Immediately after a leaked draft on Monday evening revealed that the Supreme Court was set to dismantle abortion rights, Robin Marty began fielding calls from her abortion clinic staff wondering if they would still open their doors the next day.
“That’s how confusing it was for everyone,” Marty, the operations director at West Alabama Women’s Center in Tuscaloosa, said Tuesday morning. “That’s something that we’ve been dealing with at the clinic all day.”
Marty, along with other clinic staff and abortion providers around the country, felt the immediate shockwave of the bombshell news. The draft ruling by Justice Samuel Alito would overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 landmark decision that expanded access to abortion nationwide. The draft was published by Politico, and the court has confirmed its authenticity.
The leaked document is not final, and abortion is still legal in the United States. And though many people probably haven’t gotten the news of the report, for others, it was terrifying. Some patients thought abortion had become illegal overnight but that didn’t make them any less desperate to get care, Marty said.
“If we say that we’re here and willing to provide abortion, they’re ready to risk it. You can tell them it could put them in jail and they’re like, ‘OK, let’s go ahead and do this anyway,’” Marty said. “Because the alternative is continuing a pregnancy and giving birth when you don’t want to. There’s no end to the desperation of people who want to terminate a pregnancy.”
For now, patients and abortion providers must wait until the Supreme Court makes its final ruling, likely sometime in June, in the case Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. The case law centers on a 2018 Mississippi 15-week abortion ban, which directly contradicts Roe’s established constitutional right to access abortion until a fetus becomes viable at around 24 weeks.
Prior to the leak, experts saw a few potential outcomes in the Dobbs case. The Supreme Court could strike down the Mississippi law, which would allow Roe to remain intact. But most agreed after oral arguments in December that the court’s conservative majority would likely uphold the law by either banning abortion outright or tinkering with the viability line. Either of those options would effectively overturn Roe.
The leaked draft, while not final, is having an immediate effect: Fear, confusion and desperation are taking over in abortion clinics around the country, with providers, patients and advocates bracing for the inevitable decision day.
“This is a really scary moment, but we have been preparing and organizing for this for years,” said Renee Bracey Sherman, founder and executive director of We Testify, an abortion storytelling group. “We are making sure that you will have access to care. Abortion funds are ready to support you, clinics are open, providers are ready to care of you, and all of us who have had abortions are ready to support you.”
While the gravity of the situation is historic, the landscape of misinformation and fear is nothing new – especially for providers in Texas who have dealt with the state’s unconstitutional six-week abortion ban for the past eight months. Dr. Bhavik Kumar, an abortion doctor at Planned Parenthood’s Houston clinic, has been a provider in the Lone Star State for nearly seven years. He knows all too well the impact abortion bans have on patients.
The mess of bills, laws and court decisions over abortion are already confusing for people to follow, Kumar, who is also the medical director at Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast, said during a press call.
“We are used to getting calls [from people saying]: ‘I saw something online, I saw something on the news, can I still get the care that I need?’ And we are very well versed in reassuring people that they can still come in and get care,” he said. “If they are not able to get care here in Texas with us because of egregious laws, we can help them get to where they need to go… As the landscape continues to evolve, we will continue to do that ― get people to safe care, wherever that may be and with whatever resources we can offer them.”
“It’s a horrible thing to say to a patient: ‘Right now, you can have care, but in 30 minutes I don’t know if I can give you the procedure that you want.’ But this is the discussion that we’re going to have to have with every patient who comes through our doors.”
– Robin Marty, West Alabama Women’s Center
Doctors are forced to jump through hoops to provide care, but patients are the ones left to deal with the impact. Maria, a Texas native, recently traveled out of the state to get an abortion after Texas banned the procedure around the six-week point. She knew the fall of Roe was likely, but she’s still in disbelief – grappling with the trauma of her own arduous abortion journey.
“This morning I realized how triggering this is for me personally as someone who had to travel across [the] country for an abortion,” said Maria, who is using a pseudonym to protect her identity.
“It’s been six months since I had my abortion and I’m still financially recovering from travel expenses and processing that traumatic time in my life,” she said. “I recognize how privileged I am, having been able to take time off of work to travel and work from home while I recovered… and it has still been complicated and challenging.”
A number of friends checked in on Maria after the draft decision leaked, reminding her just how important community is.
“Naturally we are all concerned for what this means for the people in our lives and having to balance that with collective action is a lot to carry,” she said. “Poor women of color will be impacted the most, so today I am terrified for us and angry at the cruelty.”
Providers are worried that without Roe, they won’t have the resources to help people like Maria.
The West Alabama Women’s Center has been “in a constant crisis” dealing with the overflow of patients from Texas, Marty said, adding that the clinic has not been able to devote resources to expanding its other programs. If its abortion services were suddenly banned, it would be difficult for the center to continue to operate and offer after-abortion care and follow-up care for those who will inevitably self-manage their abortions in a post-Roe world.
Marty’s staff is worried but she is determined to make it work. “I will lay myself off before I lay off any of them,” she said. One day and one patient at a time is Marty’s mantra.
Marty’s main goal is to ensure that every patient knows abortion is still legal right now and her clinic will continue providing care to those who want it. But, she says, patients need to understand that abortion access could literally stop existing at any moment.
“On decision days, we will always let patients know before their appointment that there is the possibility that their right to a legal abortion could disappear while they’re filling out paperwork or when they’re waiting on the exam table,” Marty said. “If that happens, there’s literally nothing that we can do for them.”
“It’s a horrible thing to say to a patient: ‘Right now, you can have care, but in 30 minutes I don’t know if I can give you the procedure that you want,’” she said. “But this is the discussion that we’re going to have to have with every patient who comes through our doors.”