Playing Defense: Fighting for Abortion Access in Louisiana

By Ashley Sheffield
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In recent months, attacks against abortion have escalated, ranging from legal challenges and physical protests, down to an endless stream of contentious Facebook arguments. As an activist and volunteer escort at an abortion clinic in Louisiana, I have witnessed this tension firsthand. Just over two weeks ago, the Supreme Court blocked the Louisiana anti-abortion law which would have immediately shut down two of the only three existing clinics in Louisiana. The law would have forced abortion providers to obtain admitting privileges from a hospital within a 30-mile radius from the clinic, and would have dispersed patients seeking abortions with a moment’s notice.

This legislation was modeled directly after the Texas law that the Supreme Court struck down in the 2016 Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt case, to which Justice Breyer argued that the courts must analyze if the benefits outweigh the cost of the legislation. Judge John W. deGravelles of the Federal District Court in Baton Rouge stated that the Louisiana law creates an “undue burden” on women’s constitutional right to abortion. If this law becomes reality, many people seeking abortions will have to travel over 150 miles to the reach the nearest abortion clinic. On the night of February 7, I anxiously awaited for the verdict, along with other pro-choice activists and supporters, as our last chance to halt this incredibly destructive law.

At 9:30 PM, just mere hours before the new restrictions would have gone into effect, the Court settled on a 4-5 vote temporarily blocking the legislation and the room erupted in excitement. The momentary relief called for celebration, but this celebration is short lived: the temporary stay asserts that the Justices will revisit the case later this year. Feminist leaders across the state quickly gathered in New Orleans to start drafting a rebuttal, strategizing on-the-ground organizing initiatives, and preparing for the worst-case scenario.

Image of pro-choice activists at a protest.

This legislation was strategically enacted in response to the changing climate of the U.S. court system. There is hefty momentum picking up in the anti-choice movement (to address the opposition as “pro-life” only verifies their unsound logic): state laws are constantly being drafted with the sole intent to one day overturn Roe v. Wade. Last year, a steady stream of anti-abortion bills descended upon state legislatures across the country: in Ohio, the House of Representatives passed a ‘heartbeat’ ban which would prohibit abortion as early as 6 weeks. In Iowa, a bill passed requiring patients seeking an abortion to have an ultrasound performed – and forbidding patients from receiving abortions if a heartbeat can be detected. In Kentucky, the House passed a bill (which is currently being challenged by the ACLU) banning a procedure used in second trimester abortions if the pregnancy is past 11 weeks.

All of these recent attacks on Roe v. Wade are occurring systematically as the lower district and appeals courts have been stacked with anti-abortion judges by the Trump (and other previous anti-abortion administrations) administration. With last year’s confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh, a sweeping fear ushered over abortion advocates nationwide: we have held our breath since to see if Kavanaugh would stick to his promise of upholding precedent, and in the case of Louisiana, he has (unsurprisingly) demonstrated that he will not. With so much power tipping into the hands of those who want nothing more than to take away women’s healthcare and force pregnant people to give birth, the Supreme Court will continue to see case after case lobbied at it by the emboldened anti-choice movement – until one finally cracks the framework of Roe v. Wade, establishing new precedent that will allow for a flood of anti-choice legislation.

In Louisiana, the 3 clinics that remain open (down from 7 clinics in 2011) are in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Shreveport. Each clinic is met with an onslaught of protests daily that only continue to grow more hostile. I volunteer as a clinic escort in Baton Rouge to support and protect patients from the hateful slurs hurled at them as they attempt to enter the building. There are ambushes of attacks from every angle: the doctors, nurses, and escorts have to take extra precaution not to provoke the protesters or cross any boundaries because law enforcement is standing by, ready to pounce for any reason. To make matters worse, adjacent to the clinic is a building disguised as another clinic (also known as a crisis pregnancy center) run by imposter doctors advertising free ultrasounds in hopes of confusing patients and luring them away from the Delta Clinic. It is not uncommon for fake clinics to set up shop near actual abortion providers – in fact, is a commonly used tactic to deceive patients seeking comprehensive reproductive health care services.

The patients of the Delta Clinic have mountains to cross before they can even step through the doors. My job is to drown out the hate-filled comments spewed from the protesters and try to make the treacherous journey from their car to the entrance of the clinic more bearable. Each volunteer shift as I step out of my car, the anti-choice protesters – predominantly old and white – line the boundaries of the clinic and try to shame me out of having an abortion. From many of the men, I hear comments like, “You are so young and pretty! Why would you do this?” and “You will burn in hell for what you are doing, God remembers!” From the women, “compassionate” pleas that I do anything other than walk into the clinic. Their insults are directed to anyone affiliated with the clinic: mothers, grandmothers, boyfriends, siblings, husbands, friends – anyone they can degrade and deride. When I return from the clinic sporting my bright pink escort vest, their reactions fuel me for the rest of my shift.

A photo of the author posing with a handmade “Nevertheless She Persisted” poster at a rally.

As an advocate for sexual and reproductive rights and an escort for an abortion clinic, I have been forced to confront the forces vehemently working to destroy our right to choose what we want for our bodies. The new generation of activists face a long and hard battle ahead to ensure Roe v. Wade is protected and upheld: even though the popular vote lies with abortion rights, the pro-choice movement is on defense and it’s not going to be an easy fight. We must mobilize against these attacks now – before it’s too late.

1 comment

  1. Hello Ashley. I live in West Monroe, Louisiana. I would like to volunteer as an escort in the Shreveport clinic. Could you send me information on how to become a volunteer? Also do you know of any pro choice organizations in my State of Louisiana? I am a member NARAL but would like to do more to support woman’s rights. Great article!
    Sincerely,
    Ms. Joy Pace

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