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FORT WORTH, Texas — It had been nine days since Texas outlawed nearly all abortions, and the Whole Woman’s Health abortion clinic in Fort Worth was quiet.
Fifty-five patients had been scheduled to visit the clinic that Thursday. In the days before the Texas ban, about 80 percent of patients tended to show up for their appointments. On Thursday, just 20 appeared.
Those who do arrive need to be early enough in their pregnancies to slide underneath the new Texas law, which bans abortion as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. That is at most, just two weeks after a missed period, and before most people even know they’re pregnant. By the end of the first week of the ban, the Fort Worth clinic had already turned away 70 patients.
Of those 20 patients on Thursday, eight qualified for abortions.
“Normally in this clinic, we would complete about anywhere from 100, 130 abortions a week,” said Marva Sadler, director of clinical services for the Whole Woman’s Health clinics in Texas. “Today, Thursday, we're looking at completing maybe 30 for the week at this point.”
Sadler dreads the silence in the clinic.
“I was a little intimidated about walking into a clinic today where we really are not busy and really not seeing the amount of patients that I know we need our services,” she told me. “We’re sitting in a building right now where normally there is no room in the parking lot. Normally, there is no room in the building. We usually have patients sitting in their cars by this point of the day, because all of the chairs in our lobby are completely full.”
Today, she said, “I think our cars may be the only cars in the parking lot.”
“I don't want to live in Texas anymore. I feel like I can't make a decision for myself, for my body, and my family. I feel like these decisions are being made for me and I feel like I'm trapped.”
Jasmine, 26, was one of the patients who did visit Whole Woman’s Health that day. She arrived at the clinic six weeks and one day into her pregnancy—too late for an abortion.
“I don't want to live in Texas anymore,” Jasmine said, through tears. “I feel like I can't make a decision for myself, for my body, and my family. I feel like these decisions are being made for me and I feel like I'm trapped.”
Jasmine had used birth control and had a normal period; the only reason she’d started to suspect that she might be pregnant was because she was having breakthrough bleeding. She told me that she now wants to go out of state for an abortion, but, as a mother of two, she knows it’s going to be a massive financial strain. (Like the other women I spoke with, she asked that I only use her first name.)
Adoption is a costly, lengthy process, Jasmine said. She doesn’t trust that a chiId would actually end up going to a good home. If she can’t get an abortion, Jasmine said, “I’ll probably have to apply for some state benefit programs. I’ve never had to do that in my life before.”
“What’s to come after this? Where is the stopping point?” she asked. “First, it’s abortions, then it’s women aren’t allowed to do anything.”
Inside Whole Woman’s Health, each of the pale mauve-painted patient rooms are named for powerful women: Margaret Cho, Sojourner Truth, Rachel Maddow. They featured quotes from these women, and, at least in the case of the Cho and Maddow rooms, kitschy, canvas-printed portraits of their idols. In one room, named for Amy Hagstrom Miller, the founder and CEO of the Whole Woman’s Health group, the wall read, “We are on the right side of history and we stand in the light.”
Sadler was already practiced at delivering the bad news to patients in those rooms.
“Because there is fetal cardiac activity on your ultrasound, we’re not able to continue through with the abortion process,” she told one patient who was nine weeks pregnant.
“First, it’s abortions, then it’s women aren’t allowed to do anything.”
Sadler’s tone was empathetic but matter-of-fact as she walked the patient through her options to get an abortion in neighboring states, which range from more friendly towards abortion rights (New Mexico, Colorado) to ones that are nearly as restrictive as Texas (Oklahoma, Louisiana). Sadler offered the patients referrals to organizations that could help her pay for the abortion and all the costs of going out of state, as well as to groups that could help the patient if she wanted to continue the pregnancy.
“I really do apologize for our ridiculous state and these rules,” Marva told the patient. “I keep telling people, watch the news. This thing is unfolding day by day at this point. So who knows? Maybe we get some relief here soon and we can continue forth.”
Hours after Marva gave that patient the news, the Biden administration sued Texas over the ban, which it said “clearly violates the Constitution.”
But, right now, it’s impossible to know whether that legal challenge will be fast or decisive enough to help women like Jasmine.
Sadler, like a few other clinic staffers, wore a T-shirt that listed the abortion rights’ movement’s victories at the Supreme Court in bright, colorful font, including Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision that legalized abortion nationwide. (Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, a 2016 case that had been waged by the very group behind the Fort Worth clinic, was rendered in sparkly purple.)
But the shirt also served as a sobering reminder that the Supreme Court, which is now dominated by conservatives, had refused to step in and stop the Texas ban from taking effect.
“For the Supreme Court to just simply decide to step away and walk away from me, really made me feel like the war was over and we had lost,” Sadler said, as tears started to stream down her face.
Even if someone could get an abortion, everybody who showed up at the clinic on Thursday would still have to wait to get one, due to a pre-existing Texas law that mandates that abortion patients must first come to the clinic for counseling, wait 24 hours, then return for the procedure itself.
“For the Supreme Court to just simply decide to step away and walk away from me, really made me feel like the war was over and we had lost.”
At just five weeks pregnant, 23-year-old Felicity was one of the few who were able to go through that whole process. Like most abortion patients, she’s given birth before; she has two children. And while the national battle over abortion may suggest that there are just two camps—those who support abortion rights and those who don’t—her views on the topic were far more nuanced. She has sympathy for some of the thinking behind the Texas ban.
“This is a new life that's trying to be born. And it's not fair that that life did not get a chance,” Felicity said. If she were too deep into her pregnancy to end it in Texas, Felicity said she would have been “a little depressed at first.” But she would have, ultimately, raised the child.
Still, she doesn’t think that the lawmakers behind the ban are exactly pure of heart.
“I feel as though the government will always and forever want [poor] people to stay in poverty. They want the rich to stay rich,” she said. “They don't understand what families go through. They don't understand the living situation of a woman who becomes pregnant, so I feel like, who are you to take that away from someone, if they can't afford to get an abortion because they don't want their child living in a homeless situation, in an abusive situation?”
Felicity worries about racism, police brutality, poverty, the coronavirus pandemic. “I do get scared of bringing another child into this world that we live in today. I was scared for my first two, because it’s cruel out there and I don't want to bring another child—especially a little girl—there’s too much going on right now.”
Throughout my time at Whole Woman’s Health, I spoke to three patients, all of whom were women of color. In a lawsuit filed in an attempt to stop the ban from going into effect, Texas abortion providers alleged, “The burdens of this cruel law will fall most heavily on Black, Latinx, and indigenous patients who, because of systemic racism, already encounter substantial barriers to obtaining health care, and will face particular challenges and injuries if forced to attempt to seek care out of state or else carry an unwanted pregnancy to term.”
“Women, and then especially women of color—it feels like it's just kind of like we're surviving, not really living, not really striving,” Jasmine told me. “And we don't have the support that we need, especially from our government, to thrive.”
Unlike the numerous six-week abortion bans that have been blocked by courts in other states, the Texas abortion ban isn’t enforced by the state government. Instead, it relies on private individuals to do its work: People may sue anyone who “aids or abets” an abortion that breaks the ban. A successful lawsuit could net damages of $10,000, plus attorney fees.
On my way into the clinic, my Uber driver told me that, given the new law, he would be too afraid of the legal jeopardy to dive anybody to the abortion clinic.
That provision has also left Acie Sadler, Marva Sadler’s husband, deeply fearful for his wife. He accompanied Sadler on her four-hour drive from her home in south Texas to Fort Worth, for, he said, “protection and support.”
“I’m afraid that the protesters are always out here and they know our kids’ names and they know our family name,” Acie Sadler said. “Anything could happen. They could show up at our house. They could show up here. They’re always here.”
In the mid-afternoon on Thursday, I spotted just one protester, a man with a loudspeaker who stood on the opposite side of the clinic fence, which was painted with blue and green flowers. He wore silver, sporty sunglasses and shouted in paragraphs about Jesus Christ.
The next day, Friday, I briefly returned to Whole Woman’s Health. The clinic was performing abortions that day and a few more cars were in the parking lot—although, again, far fewer than normal. A handful of protesters had gathered outside, careful to stand on the sidewalk or neighboring parking lot. One man used a loudspeaker to preach to no one: “Have mercy. Have mercy.”
“There's a $10,00 bounty being put on my head, my staff's head, for anyone who's willing to turn us in for what they think is performing an illegal abortion.”
As I left, most assumed that I was there for an abortion. The man with the loudspeaker told me, “I’m a sad old man. I can’t hurt you.” Another, young-looking man stood on the sidewalk, with a camera trained on the clinic. “Keep the baby,” he urged me.
As I stood outside, talking on the phone, he swiveled his camera to film me.
“We're surveilled every day by anti-abortion activists. They literally stand out on our sidewalk every single day and call us by name as we attempt to enter our job,” Marva Sadler said. “There's a $10,00 bounty being put on my head, my staff's head, for anyone who's willing to turn us in for what they think is performing an illegal abortion.”
Gilad Thaler contributed reporting.