Skip to main content

After decades of careful planning by anti-abortion advocates, this state is going further than any other to restrict reproductive rights – but pro-choice advocates on the ground say it won’t happen without a fight

Open this photo in gallery:

On a June day in Tuscaloosa, Ala., 73-year-old James Connor, a retired teacher, joins anti-abortion demonstrators outside the West Alabama Women’s Center.Photography by Annie Flanagan/The Globe and Mail

On a sunny, sweltering Saturday morning in June, a steady stream of patients rolled up to the West Alabama Women’s Center, an abortion clinic in the college town of Tuscaloosa.

As one woman got out of her car, a group of picketers harangued her.

“How many babies did y’all murder yesterday?” a grey-haired man in a Panama hat screamed.

“It’s a person. It has all of its parts,” hollered Nancy Duren, a 56-year-old administrator at a financial institution, as she held a poster of a bloody aborted fetus.

James Connor, 73, a retired high-school art teacher, recited Bible verses.

Open this photo in gallery:

Escorts gather to help patients to reach the clinic safely.

A group of pro-choice volunteers wearing rainbow vests rushed across the parking lot to escort the patient past the protesters. Courtney Cross, 34, and Justyn Lopaczynski, 36, greeted her and made small talk. Helmi Henkin, 22, wore a speaker around her neck and blasted Rihanna’s Only Girl in the World to drown out the verbal assailing.

This scene isn’t the worst of it. Jamie (J.J.) Johnson, 65, said one protester hit her with his car a few weeks earlier when she was escorting patients, sending her to hospital with rib contusions.

U.S. abortion bans: A state-by-state guide for Canadians

Ms. Johnson herself had an abortion in Tuscaloosa in 1973, mere months after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized it with its landmark Roe v. Wade decision. At the time, it was relatively straightforward: She visited an OB-GYN, got a checkup and scheduled the procedure.

“It’s definitely changed tremendously. Back then, it was free access,” said Ms. Johnson, a retired medical transcriptionist.

“Today, it’s just tightening, tightening, tightening.”

Open this photo in gallery:

Jamie (J.J.) Johnson says abortion access has tightened dramatically since she had an abortion in Tuscaloosa in 1973.

In recent years, the state government has imposed a series of bureaucratic hurdles on patients designed to make it as difficult as possible to get an abortion, as well as regulations on clinics meant to drive them out of business.

Now, Alabama is trying to end abortion altogether. The state is one of seven that passed near-total bans on the procedure this spring. With a conservative majority on the Supreme Court for the first time since the 1930s, anti-abortion politicians and activists are hoping to trigger legal challenges that will lead to the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

Alabama’s law, which would take effect in November, goes the furthest of any state. It would outlaw abortions from the start of pregnancy and impose penalties of up to 99 years in prison on doctors who perform them. And it contains no exemption allowing women to terminate pregnancies resulting from rape or incest.

All of the bans, including Alabama’s, are subject to legal challenges and are unlikely to take effect any time soon. But they are putting American abortion rights in the greatest jeopardy they have faced in two generations.

The battle is certain to stretch into the 2020 election season as U.S. President Donald Trump uses increasingly graphic language to condemn the procedure and whip up his base.

Alabama was the cradle of the U.S. civil-rights movement: where Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus, voting-rights marchers were attacked by police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in the town of Selma and Martin Luther King Jr. rose to prominence. Now, it is on the front line of a different struggle exposing the social rifts of a country.

Globe editorial: The abortion pill works, if women can get it

Opinion: Canada’s history with the abortion pill is shameful

Abortion-pill obstacles: How doctors’ reluctance and long-distance travel stop many Canadians from getting Mifegymiso

Open this photo in gallery:

Josh, 25, begins crying as he pleads with people walking into the clinic in Tuscaloosa. Others at the protest harangued patients as they left their cars.

Open this photo in gallery:

Anti-abortion advocates in Alabama and other states are hoping that legal challenges to their restrictive abortion laws will lead to the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that made safe and legal abortion possible in the United States.

On most days, you can find the chief architect of Alabama’s abortion ban at an office park on the outskirts of Birmingham, the state’s largest city, in an exurban area dotted by stands of pine trees, man-made lakes and several megachurches.

Eric Johnston’s day job is running a small civil-law firm. But his passion is leading the Alabama Pro-Life Coalition. A lean, bespectacled 71-year-old with a full head of grey hair, goatee and a laconic drawl, Mr. Johnston fits the stereotype of the Southern lawyer.

Called to the bar in 1973, the devout Presbyterian doesn’t remember anyone closely following Roe v. Wade. It wasn’t until a few years later, when he started doing pro-bono work for Christian groups, that Mr. Johnston became interested in the issue.

Over the years, he has helped adoption agencies refuse service to same-sex couples, fought for state constitutional amendments banning Sharia law and allowing the Ten Commandments to be displayed in public buildings, and campaigned for the church he attends to get the power to set up its own police force.

But battling abortion has been Mr. Johnston’s most constant cause.

“I felt, as a Christian, that I needed to serve my fellow man and do things for him,” Mr. Johnston said in an interview in his wood-panelled boardroom, the walls decorated with framed prints of the U.S. Constitution and Ronald Reagan memorabilia. “And I realized that as a lawyer, there are things I can do that non-lawyers can’t."

Open this photo in gallery:

Eric Johnston in his office in Birmingham, Ala. Memorabilia from the Ronald Reagan era sits on the shelves behind him.

Mr. Johnston says his approach was always strategic. Rather than support buzzy measures that would immediately be struck down by the courts – such as a 2016 ban on dilation and extraction, a specific abortion technique – he instead championed legislation that would cut the number of abortions without running afoul of Roe v. Wade or other Supreme Court decisions.

One 2002 law, for instance, mandated a 48-hour waiting period between the time a woman visits an abortion clinic for an initial appointment and the procedure itself. Another in 2013 obliged abortion providers to meet hospital-level building standards – including wider hallways and a specific type of air-conditioning system – forcing them to either close down or shell out for costly renovations. The next year, lawmakers passed a bill requiring minors seeking abortions without their parents’ consent to undergo a court hearing in which the state could appoint a lawyer to represent the fetus.

Such legislation could be defended legally as ensuring better health and safety standards, even though its purpose was to shut down clinics and make it onerous to get an abortion.

Mr. Johnston has been stunningly effective. Alabama had 13 abortion clinics as recently as 2000. Now, there are only three serving a state of nearly five million people. Between 2007 and 2017, the number of abortions performed in Alabama dropped nearly 40 per cent.

“When we would bring a bill to the legislature, we always thought that it would be constitutional,” he said. “We were always focused on … reducing the number of abortions.”

But last year, Mr. Johnston decided the time had come for a moon shot. Moderate Supreme Court justice Anthony Kennedy had retired, and Mr. Trump appointed conservative Brett Kavanaugh to replace him. This gave the court’s right wing a five-to-four majority for the first time in generations. Getting Roe v. Wade overturned was suddenly a possibility.

Over the following months, Mr. Johnston drafted the abortion ban bill, dubbed the Human Life Protection Act. In May, it sailed through the Republican-controlled legislature and Governor Kay Ivey signed it into law.

Open this photo in gallery:

Diane Weil, an abortion-clinic escort in Montgomery, Ala., wears a necklace of a coathanger, a symbol of the unsafe back-alley abortions of the pre-Roe v. Wade era. 'Thirty years ago I was wearing this necklace,' she says.

Several other states have passed similar legislation. Laws in Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Kentucky and Ohio would ban abortion as soon as a fetal heartbeat can be detected, typically within six to eight weeks of conception.

Alabama’s legislation is the strictest. It would outlaw abortion from the start of pregnancy and contains only one exception: to save the life of the mother. Its preamble compares abortion to the Holocaust, Soviet gulags, the Rwandan genocide and the killing fields of Cambodia.

Some anti-abortion activists would be content for the Supreme Court to simply decide there is no constitutional right to an abortion and allow individual states to prohibit the procedure. But Alabama wants more: The state is hoping the Supreme Court will find that fetuses are persons under the U.S. Constitution and impose a complete nationwide ban on abortion. Mr. Johnston says allowing abortions in cases of rape and incest would muddy this argument.

“It doesn’t matter how you’re conceived; the product of that conception is a child. It would have been difficult, if not impossible, to argue to a judge how the state could distinguish between different kinds of life if they’re both people,” he said. “We hope the central issue will be the unborn child as a person.”

The arc of Mr. Johnston’s activism is emblematic of the long game anti-abortion advocates have played. They have enacted legal roadblocks to getting the procedure, while also turning opposition to abortion into an article of faith for Republican politicians.

Mr. Trump himself pulled a 180-degree turn. In the 1990s, he declared himself pro-choice; but by the time he ran for president as a Republican, he was staunchly anti-abortion. Now, he characterizes the procedure in violent terms – “children ripped from the mother’s womb.”

The bans are far from being enforced. They will all most likely be blocked by the courts. It will then be up to the Supreme Court to decide which, if any, of the new laws to consider.

Randall Marshall, the local director of the American Civil Liberties Union, is confident Mr. Johnston’s legislation will never take effect. For one, there are numerous other, less restrictive laws further along in the court process that he believes are more likely to be taken up by the Supreme Court. And he contends that even conservative judges, particularly Chief Justice John Roberts, will balk at the notion of reversing a previous major decision.

“If all it takes to start overturning past rulings is a change in the political makeup of the Court, then the Court loses its legitimacy and it is nothing more than a political arm of the sitting president,” he said in his office in Montgomery, Alabama’s sleepy state capital. “It’s more likely that there would be a slow chipping away of rights.”

Open this photo in gallery:

An anti-abortion billboard stands by the roadside in Montgomery, which, along with Tuscaloosa and Huntsville, is one of only three cities in Alabama with abortion clinics. For those who don't live in those cities, travel and hotel costs are a barrier to access that falls disproportionately on low-income, black and Hispanic people.

When Hevan Lunsford went to get an abortion in October of 2016, she ran up against both Alabama’s restrictive laws and its pervasive social stigmas.

Recently married and expecting her first child, the then-28-year-old hospice nurse discovered during a 20-week anatomy ultrasound that the fetus she was carrying had serious birth defects, including a single-ventricle heart. She chose to end the pregnancy.

Alabama, however, does not allow abortions after 20 weeks. So, she and her husband drove to Atlanta, where, across the state line in Georgia, the restrictions were less stringent.

“I’m upset that I couldn’t deliver in my home state with my family,” she said in the living room of her brick and clapboard house. “It could have been so different.”

The procedure was only the start. Living in Prattville, a small town near Montgomery, Ms. Lunsford found few pro-choice people in her social circle. She mostly kept mum about the abortion; even her husband’s conservative Catholic family was in the dark.

On the day she returned from Atlanta, Ms. Lunsford’s mother-in-law visited and, discussing the coming election, accused the pro-choice Hillary Clinton of supporting “babies being ripped to pieces.” In another casual conversation, a friend described late-term abortion as “just sick.” When Ms. Lunsford waded into Facebook discussions on the subject, one commenter called her a “murderer.”

“It’s hard to find people that will just accept that women can make their own choices,” she said.

Ms. Lunsford counts herself fortunate in one respect. With a good job, she was able to afford the procedure, take time off work and travel out of state.

In the U.S., roughly 75 per cent of women who receive abortions are low-income, according to figures from the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that tracks reproductive health care. Black and Hispanic women constitute 28 per cent and 25 per cent of people getting abortions, but only 13 and 18 per cent of the general population. This means the burden of anti-abortion laws falls disproportionately on the most marginalized in society.

Because of the scarcity of abortion providers and the 48-hour waiting period, for instance, Alabama women who do not happen to live in one of the three towns with an abortion clinic must either make two multi-hour trips to get a procedure, or pay for three nights in a hotel. Ironically, the same Alabama politicians who want to ban abortion are the ones who oppose building more social housing or creating a universal health-care system, measures that would make it easier for women to have children.

The Tuscaloosa-based Yellowhammer Fund is trying to tackle this problem by raising money to help low-income women pay for abortions, and fund bus tickets and hotel rooms. Last year Yellowhammer, named after the state bird, helped 313 women cover their procedures.

“Some of our callers are in a place where, if circumstances were different, if we had better social welfare mechanisms in place, they would not be choosing abortions,” said Amanda Reyes, the Fund’s executive director. “It is hard to look at everything that is happening and not to see this as a new regime of racial and class control.”

Mr. Johnston is aware of Ms. Reyes’s criticism. He says he favours government assistance to low-income mothers to pay for child-rearing necessities. But his anti-abortion law does not contain any such assistance.

“Putting that on the bill, something about finances on there, that would have killed the bill in the process,” he said.

Mr. Johnston did not explain why the legislature would somehow approve such funds after the law comes into effect if it could not agree to do so beforehand.

Nor did he seem to grasp why he had received condemnation from human-rights groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, for comparing abortion to the Holocaust – as well as genocides in Rwanda, Cambodia and the former Soviet Union.

“I hadn’t had any Rwandans or Cambodians contact me. I don’t know why they’re not concerned about it. But the Holocaust people were concerned,” he said with a laugh. “It was just meant to show the numbers of lives that were taken improperly, illegally, unlawfully, brutally.”

Open this photo in gallery:

An anti-abortion demonstrator shouts toward Reproductive Health Services in Montgomery. Umbrellas held by clinic escort hide the patients' faces, as does a tarp hung over the fence. On the inside of the fence, signs point toward the sidewalk, reading: 'Keep away and ignore this idiot.'

Travis Jackson volunteers escorting patients at Reproductive Health Services, an abortion clinic housed in a one-storey brick building on the edge of Montgomery’s downtown. The 34-year-old former soldier, who is black, can rhyme off the racist abuse hurled at him by anti-abortion protestors: the N-word, a “slave,” and a “traitor” to his race.

The picketers have also taken photos of patients entering the clinic and posted them online, Mr. Jackson said, in a bid to identify the women and tell their employers and schools that they have received abortions. Mr. Jackson carries an umbrella to shield the faces of the patients. On one occasion last year, he said, a protester charged at him, grabbed the umbrella and tore the fabric off.

Mr. Jackson has moved between several states over the years, by virtue of his childhood in a military family and his own time in the army.

“There needs to be an awareness of the misogyny and sexism that is alive and well in the state of Alabama,” he said as he sat on the veranda of a grey clapboard house next to the clinic; the pro-choice volunteers maintain this home as a refuge for patients. “This would probably have to be the most oppressive place I have lived in.”

Open this photo in gallery:

June Ayers, right, is the director of the Montgomery clinic.

Inside that clinic sits June Ayers, whose life’s work has been keeping the place afloat.

She grew up the daughter of a state trooper who was among the forces that tried to stop the 1965 marchers in Selma, but Ms. Ayers moved toward progressive politics as she came of age. She protested the Vietnam War and describes herself as a hippie. She had an abortion herself in 1973, during her first year of university.

In 1978, Ms. Ayers started at Reproductive Health Services as a receptionist. She rapidly rose to counsellor, clinic director and owner. Over the decades, she has weathered both the picketers – on one occasion, she recalls, anti-abortion activists even tailed her and her daughter around a local mall – and state efforts to run her out of town. Mr. Johnston’s law imposing new building code standards on abortion providers, for instance, forced Ms. Ayers to spend US$70,000 to renovate her building. In some years, she has gone without a paycheque.

But she says this has only steeled her resolve.

"I’m not giving up, because they’re not going to win,” the gregarious 64-year-old said as she sat in the reception area after the clinic had closed for the day. “Women are going to die if abortion is not available. I don’t know of any other word for it: It’s oppression. It’s a war on women.”

Open this photo in gallery:

'If this clinic doesn’t stay open, where are these women going to go?' Ms. Ayers says.

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe