Beyond Politics: The Realities of Abortion Access in Alabama...

Dec 11, 2017

We’re just a day away from the special General Election to pick Alabama’s next junior U.S. Senate. Republican Roy Moore is refusing to take questions over on-going allegation of sexual misconduct, child abuse, and attempted rape. He is willing to talk about Democrat Doug Jones stance in favor of abortion rights. APR student reporter Allison Mollenkamp looked into what women in Alabama currently face when they choose to end a pregnancy…

“We all sat there for nine hours and almost none of us spoke.” That’s Christina Frantom. I meet her in a coffee shop here in Tuscaloosa to hear her story of when she decided to have an abortion.

“We had to wait. There was a group of us, probably about twenty women, who had to wait at the clinic for about nine hours in order for the practitioner to arrive.” Twenty women waited for nine hours that day at the Planned Parenthood in Birmingham. It’s one of five clinics that perform abortions in Alabama. That’s a lot fewer than some other states. Florida has seventy-one. But it’s more than some others too. Mississippi just has one. Having so few means that many women live a significant distance from their nearest provider. However, there are people to help.

“I generally just kind of fill in the gaps. It’s mostly based out of Huntsville," says Victoria Smith. She’s a volunteer with the Alabama Reproductive Rights Advocates, or ARRA. She’s also the proud owner of three dogs, who wanted to get a word in too. “But occasionally there will be patients in Tuscaloosa that need a ride, or need a place to stay. We’ve got an RV and patients are always welcome to stay overnight if they have a two day procedure.”

Rides and places to stay are ARRA’s way of helping women seeking abortions. Even once you’re at the clinic, though, there are challenges. Christina Frantom had advantages a lot of women don’t in terms of being able to take time off and having health insurance. Here she is again.

“A lot of the women who were there had to leave and come back and make other arrangements and so it was," she recalls. " I got to see first-hand, like, as it happened in real time, not just the laws but also the social repercussions.”

There are lots of challenges associated with taking nine hours out of your work day. In addition to transportation and perhaps a place to stay, these women needed time off from their jobs, and in some cases money for childcare. Frantom says those barriers are made worse by a law Alabama that requires counseling. “Really it’s just like ‘here’s a point of no return and then here’s a point of no return and then here’s a point of no-return.’”

Victoria Smith sees the counseling a little differently. She used to administer it.

“It’s not counseling. It’s an informed consent. My job was basically to scare the sh*t out of somebody who was already scared.”

In Alabama counseling is required forty-eight hours before an abortion can be performed. That adds to the time necessary to get an abortion. It’s also not the only thing that may scare abortion seekers. Protestors are a common sight at clinics in Alabama. So common that some clinics have defenders.

“What a defender is is speaking to companions," says Helmi Henkin. She's a member of the West Alabama Women’s Clinic Defenders. I meet her outside the Tuscaloosa clinic early one morning. “They just open up to us about their lives, the circumstances that brought them to the clinic. You learn a lot about somebody just from how emotionally vulnerable they are because this is such an emotionally vulnerable experience for them.”

Logistically, Henkin’s work is simple. She walks people from their cars to the clinic. That way, they don’t have to interact with protestors. “A lot of times they give false information or they encourage going to the crisis pregnancy center as your first appointment” Crisis pregnancy centers, by the way, are not abortion clinics. They encourage other options, such as adoption. “…and they tell them that the crisis pregnancy center counts for your first appointment, which it doesn’t.”

I go back to the West Alabama Women’s clinic in Tuscaloosa a few days later to hear from the protestors themselves. I’m met with a quieter scene than I expected.

“We are out here and we pray, and we fast," says Paul Lake. He’s with a group called Forty Days to Life, which is not associated with Forty Days for Life. “They’re kind of in trouble and we just try to help them get out of trouble.”

When Christina Frantom went to Birmingham for her abortion, there were protestors. She thought their rhetoric might upset some of the other women, so she went to talk to them.

“It was all women," she recalls "And they all had the signs, you know the horrible signs that are shaming and terrible, and then as I was speaking to them, they were all telling their personal stories of their children who they didn’t abort, and how they were going to but then didn’t and how they feel guilty that they considered it.”

She says many of the women have children with special needs and protest as a way to advocate for their children. “That’s the irony of it, right, is women who are terminating pregnancies are making the most important decision as mothers that they possibly can for their children, unborn or otherwise. So that was kind of, it kind of broke my brain a little bit, the irony that people are standing on two sides with the same, same motivation I guess.”

Frantom says her decision to get an abortion came from knowing what it means to be a mother and a co-parent. At the time she was thirty-four, divorced, and mother to one daughter. She did not want a child from an abusive relationship that was about to end. Looking back on the experience, she doesn’t regret her decision.

“But I do have one regret for that, on that day there was one woman in there who was younger,"  and she probably cried the entire time. She just silently, like, wept in her chair, and nobody spoke to her or comforted her or said anything to her, ‘cause we weren’t sure what was happening.”

Frantom says for any other medical procedure, there is a community of support. But around abortion, especially in Alabama, there’s mostly silence. For APR News, I’m Allison Mollenkamp in Tuscaloosa.