Red Tape

Abortion Access Under Fire

Molly had never conceived before. Then it happened, accidentally, last spring when she and her boyfriend went on a short vacation in the Gila National Forest.

Not yet a year into their relationship, Molly, 30, and Caleb, 36, were nevertheless very close. Caleb had just been offered a new job, and they decided to celebrate by taking time together to camp and catch a bike race.

One evening, Molly and Caleb had sex without a condom, deviating from the their usual form of birth control. Caleb pulled out — a method technically known as coitus interruptus, or withdrawing the penis from the vagina before ejaculation.

Later that night, however, Molly had a vivid dream.

"There were two hoses that were connecting," she recalls, "and they were shooting energy at each other. It said something like, 'You are unique' and 'Everybody is unique.' And I woke up in the middle of the night with a wonderful feeling."

Over the next few days, the anxiety of a possible pregnancy began to sink in.

When Molly and Caleb (whose names have been changed for this story to protect their identities) came back to Santa Fe, they bought a home pregnancy test kit. Together, they read the results: Positive. They were shocked. Molly worried whether she and Caleb were truly ready to have a child, either financially or emotionally.

"My stomach kind of dropped, because I knew we weren't in the right place," Molly says.

Caleb felt the same way.

"I tried to think about what the outcome would be," he says. "It was kind of surreal almost, trying to figure out if I was ready at the time, and if I could have that kind of commitment that was expected [for] bringing a child into this world."

Both decided to spend the next two weeks letting the news sink in. No decision would be made yet.

It's about one o'clock, the wee hours of the morning, and Barbara Bacon, a stout, middle-aged woman with long, grayish-blonde hair, is driving down Frontage Road, a side street parallel to Albuquerque's major interstate.

She's on her way to the city's downtown bus depot where she will pick up a teenage woman, and her mother, who are scheduled to arrive in 20 minutes.

As Bacon arrives, young hoodlums are perched across the street of the station, minding their own business. Police cars periodically patrol the block as a stray cat jumps quietly around the vicinity of Bacon's 13-year-old Honda Civic.

Bacon says she's happy to be a helping hand. Her instructions are to bring the daughter, who is coming from Louisiana to New Mexico for an abortion, to a hotel. "I'm here to be a friendly face," Bacon says. "I can't think of anything more horrible than traveling halfway across the United States and arriving in a strange state, in a strange city, in the middle of the night, to make the most agonizing decision of your life."

The Southwestern Women's Options of Albuquerque employs two of just four doctors in the nation who provide abortions into the third trimester of pregnancy. The scarce availability of late-term abortions in the US means women from hundreds or thousands of miles away come to the Duke City clinic for a procedure.

It also means that Albuquerque, and Southwestern Women's Options in particular, is a frequent locale for anti-abortion protests.

Bacon is one of many advocates affiliated with Respect ABQ Women, a coalition of local pro-abortion-rights groups that are attempting to defeat a citywide ballot initiative to ban all abortions after a fetus reaches 20 weeks. The rides that she provides are coordinated through the New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. She was prompted to act when anti-abortion groups, most of them from out of state, aggressively targeted Albuquerque this summer.

Bacon says she wants to protect New Mexico's "live-and-let-live" attitude.

"Even if people disagree, New Mexico is just not the kind of place where somebody is going to get in your face," she says. "That's just not how we live here."

But "in your face" is mild description for what's been going on.

In August, out-of-state anti-abortion groups like Created Equal, Operation Rescue and Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust joined Albuquerque-based Project Defending Life for a week of high-profile protests. They spent days standing in front of the city's three abortion clinics with blown up pictures of bloody fetuses and banners with slogans like "Albuquerque's Holocaust" and "ABQ: America's Auschwitz" [news, Aug. 13: "America's Auschwitz?"].

They even picketed the New Mexico Holocaust and Intolerance Museum demanding that it open an exhibit to showcase the "holocaust" of four decades of legalized abortion in the US. They also brought awareness to the 27,000 signatures submitted by residents in July to call for the ballot question, which Albuquerque voters will weigh next month.

Meet the face of the new anti-abortion movement, a face that, as Created Equal President Mark Harrington puts it, is working to restrict abortion "in spite of Roe v. Wade." It's all part of a strategy sweeping anti-abortion activism throughout the nation: attack hard and go local.

"For 40 years, we have tried to reverse Roe v. Wade as a federal law," Harrington told activists gathered at the city's St. Pius X High School in August. "I think we can look back and say we failed at that."

While the same tactics have successfully brought similar abortion restrictions to states like Ohio, North Carolina and Texas, New Mexico's situation has at least one distinction: If voters approve the 20-weeks ban, Albuquerque will become the first city to restrict abortion access on the municipal level.

But the consequences would go far beyond the city limits. For one, all of New Mexico's surgical abortion providers operate in Albuquerque. The ban would also effectively end late-term abortion in the Southwest.

"There's so many different parts that come into play," says Bud Shaver, who with his wife Tara, moved to Albuquerque three years ago after interning with Kansas-based Operation Rescue to start Project Defending Life, primarily to find a way to shut down Southwestern Women's Options. "And this ballot initiative is just one component of it."

Four days after finding out she was pregnant, Molly typed the words "abortions in Santa Fe" into an Internet search engine. A website for Care Net Pregnancy Center of Santa Fe, a resource center that offers free pregnancy tests and advice, popped up as one of the results. Molly, who was looking for advice and counseling on what to do next, thought she had found the right place.

"At Santa Fe Pregnancy Center, you won't find anyone judging you or telling you what to decide," Care Net's website reads. "There's no hype, no politics, and we don't make money off of anything you choose."

Molly went to Care Net later that day and met with two staffers whom she talked with at length about her options. Immediately, she says, their answers seemed suspect.

For instance, Care Net staffers told Molly that the abortion pill, which women can take up to nine weeks of pregnancy, could cause cancer. They said that an abortion could prevent her from ever becoming pregnant again and could make her depressed.

Nobody is ever prepared to have a baby, they said, and out of many of the women they've seen, Molly was one of the most prepared to be a mother.

She went home feeling more torn than before.

"For a day I felt like I didn't have any option at all," she says. "I guess I'd rather have a baby than risk the chance of not having one again. I guess abortion is out of the picture." One of Molly's biggest fears of going through an abortion was experiencing depression afterward.

Care Net is the nation's largest chain of "crisis pregnancy centers," (CPCs) which are counseling centers designed to talk pregnant women like Molly out of getting abortions. According to a recent New York Times report, more than 2,500 CPC's exist in the US, outnumbering the country's 1,800 abortion providers. Most are religious-based; Care Net, for example, is an evangelical Christian organization.

When Molly told Caleb about her experience later that day, he immediately knew the type of clinic she went to.

"I was pissed," he says. "I mean, here we were trying to make an honest decision and they're trying to fill our brains [with] propaganda."

As CPC's like Care Net continue to grow as one of the focal points in the anti-abortion movement, actual abortion providers continue to shrink. Two years ago, Santa Fe lost its only surgical abortion provider, Dr. Lucia Cies, who had been in practice here for 35 years.

Cies' clinic wasn't immune to running into red tape. Her office manager, Nancy Gagan recalls a "gradual chipping away" of abortion access during the clinic's last few years. A case in point was how Cies' malpractice insurance coverage changed so she could no longer perform abortions on women with pregnancies past 17 weeks even though she's medically certified to perform abortions up to 19 weeks.

"They were telling her basically what the limits of her practice can be, even though she's trained to do more," Gagan says.

New and extensive abortion regulations haven't come to New Mexico yet, but Gagan warns that their precedent in other states could very well prevent an abortion provider from ever coming to Santa Fe again.

One such guideline that passed in Texas this year requires all abortions to be performed in faciliites that meet the standards of ambulatory surgical centers, which are typically designed for more involved surgical procedures like tonsillectomies and colonoscopies. Medical standards for surgical centers mandate wider hallways, bigger operating rooms and more anesthesia capabilities than a typical clinic would have.

Such regulations "don't make a bit of difference on safety or quality of health care," maintains Vicki Cowart, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains. She refers to them as TRAPs—Targeted Regulations of Abortion Providers.

Her favorite example is how the hallways must be wide enough to transport patients  on stretchers.

"Well, we don't move women in gurneys [during] abortion procedures," Cowart says. "They try to take what is a fairly standard outpatient procedure and put it into a hospital setting."

Still, abortion is almost always a safe procedure, with less than one percent of women who undergo abortions experiencing serious complications, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit which researches sexual and reproductive topics and advocates women's reproductive rights.

The TRAPs are showing success in at least one area—shutting down abortion providers. Four clinics in Texas have already announced their plans to close in wake of the new restrictions that are scheduled to begin phasing in later this month.

Although New Mexico hasn't passed any TRAPS to date, Gagan nevertheless warns that any doctor considering opening a clinic in Santa Fe would be foolish not to get ready for similar regulations to come into effect in the near future.

"If you have any foresight at all as an abortion provider, you're going to prepare for something like that," she says.

Paula Glennon, an Albuquerque resident who regularly pickets outside of Southwestern Women's Options, says her two abortions caused her plenty of anguish. Roughly 35 years ago, Glennon, a college student at the time, got pregnant twice. She says she believed she couldn't handle a life of raising kids.

"I was abandoned," says Glennon, a slim, middle-aged woman with short hair and a soft-spoken voice. "I had no support from the men that this happened with."

Three years after her abortions, she discovered that one of her close friends had a nearly identical situation at a similar age. Instead of aborting, however, Glennon's friend offered her child for adoption. At that point, Glennon says she realized she should have done the same.

Today, she says she says she suffers from "post abortion syndrome," a type of post-traumatic stress disorder that some believe can strike after women have an abortion.

The guilt she felt from her abortions, Glennon says, meant that she couldn't look at pregnant women or babies in the years following her abortions without getting emotionally upset. She says that her procedures even led to trouble bonding with her first son.

"I made the wrong decision, and I have to live with it," she says. "And I have to tell you, it's real hard to live with."

Stories like Glennon's are a rallying point among the anti-abortion movement.

"We're looking at the science," Bud Shaver says. "I mean, the thing about it is we have a lot of science."

But much of the medical community, however, has discredited the "post-abortion" theory. Most recently, in 2008, the American Psychological Association (APA) reported that several previous studies linking abortion to mental health problems had "pervasive" methodological errors. The APA found that women who experience unplanned pregnancies and don't have abortions have just as much risk of developing mental health issues as women who have abortions.

"It is clear that some women do experience sadness, grief and feelings of loss following termination of a pregnancy," the APA report reads. "However, the [Task Force on Mental Health and Abortion] reviewed no evidence sufficient to support the claim that an observed association between abortion history and mental health was caused by the abortion per se, as opposed to other factors."

A woman's mental health history—not her abortion experience—is the biggest factor in indicating her mental health experiences after an abortion, the APA report concluded.

At one point, Molly asked a counselor at the Southwestern Women's Options whether having an abortion could cause depression and regret. The counselor, who had also been through an abortion before, could speak from experience.

"She said it was a relief," says Molly. "She said, 'If you're making what you feel is the right decision, then it's not [a regret].'"

After weeks of weighing what to do with the pregnancy, Molly and Caleb took a walk to a nearby park. Together, they sat at a picnic table and made a final decision. Molly would get an abortion.

"I did feel like a pressure had lifted off," Molly says about making the decision. "It was hard. It was really emotional."

Within days, Caleb and Molly traveled to the clinic in Albuquerque. Her pregnancy was now at five weeks.

Before the procedure, nurses gave Molly a painkiller powerful enough to make her incapable of driving the one-hour return trip to Santa Fe.

When she went into the room for the procedure, two nurses greeted her. Molly laid down. The nurses numbed her cervix with a local anesthetic, then used a machine to essentially vacuum the embryo from inside Molly's uterus. Throughout the entire surgery, which took about ten minutes, the counselor who had spoken with Molly before held her hand.

The process was extremely uncomfortable, Molly recalls, but the medication was enough of a distraction to make it bearable. When she got out or the operating room, she could barely walk. Caleb, per the clinic's rules, stayed in the waiting room during the surgery, and drove Molly home afterwards.

She came home, in pain, and went to bed. The nurses told her the aches should gradually subside over the next few days.

They didn't.

Instead, Molly's pains got worse. By the third day after the abortion, she says she could barely stand up. Molly still had residue in her uterus and her body was attempting to expel it, but her cervix was refusing to open.

The complications were minor, but they were enough for Molly to have to repeat the procedure (commonly referred to as a "D and C" for dilation and curettage). And since surgical abortions are not offered in Santa Fe, she would have to make the trip to Albuquerque again.

This time, Caleb, new to his job, couldn't take off time to drive her. Molly instead drove back to the clinic herself. She says part of the reason she made the trek alone was because she didn't want to defend her abortion to her friends.

"I didn't want to have to explain myself to anybody else at that point," she says. "It was done."

In fact, both Molly and Caleb kept the abortion mostly to themselves. Caleb's sister had warned him that even their friends and family could judge them.

"She said, 'Don't tell anybody, because everybody you're going to talk to is going to have their own opinion, and that opinion is going to have nothing to do with you,'" he says.

When Molly got to the clinic for a second time, she refused painkillers so she could drive home afterwards. This time, the pain was excruciating.

"It was more painful than breaking my wrist," she says.

In Santa Fe, Caleb waited in anticipation.

"She was in a lot of pain," Caleb says. "I was frustrated I couldn't take her down there and be with her."

Three months later, Molly and Caleb are sitting on a couch in their east side home recollecting what they've been through since the abortion. Both say it was a life-altering experience.

"Up until that point it was all fluffy clouds and rainbows," Caleb says. "It really clarified a lot of different things and made me think about what I wanted, not necessarily just out of this relationship, but also what I wanted in my life."

Molly, who never thought much about abortion before this summer, says the experience has made her realize how it can happen to anyone.

"You just don't know what this decision's going to be until you're in that moment," she says. "I was really, really grateful that we had a choice."

The ballot initiative may mean fewer options for New Mexico couples like Molly and Caleb.

And it seems to have a chance of being adopted, at least according to an Albuquerque Journal poll last month that found 54 percent of likely voters favor the idea.

The local effects are compounded as the anti-abortion movement fires on all cylinders and women across the country face increased limits in access to abortion.

Bacon bemoans how the larger pro-abortion rights groups like NARAL Pro-Choice America haven't yet been very involved in attempting to defeat the Albuquerque ballot initiative.

"Do you have any idea what it's like to get a letter that says women are under attack in North Carolina and North Dakota, and I'm sitting here in ABQ and I know that the women in my state are under attack and they don't mention it?" she says. "It's so frustrating."

As the clock passes 1:20 am, Bacon is still outside the bus depot. She gets out of her car and looks at the empty station, its lights illuminating the streetscape.

She goes inside  to see if the mother and daughter have arrived.

Emergency Contraception Options

One of the best ways to prevent abortions, says local teen health nurse practitioner Robert Benon, is birth control.

In situations where the pill or condoms aren’t used, Benon specifically recommends the emergency contraceptive pill, also known as Plan B or the “morning-after pill.” It can work up to five days after sexual intercourse, though it will only work if sperm have not yet fertilized an egg.

“The sooner she gets it, the better,” he says. 

The emergency contraception pill is available over the counter at drug stores like Walgreens, but it comes at a stiff price of up to $50. In some cases, boxes for Plan B are locked behind the counter. Some also label that only women 17 and older can purchase the pill. 

Those labels are outdated, Benon says, as all women of childbearing age are safe to take the pill per updated guidelines.  In New Mexico, teenage women are also allowed to practice birth control, as well as have abortions, legally and without parental consent. 

At the Teen Health Center, which has locations in Santa Fe High School and Capital High School (and serves teenagers regardless of whether they attend school there,) birth control methods like Plan B are offered free of charge. 

“We don’t want cost to make them not get the help they need,” Benon says. 

This story is part of the Reproductive Justice Reporting Project, an initiative of the Media Consortium in partnership with the Association of Alternative Newsmedia, made possible with a grant from the Quixote Foundation. Click here to learn more.

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