Welcome to no-choice America

PBS's "Frontline" special "The Last Abortion Clinic" shows us why the dark ages of illegal abortions and unwanted children are already here.

Published November 8, 2005 6:45PM (EST)

Every month, I get letters in the mail from NARAL Pro-Choice America, Planned Parenthood and NOW telling me that abortion rights are being threatened and my $50 pledge is necessary to wage this important fight. Every year or so I read the letters and then write a check, but most months I throw all that paper into the recycling bin without scaring myself over the latest threat to choice. Hasn't Roe v. Wade been under attack for decades now? Regardless of the Roe foes Bush packs onto the Supreme Court, a return to the dark ages of underground abortions has always seemed -- despite all the reports to the contrary -- too fantastical to warrant a constant state of fear.

PBS's "The Last Abortion Clinic" (9 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 8; check listings) shook me out of my stupor. As this "Frontline" special clearly and carefully explains, whether or not Roe v. Wade is repealed, the antiabortion agenda in many states has already made it nearly impossible for a poor woman to get an abortion.

Naturally, we're introduced to the usual roundup of dewy-eyed antiabortion idealists armed with melodrama and scare tactics, and treated to disturbing footage of women standing outside an abortion clinic shouting, "I love you, Mama! Please let me live!"

But then the program digs into the legal history of abortion, from Roe v. Wade to Casey to Ayotte, without which it's impossible to understand the insidious battle that's being fought on the state level. Working strategically within the boundaries of the law, antiabortion activists have managed, in many states, to restrict abortions and abortion clinics so aggressively that abortion-rights activists say that conditions are as bad as they were before Roe v. Wade passed in 1973.

In Mississippi, the antiabortion movement has managed to close down all but one abortion clinic. And by requiring women to go to the clinic twice, once for information and counseling, and a second time for the procedure, which must take place at least 24 hours later, women who drive from other locations in the state have to make two trips or spend the night in town. For women who can't afford the money or time off from work, these obstacles are likely to seal their fates.

"We don't feel bad that people in the delta can't have an abortion," says Terri Herring, president of Pro-Life Mississippi. "To say that we want to be sure that poor women can get their abortions, like we're doing them a favor by helping them kill their baby, is just not OK with me."

But do the sentiments of one antiabortion activist say anything about the position of state officials? Apparently so: Mississippi actually sells license plates that say "Choose Life" on them, with all proceeds going to Crisis Pregnancy Centers. What can women get at these centers, 2,000 of which exist nationwide? Free pregnancy tests, confidential counseling, free ultrasounds so the women can see their unborn children, and free baby clothes. What can't they get? Free birth control or birth control counseling, information on where to get an abortion, or free prenatal care.

"The purpose of the center is to deal with the woman who has an unplanned pregnancy, and her choices are abortion, adoption, parenting. She has basically those three choices," says a representative of one center. Of course, if the woman "chooses" abortion -- or even wants to consider a way to not get pregnant the next time -- she's out of luck.

That doesn't stop antiabortion activists from claiming that they're interested in helping these mothers and their babies. Just so we understand where all of these very compassionate people are leading Mississippi, we visit a town called Clarksdale, where 75 percent of babies are born to single mothers, many of whom are teenagers, and more than one-third of the population lives in poverty. When the "Frontline" producers ask a young mother about access to abortion, she has a look on her face as if he just asked, "Have you ever thought of summering in the South of France instead?"

For those who are foolish enough, as I was, to believe not only that Roe v. Wade won't be overturned but also that things will be fine as long as that doesn't happen, "The Last Abortion Clinic" offers a sobering look at the reality in most states, where local governments seem to care very little about the impossible circumstances poor women face in dealing with an unwanted pregnancy.

But no one has a firmer grasp on just how bad it is for these women than the head of an abortion clinic in a neighboring state, whose identity is withheld for her safety and the safety of her clinic. "Sometimes I fantasize about Roe being overturned, because then I think that there would be this real threat, this real enemy," she says. "As long as everything flies below the radar, never an all-out attack, I think that most women and men are asleep. I don't think they realize what's going on. The assault on abortion rights is very clever. It's very smart. And we're losing."

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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