The Abortion Clinic That Won't Go Quietly
Kai Wright: Hey gang this is Kai. In our upcoming show on Sunday we'll be talking about the leaked opinion from Justice Samuel Alito that would strike down the constitutional right to an abortion in this country. I hope you'll join us for that live show and call in. For now I want to share a story I reported back in 2018 in Alabama. I'll say a little bit more about it in a minute, but it starts in a waiting room.
LaShonda Pinchon: The next available day would be Tuesday, Thursday or Friday of next week. However if she can make it on Wednesday she can have it done on Friday.
Kai Wright: LaShonda Pinchon is the lead nurse at the Alabama Women's Center in Huntsville.
LaShonda Pinchon: Yes, it's at least a 40-hour waiting period. She can come in on Wednesday by 10.00. She can come back as early as this Friday. You're welcome. Bye-bye.
Kai Wright: This is an abortion clinic or more precisely the abortion clinic within at least 150 miles, and the only provider of second trimester abortions within hundreds of miles. Patients turn up here from way beyond Alabama.
LaShonda Pinchon: Tennessee, Louisiana, Florida, Mississippi. Lots from Mississippi and Louisiana.
Kai Wright: I asked LaShonda to give me a tour. I honestly meant it as a proforma thing like, "Hey, show me where you work." At first, it was just standard stuff like the front desk, the exam rooms, but then we ended up in this strange spot.
LaShonda Pinchon: This room here is pretty important. It is our supply closet.
Kai Wright: It's got regular medical supplies in it: gloves and gowns and janitorial stuff.
LaShonda Pinchon: It is also our safe room. There is a panic button in this room right behind you there.
Kai Wright: A little rectangular silver plate on the wall like a light switch, but there's a bright red button where the switch ought to be. LaShonda says they've never had to use it. It's thankfully just been for storage, but that's not even the strange thing. Here's what really caught me off guard. The reason they made this space double as a safe room is they'd already spent a ton of money on it in order to meet state requirements for the supply closet.
LaShonda Pinchon: This room is fireproof. This was one of the requirements that state mandated, that we had to have a fireproof room.
Kai Wright: A fireproof room. Why?
LaShonda Pinchon: This room was about $20,000. You tell me and we'll both know.
Kai Wright: Like I said, I reported this story back in 2018. At the time, Alabama was the latest state to pass a law that deliberately challenged Roe with the intention of forcing the Supreme Court to weigh in. I'm not going to get into the legal weeds of that now. We'll talk about the court in our next show. For this story the point is that the experience of this clinic, the Alabama Women's Center, is instructive in two ways.
First, we can hear, firsthand, from the medical providers who are determined to provide this still constitutionally protected healthcare even in the face of relentless political and legal harassment which has been going on for at least a decade via laws like the one that led to that $20,000 supply closet. Second, we can learn something about how we arrived at this moment politically.
All right, I'm going to shut up and just play the original story. Take a listen.
LaShonda Pinchon: Okay, just come in. Just make sure you come in this week, okay?
Kai Wright: In my life, I've had the routine benefit of just a certain kind of Black woman. This is a fraught thing because it can become a caricature, but there really is a type of Black woman who's just got this.
LaShonda Pinchon: Hold the door open.
Kai Wright: She loves hard and she gets it done. That really is the best way I can describe all the women I met working at this clinic, certainly LaShonda Pinchon.
LaShonda Pinchon: My job is just to make sure that they're comfortable. It's going to be a stressful day anyway just because this is not something that anybody ever really wakes up and says, "Hey, today's Friday. I think I'm going to go in and have me an abortion." This is usually a very long thought-out process.
Kai Wright: A busy day might see 40 patients come through this clinic. LaShonda says her first order of business with each of them is to lower their blood pressure both literally and metaphorically.
LaShonda Pinchon: It's a de-escalation process a lot of the times. I have to usually talk my patients down. I'm usually the comical one. I always try to make my patients feel more comfortable usually through jokes.
Kai Wright: What's your best material? What's your best joke?
LaShonda Pinchon: [chuckles] I don't really have a joke joke. It's whatever that patient's going through. Oh, my biggest pet peeve, I can tell you that, it's bonnets on the head. They're coming with their bonnets. I always tell them they're going to look so much pretty when they take their bonnets off. I have them go in the bathroom, fix the hair up because I want them to come to the abortion clinic looking just as presentable as they go to their regular doctor. I don't accept anything less.
Kai Wright: LaShonda started off as a cardiac nurse but she didn't want to be in an emergency room all the time. She answered a blind job ad for this clinic. When she discovered this was an abortion provider it suddenly felt like a calling.
LaShonda Pinchon: It was like God was saying, "This is what I have for you. That prayer that you've been praying? This is my answer." I'm not going to say never-- I try not to question when I receive an answer.
Kai Wright: That was for 14 years ago. In those years, she has witnessed the steady erosion of the right to an abortion in Alabama.
LaShonda Pinchon: I've gone through the 24-hour waiting period, the 48-hour waiting period, having to change buildings because the hallways weren't wide enough at our other facility. I've been here through the duration of it.
Kai Wright: The rest of the country looks at this recent bill and says, "Oh my God." Are we in a different place from your experience on a day-to-day level?
LaShonda Pinchon: I think don't we're in a different place. I think we that have been in this fight, weren't shocked. The ones that haven't been paying attention are the ones that are shocked. Those of us that have seen law after law after law coming down the pipeline, we weren't shocked.
LaShonda Pinchon: All right. This is our lab area where our specimens are processed. We have to send every specimen to an independent lab, that's by state law.
Kai Wright: That's because the blood and tissue from each procedure has to be weighed. The existing law, not the new one, that's not in effect yet, but the current law bans abortion after 22 weeks. The lab test is one way the state polices that rule, but really there's another point to the rule. It's an expense.
LaShonda Pinchon: Some of this is just tissue, it's just blood, but we have to package that, we have to pay to get it packaged, we have to pay to get it sent to the lab.
Kai Wright: This regulation's an old one but it's an increasingly hard one to follow. They use a lab in Georgia and it recently closed down for a while.
LaShonda Pinchon: That was like, we were freaking out because nobody around here wants to do it. We have our other labs in Texas. We sent specimens all the way to Texas.
Kai Wright: Of course, anti-abortion legislators are ratcheting up their demands for how clinics dispose of fetal tissue. Indiana now makes clinics provide for an actual burial or cremation. Listen, if you think abortion is murder I guess all this stuff makes sense. That is certainly where the Republican party in Alabama is coming from.
Speaker 3: You can see right here, this little pen, that's the size and shape of an unborn child's feet at 10 weeks.
Kai Wright: Whatever ideas about morality may have fueled the anti-abortion movement, the story of this moment is ultimately one about power. It began with the 2010 mid-term election.
Barack Obama: Some election nights are more fun than others. Some are exhilarating. Some are humbling.
Michael Li: 2010 was a really big wave election and it resulted in Republicans taking power not only in Congress but also in many states.
Kai Wright: Michael Li is a lawyer for the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. His work focuses on the design of our democracy
Michael Li: In states like Alabama and Wisconsin and North Carolina, Republicans ended up in charge for the first time in many, many years, and, in fact, in Alabama for the first time since reconstruction.
Kai Wright: He says going into that election, Republicans understood something crucial; whoever controlled state governments in 2010 would draw the political map for the next decade. The Supreme Court had just ruled on Citizens United, opening the door for unlimited largely untrackable spending. Republicans just made it rain.
Michael Li: Karl Rove actually wrote about it in The Wall Street Journal. It wasn't as though it was some kind of secret project. Democrats, that should be said, were asleep at the wheel. It was like a slow-moving hurricane that you can totally foresee coming but Democrats didn't do anything to prepare for it.
Kai Wright: We are still living with the results, and importantly, the candidates who stormed into state houses in 2010 weren't just any old Republicans.
Michael Li: 2010 was the year where the Republican party took a sharp turn to the right.
Kai Wright: It was the birth of the Tea Party. Since they were the ones who drew the political map their dominance was baked in.
Michael Li: When you draw these districts such that you, basically, safe Republican seats, the election that really matters then is the primary. Americans overall actually have not become that much more polarized than we have been in the past. The one group that has become more polarized are the primary voters, that small fraction that votes in primaries. That is a much more conservative if you're a Republican electorate on issues like abortion, immigration and a whole host of issues.
Kai Wright: A whole lot of states were molded into this much more conservative view.
Laura Hall: The culture was one of, "We are in charge. Get over it."
Kai Wright: This is Representative Laura Hall, and the Alabama Women's Center is in her district. She's a Democrat. She says her new Republican colleagues used their power to its fullest extent on a lot of issues, but certainly abortion.
Laura Hall: It just seems like every year or so, there's another bill. I'd say if you are concerned about power and the impact on a negative way that it can have in your state or your district, look at Alabama. This is a good example of when you have a super majority.
Kai Wright: It happened all over the country. The legal turning point in the abortion fight was 1992 with a pivotal Supreme Court ruling that essentially invited tighter state regulations, but the political turning point, that was 2010.
Fully, one third of all restrictions put on abortion since Roe V. Wade have been put in place since 2010. Now, in a deliberate effort to provoke a final battle in the Supreme Court, this legislature has decided that the doctor at the Alabama Women's Center ought to be prosecuted for a Class A felony.
Dr. Yashica Robinson: My life's goal wasn't to be an abortion provider, it was just to be a good obstetrician-gynecologist.
Kai Wright: Dr. Yashica Robinson is the last remaining abortion provider with hospital-admitting privileges in the state of Alabama. She is also one of the busiest OBs in Huntsville.
Dr. Yashica Robinson: I do about, on average, 20 to 25 deliveries a month.
Kai Wright: To some, these may be incongruent facts. To Dr. Robinson, it's just the full spectrum of reproductive healthcare. She had her first child as a teenager, and she got cared during that pregnancy at a clinic for poor young moms. She decided then her life's work would be paying that gift back.
Dr. Yashica Robinson: I wanted to work with young ladies like myself.
Kai Wright: That's a really sweet idea, but you got to understand just how isolated Dr. Robinson has become in Huntsville. She is a pariah, even in the medical community. She doesn't like to talk about it, not on tape. She's got to live and work here, and it's hard enough without making new enemies by griping the reporters like me, but you can't practice medicine a vacuum.
Dr. Yashica Robinson: Babies come 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There is no schedule. It would be helpful to have a constant call group, somebody to give me call relief, but because I'm an abortion provider, it's difficult to find other physicians who are willing to share a call with me. I have missed graduations. I've missed funerals. I've missed weddings. I missed my class reunion just last year, and I really, really wanted to go.
Kai Wright: She's also had nasty run-ins with colleagues, even in the middle of delivery. She thinks she's been blackballed by lenders. She's had to fight a federal indictment for alleged fraud, she won the case, and now this new law, which despite all that Dr. Robinson has seen, actually caught her off guard. She thought the governor would veto it.
Dr. Yashica Robinson: For some reason, I was very optimistic that she would not sign that bill. Now, I know that many people may think that's foolish, but I was. I recall the day that she signed it and it was heartbreaking for me.
Kai Wright: It is just a lot that you're describing to continue to do this and given the direction that things have gone politically, it can feel like, I imagine, a losing battle that you're doing all of this for. I'm just trying to get an understanding of what would-- why and how you continue to do that then.
Dr. Yashica Robinson: I know that I pay an overwhelming cost to be able to provide abortion care here. Then I know that my family pays a price for providing the services. If I think about it on the other hand, if I just take what would "be the easy way out," and just quit because that's what anti-abortion activists want me to do, then I have to think about the price, mentally, how that's going to affect me. I'm not trying to sound like some hero or something, but really, I feel like that would be a bigger cost for me.
Kai Wright: To understand what she means here, you got to hear at least one of the many stories she tells about her patients.
Dr. Yashica Robinson: I have had a patient. She was 12 years old. She was about 11 weeks, if I remember correctly, when I first met her. She was a victim of incest. She was not a citizen, and she had been violated by her uncle. When her mother found out about her pregnancy and about what had taken place with her uncle, the mother did not report it for fear that the uncle would be deported. That child--
Kai Wright: I should say we can't independently confirm that part of the story, but the girl was certainly put in foster care and that made her choices about her pregnancy more complicated. Alabama requires parental consent for a minor to get an abortion. If she can't or won't get that consent, she can appeal to a judge for permission.
Dr. Yashica Robinson: She made the decision herself that she wanted to have an abortion. However, Alabama also recently passed legislation, which allowed the fetus to be appointed a guardian ad litem, if I'm saying the word correctly. It's basically like an attorney for the fetus.
Kai Wright: Sure enough, a district attorney took up this case on behalf of the fetus, which meant the 12-year-old girl had to testify at a hearing.
Dr. Yashica Robinson: My understanding is she's placed on a witness stand and the district attorney was able to ask her questions, basically interrogate her, like she's a criminal, and she goes through these --
Kai Wright: She made it through this ordeal and she won. The judge said she could abort the fetus. At this point, you can imagine the trauma this 12-year-old child carried into Dr. Robinson's clinic.
Dr. Yashica Robinson: As a provider, I feel like my responsibility is to be strong and be supportive for my patient, but I recall having to step out of the room and just take a moment to get myself together because I didn't want to cry in front of the patient because I've felt like if she didn't feel like she had people around her who could be supportive, then I felt like we were letting her down.
Kai Wright: They did not let her down. They gave her the care she needed. By that point, she was 17 weeks pregnant.
Dr. Yashica Robinson: That day I remember all of us sitting in the parking lot on the hot asphalt under the tree. We just felt like we had run a marathon.
Kai Wright: She was a few weeks away from it being illegal.
Dr. Yashica Robinson: Yes, just a few weeks away.
Kai Wright: Abortion remains legal if severely restricted in all 50 states. The Supreme Court is very likely about to change that. After Justice Alito's truly radical draft opinion leaked, I went back and listened to this story. One of the main reasons I wanted to share it now is the resolve I heard from these medical providers.
LaShonda Pinchon: I'm licensed in several states.
Kai Wright: Nurse LaShonda Pinchon again.
LaShonda Pinchon: I will provide this service where the service is needed and where it's legal. If you make it illegal in Alabama, I will be a resource for women to get it done in a state where it's done legally.
Kai Wright: Dr. Robinson told me the same thing, actually, so did everybody from the volunteers I met escorting women into the clinic, to the staff checking in patients at the front desk. They all said they may well be chased out of Alabama, but they won't abandon this work.
LaShonda Pinchon: It's like a beat-down feeling. We're doing everything we can, everything you tell us we have to do. We meet those standards and we exceed those standards. It's like, when is enough enough? We won't go away quietly.
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