by Mwende Katwiwa, 2013 Feminist You Should Know!
By now, we’ve all heard the story. In November, the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals issued “Emergency Regulations” that are threatening the closure of the five abortion clinics in the state. The details of this 21-page document were implemented without public comment, input from clinics, and without specifically identifying what the “emergency” was that initially called for the regulations to be put into place. The regulations fit comfortably into the pattern of Targeted Regulation of Abortion Provider (TRAP) laws that have swept the country in recent years in attempts to severely restrict women’s abilities to access their constitutional right to have an abortion.
A hearing was scheduled in Baton Rouge on 1.29.2014 (which has been rescheduled to tomorrow, Tuesday Feb. 4) that would have made these, and all those regulations outlined in the DHH 21 page document, permanent were it not for the resilience and swift action of the women of Louisiana. On Thursday January 23, a strategic planning meeting took place at the Women’s Health Center in New Orleans to discuss the creation of a coalition to advocate for reproductive rights in the state. Some 25 women representing various groups (including Medial Students for Choice, Planned Parenthood, and 2 abortion providers) gathered at the meeting and decided to take immediate action. The group decided to attend the hearing (wearing purple in solidarity) and provide oral testimony gathered from local women about abortions, as well as deciding to host a (successful) letter writing campaign with the intent of delivering these letters at the hearing as a show of public opposition to the regulations.
One of the main groups that spearheaded this coalition was the New Orleans Abortion Fund. The New Orleans Abortion Fund, Inc is a community based 501 ©(3) volunteer run group that is “rooted in social justice with the purpose of challenging socioeconomic inequalities by providing financial help to women who cannot afford the cost of an abortion”. Working with local medical providers to provide compassionate care and empowering assistance to women seeking abortions, the group distributes funds to women who are seeking abortions but unable to finance them. They do in order to affirm a woman’s right to control her body and her destiny, as well as ensure the basic human right of access to quality healthcare for all women regardless of socio-economic status.
I had the pleasure of sitting down to interview Amy Irvin, one of the founding members of NOAF to talk more about the ground level work being done in Louisiana to support abortion clinics and local women:
Mwende Katwiwa: What is the most important thing for the general public to know right now about what’s going on right now in Louisiana?
Amy Irvin: That the potential legislation and rules are a real threat to clinics staying open and therefore women’s ability to access their constitutionally guaranteed and protected rights! The regulations amount to a back door abortion ban and the legislation is just one more way in which rights are being taken from women. Roe v Wade is still in the books [which means] abortion is still legal, but it’s such an empty shell given all the legislation that has passed. It’s become incredibly difficult for women to access the legal medical procedure.
Tell us a bit more about the New Orleans Abortion Fund. When did you all form and what kind of work are you doing in New Orleans?
The New Orleans Abortion Fund (NOAF) is a member fund of the National Network of Abortion Funds. We are only a year old; we just celebrated our one-year anniversary in September of 2013. We are a volunteer run organization made up by a group of local women and we serve New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region. Our focus is to financially help women who are seeking assistance to terminate their pregnancies, and we partner with the Women’s Healthcare Center, a clinic that has been providing services here in New Orleans for two decades. We began making pledges to women in April of 2013 after extensive fundraising efforts that included house parties, game-a-thons and some work with our ally organizations. Our average pledge is about $75 and since April we have helped more than 100 women and spent more than $7000.
Tell us about how NOAF was originally conceived.
I terminated an unplanned pregnancy at the Women’s Health Care Center during a time where there was upheaval in the community for abortion providers because a physician had recently died. At my first counseling appointment, [there were] other women [who] had been bussed down from Baton Rouge that day to also receive counseling. Not being from Louisiana I wasn’t aware of all the restrictions that were in place – the 24 hr waiting period, the mandatory ultrasound, the 20 week ban – [and this is] in addition to the regulations that staff has to comply with on a daily basis. This just made for a stressful day for myself and all the women there. That day I looked back at my own work in reproductive justice with various organizations and I realized that I had enough experience to try and make a change here.
Jessie Neibles (a founding board member of NOAF) and I met over coffee one afternoon at CCs coffee shop. We’d both been involved with abortion funds in other cities, were both transplants into town and were both interested in the reproductive justice work being done here. We saw a hole in direct services for low income and minority women wanting to terminate a pregnancy but couldn’t afford it, so we decided to form a fund with assistance from the national network. We spent several months writing articles of incorporation, developing a fundraising strategy, and laying the groundwork for NOAF. Now we have a communications team that does our newsletter and Facebook and has recently done a lot of the PR work behind this DHH hearing. We also have an intake committee, which I oversee, and a hotline women can call.
Tell us more about the coalition you all formed, how did it come together and why?
Different organizations were doing things as separate groups and the DHH regulations really brought home that we needed to form a coalition to effectively combat or pushback and make the public aware of what’s going on. [Essentially, the DHH was] updating their regulations to reflect the new laws that were put in place last year, and that’s understandable. However, they took the opportunity to expand the scope of the regulations into this 21-page document that is a complete overhaul of the regulations that govern Louisianan abortion services. Clinics spent most of December trying to understand the scope of the regulations and how to comply, but the regulations were so dense and complex that it immediately became apparent that lawyers should be involved. Clinics had to immediately make changes to daily operations to comply with some aspects of regulations and also figure out what they couldn’t comply with which is how they developed their legal strategy.
What effect do you think this coalition will have?
It has had an immediate effect. With all the media attention the issue has gotten recently, DHH came out saying they are going to rescind the 30 day requirement, but that was inherently unconstitutional and unenforceable anyway so that was an easy one. They’ve also said the square footage requirements are for new facilities which has an impact on Planned Parenthood and its plans to build a new building here in New Orleans, but the immediate concern is keeping the 5 clinics we have open and operating.
I think the real importance of this coalition is to educate supporters and constituencies about the hearing, gathering comments and letters and preparing for anticipated legislation. NOAF has received 100 letters and we will present those at the hearing in addition to giving some oral testimony. I think the real benefit of the work being done by the coalition is just mobilizing people and preparing them for the legislative session. Whatever DHH does they are going to do, but the legislative session starts in March and we anticipate getting a lot of the same bills that were passed in Texas where 1/3 of the clinics closed. Now, much of south Texas doesn’t have access to abortion services and it’s devastating. There are reports of women crossing the border into Mexico to get the abortion pill and if those same laws pass here in LA, I don’t want to think about what that means for our women.
What would these emergency DHH regulations mean for the state of Louisiana if they went into effect permanently?
As written and proposed, these regulations could close all five clinics. As I’ve gathered local women’s stories, I’ve seen that they are outraged about being told what to do with their bodies, but they are also concerned about the impact of unplanned pregnancies on their lives and families. They are talking about women who are resorting to illegal means or dangerous home remedies, they are talking about what the impact of carrying an unplanned pregnancy to term, about unwanted children who are neglected or abused because they could not be properly cared for…so when anti-choice groups tell you, “this is what LA women want,” know its not true according to the stories we are hearing.
What is the importance of local grassroots activism in national campaigns such as the fight for reproductive justice?
The NOAF crafts and speaks of this issue from the perspective of local low income and minority women and the impact these regulations and laws and potential closure on clinics will have on women in the community. Their voices need to be heard because they are the experts of their lives and they know their community needs. I have always had the intention of brining women who have been assisted by NOAF into our organization and getting them involved in the direct services or advocacy components. The Women’s Healthcare Center is really open to patient engagement so I’ve been able to engage patients at the clinic in a way that hasn’t been done in the past. Recently, to prepare for the hearing and get women’s voices into the conversation, I’ve started collected stories from women in the clinic and reaching out to NOAF clients asking them to write a letter to DHH with the purpose of them being used in the hearing and during the legislative session.
You’ve talked a bit about advocacy, what is the importance of storytelling in advocacy?
The pro-choice community has ceded the bully pulpit to anti-choice groups. Anti-choice groups are loud, brazen and unafraid to talk about abortion. Because pro-choice groups haven’t been outspoken, the only voices legislators and policy makers hear are from anti-choice groups. Certainly I think legislators and Gov. Bobby Jindal have an agenda, and their agenda is to close clinics. Louisiana is rated the #1 pro-life state in the US and they pride themselves on that. These stories are important educational and advocacy tools so that when we speak to legislators we are providing expert testimony and telling them what women are experiencing. This is not just a rights issue its an economic issue, its a self determination and quality of life issue, and overall, its a healthcare issue!
What can college students, many of whom come from out of state, do in Louisiana (and in general) to help secure reproductive rights? Why should they care?
In 2008 (most recent available data), 58% of all pregnancies in Louisiana were unintended. As well, 1 in 3 women have abortions, and many of them were on some sort of contraceptive, so while you may not think this issue is important to you, it is on a very philosophical and practical level. We like to say “no one supports abortion until you need one”, and when you need one, if you have to scramble around and you find out the nearest clinic is in Shreveport which is 5 hours away (and that could be the reality for women in New Orleans) then there’s a problem. It’s important for college students to understand that they are part of the community they are schooling in so while you may not need an abortion or these services, you should still be invested in your community. I’m interested in creating community that reflects pro-women values and I think anyone who lives in our community and has a real understanding of this issue and the multifaceted aspects of it would be interested in wanting to know more. I don’t want to live in community where women have to struggle and make such hard choices, and there’s already a sense of desperation among the women who call us. I think it’s easy for women of means to dismiss the concerns of women of lesser means, but it’s all our responsibility to create communities that care for one another and to create communities that reflect our values.
Gabriella Landgraf-Neuhaus, President of Tulane’s VOX Chapter – one of the groups present at the coalition meeting – agrees with Amy about the need for students’ involvement with reproductive rights in the states they are schooling in, “Its important for [us] to be active. We came to this area and it’s our task to be socially responsible by getting involved and understanding the current events going on in the state we now live in”. Despite the depiction of liberal college students actively engaging with activism during college however, Landgraf-Neuhaus relays that in her experience, “it’s difficult to get people involved and to care.”
Due to the urgency of the DHH regulations though, for Louisiana women, there is no choice now but to get people involved and caring about the issue if the abortion clinics in the state are to remain open.
Take Action with Us!
- This Tuesday (2.4.2014) is the rescheduled DHH hearing in Louisiana. If you would like to attend the hearing to support the coalition or get more involved with the coalition, please email fight4RJLA@gmail.com. Students who are more interested in getting involved should contact Students United for Reproductive Freedom for more information on ways to get involved.
- You can always help with the efforts of abortion providers in Louisiana by donating to the New Orleans Abortion Fund. If you live in the Greater New Orleans area, consider forming a fundraising team and competing in the Game-A-Thon on April 9th at Shamrock (4133 S Carrollton Ave).