina Caldwell. “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.”
Smith didn’t end up encountering any protesters when she went to her appointments. On a weekend, she likely wouldn’t have been so lucky. Clinic employees explain that the “peak hours for protesters” are Saturday mornings between 8 and 11 am. But those weekend days are also when low-income women are most likely to schedule their abortion appointments, since they often can’t afford to take time off work during the week. Particularly as abortion restrictions force increasing numbers of Alabama clinics to close their doors, poorer women likely don’t have time to make a long drive to the nearest clinic on a weekday.
It’s just one more way that privilege impacts abortion access. Low-income women are already more likely to struggle to afford abortion services — partly because many Medicaid programs won’t offer insurance coverage for the procedure, and partly because state-level abortion restrictions force women to make expensive trips to clinics that can be hundreds of miles away from where they live. Once they finally do save up the money to cover the procedure and find the transportation to get them to the clinic, they’re faced with anti-abortion protesters telling them they shouldn’t kill their baby.
Amanda Reyes, a volunteer escort for the West Alabama Women’s Center, explained that the anti-abortion protesters essentially attempt to intimidate the women entering the clinic. Many of them repeat myths about abortion risks, claiming that it’s linked to breast cancer, infertility, and depression. They shout things like, “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 that one of the most prominent protesters brandishes a “Choose Life” sign with a black baby on it.
Reyes told Women’s eNews that the clinic volunteers do their best to protect the women who visit the clinic. Volunteers escort patients to and from the door, which helps many of them feel safer. Often, protesters call the volunteers whores, sluts, or murderers. Sometimes the clinic employees have to call the authorities.
Of course, the West Alabama Women’s Center isn’t the only clinic in the state that’s trying to deal with this problem. At another one of the state’s reproductive health facilities in Huntsville, anti-abortion protesters sometimes sing “Happy Birthday, Dead Baby” to women entering the building. And across the country, violent incidents of anti-abortion harassment have intensified over the past two decades — particularly in red states like Alabama that already tend to have harsh abortion restrictions in place. Persistent anti-abortion harassment continues to prevent women from feeling safe, drive abortion doctors out of business, and even impact other local storefronts that set up shop near clinics.
Reyes thinks the state should do something to protect the low-income women who need to visit the West Alabama Women’s Center on the weekends. “I think governments should develop a buffer zone policy that will ensure protesters 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 explained to Women’s eNews. Other cities have taken similar measures to protect patients.