Alabama gears up for abortion fight activists thought was history

As Alabama passes the country's most restrictive abortion law, activists who believe in a woman's right to terminate her pregnancy are bracing for a battle. The Supreme Court could end up deciding the matter.

"Abortion is OK!" read a fluttering banner trailed by a light aircraft across the bright blue Alabama sky on Wednesday — a message sponsored by pro-choice organizations in their latest riposte to a stringent new bill that would outlaw almost all abortions in the state. At one point it passed directly over the dome of Alabama's State Capitol building, a landmark that has fast become the latest front line in a fight for reproductive rights that most activists assumed they had put to bed in the 1970s, when Roe v. Wade, the case that recognized a woman's constitutional right to end a pregnancy, was enshrined in law.

Inside the grandiose government building, however, lawmakers pressed on undeterred. Just one day after the Republican-led state Senate voted overwhelmingly in favor of a bill that would only permit abortion if a woman's life was in danger and punish doctors who perform an abortion with life in prison, Governor Kay Ivey signed off on it. "To the bill's many supporters, this legislation stands as a powerful testament to Alabamians' deeply held belief that every life is precious and every life is a sacred gift from God," she wrote in statement.

Read more: Germany's medical system sidelines abortion

And yet, the bill's opponents are also numerous. Only 16% of Southerners believe abortion should be illegal in all cases, according to a 2018 survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization. By Wednesday, many of the pro-choice activists who had come to the Statehouse to protest clad in bonnets and capes from the Handmaid's Tale had retreated — albeit to reorganize — at a place they call the POWER (People Organizing for Women's Empowerment and Rights) House. In a quiet neighborhood, its porch, bedecked with flags supporting social justice issues, stands out. Next door to it is an abortion clinic, bearing the banner: "This clinic stays open."

No exception for rape or incest

"This is just another day in Alabama," Mia Raven, founder and director of the POWER House, said with a sigh, pointing to what she described as a persistent climate of patriarchy in the south. "We're used to this, but this is extreme." While Raven said her organization's protest activities will continue, she also anticipates a legal battle. Indeed, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Alabama, a civil rights organization, has already signaled its intention to sue over the legislation.

Activists gather at the POWER house, next door to a clinic that offers abortions

"This is going to go through the courts, and in the end the Alabama taxpayer will have to pay," Raven said. "Women are guaranteed this under the 14th Amendment [to the US Constitution], and I don't see anyone taking away someone's Second Amendment rights or their First Amendment rights. It only seems to be women."

Although the Alabama bill may have grabbed international headlines, seeking an abortion in the state has quietly become increasingly difficult in recent years: Only three clinics currently offer the service in a state that counts a population of around 2.5 million women, and every facility has protesters, meaning women frequently have to run the gauntlet of megaphones and cameras.

"Protesters will film them, Facebook Live them, take pictures of them. If they wear anything related to where they work, they will call their work. You can get fired here for any reason," said Raven, who also works at a clinic. It is not an uncommon sight to see volunteers from POWER wear rainbow vests and use umbrellas to escort patients into the clinic, in an attempt to shield them from harassment.

Activists accompany women seeking abortions to shield them from protesters

Before those considering an abortion even take the step of visiting a clinic in Alabama, however, help is hard to come by. Googling the terms "Alabama abortion clinic" produces just a handful of results, and the second name listed is COPE Pregnancy Center, also in Montgomery. For a woman who is "abortion-minded," the center recommends the patient "at least undergo an ultrasound first," said Lorie Mullins, COPE's executive director. For those considering an abortion out of financial insecurity, the center encourages women to take parenting classes to earn them diapers, baby wipes, car seats and cribs in return.

The fact that the Alabama bill did not include an exception for cases of incest and rape — one of the most controversial aspects of the text — was "a reason why we supported it," Mullins said. "If you believe all life is sacred, then there is no exception. Incest and rape abortions are designed to protect the perpetrator by hiding who they are."

Read more: Turkey's women face dangerous conditions to obtain legal abortions

The argument that women should have agency over choices concerning their bodies is not one she subscribes to: "It's a personal choice whether you want to be a prostitute, but most countries legislate against that. It's a personal choice whether you want to not wear your seat belt, but our government has a law to demand that you wear it and punish you if you don't. The government tells us every day what to do with our bodies."

Supreme Court gives anti-abortion camp hope

Indeed, the legislation "is about exerting power and control over pregnant people," according to Elizabeth Nash, "to prevent them from taking full agency of their lives and futures." Nash, senior state issues manager at the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks reproductive rights in the US, highlighted a concerted state-by-state effort to see reproductive legislation challenged at the country's top court.

Clinics that offer abortions have struggled to continue their work, especially in the South of the US

"2019 has become the year where anti-abortion politicians have fully admitted that their ultimate agenda is banning abortion outright, at any stage in pregnancy and for any reason. Whether it's through bans at 20, 18, 12 or six weeks, or a total ban like the bill under consideration in Alabama, all these various paths led to the same goal — advancing abortion restrictions to the US Supreme Court in the hopes that an increasingly conservative court will undermine or even overturn Roe," Nash said.

"Alarmingly, the conservative majority on the Supreme Court just this week showed its willingness to overturn longstanding precedent. With four abortion cases already on the Supreme Court's doorstep, and more making their way through the lower courts, anyone who still thinks Roe v. Wade is not under threat needs to adjust fast," said Nash.

But the conservative members of the court bench will face resistance. After three weeks of protests and organizing, the will of the pro-choice activists gathering on the POWER House porch at sunset seems undimmed. "We're not going anywhere," Raven insists — and as she talks, a tiny, wire coat hanger pendant glints on a chain around her neck — a reminder of the lengths women have gone to without access to safe and legal abortion services in the past.

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TOP STORIES | 23.09.2016

'Are you going to murder your baby?'