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After a reprieve, a Louisiana clinic resumes abortions for anxious patients

Kathaleen Pittman, administrator at Hope Medical Group in Shreveport, watches local TV news discussing a temporary restraining order the clinic won on Monday against Louisiana's abortion bans.
Sarah McCammon
/
NPR
Kathaleen Pittman, administrator at Hope Medical Group in Shreveport, watches local TV news discussing a temporary restraining order the clinic won on Monday against Louisiana's abortion bans.

SHREVEPORT, La. — After days of uncertainty, a young mother from a small town in Texas finally made it to Shreveport, La., as the clinic there was re-opening for abortions on Tuesday.

"I was really scared. I thought I was going to have to travel 12 hours to Albuquerque," says J, who only gave her first initial for privacy reasons.

After the Supreme Court decision last week overturning Roe v. Wade, J feared she wouldn't be able to keep her appointment at the Hope Medical Group for Women in Shreveport, one of Louisiana's three clinics that offers abortions, as Louisiana moved to enforce its abortion bans. She already knew she couldn't get a legal procedure at home in Texas, under a state law that took effect in September, banning most abortions after about six weeks.

New Mexico would have been the next-closest option — but that would mean a day-long drive with her husband and three young boys. J, who's 27, was relieved when she learned that Hope Medical Group would be able to resume services, after reproductive rights lawyers won a reprieve in state court, allowing abortions to continue at least for now.

"I don't think that my overall health can take it, let alone my mental health," she says. "I already have three kids, and I'm kind of useless as a pregnant person. It's been that way with all of my pregnancies. I'm just unable to function."

J has hyperemesis, which causes frequent and severe vomiting during pregnancy, leading to weight loss and dehydration. She says she struggles even to keep water down and has been hospitalized multiple times. For her, J says, being a good mother means not putting her family through that again. She decided that terminating this pregnancy was the best choice for her and her kids.

On Monday, as workers at Hope Medical Group for Women in Shreveport called back patients, a neighbor came by to drop off flowers from his garden, saying he knew it was a "stressful" time.
Sarah McCammon / NPR
/
NPR
On Monday, as workers at Hope Medical Group for Women in Shreveport called back patients, a neighbor came by to drop off flowers from his garden, saying he knew it was a "stressful" time.

But after the Supreme Court decision on Friday set off a string of trigger abortion bans around the country, the staff at Hope Medical Group in Shreveport had to send everyone home. Kathaleen Pittman, the clinic's administrator, said it was a nightmare.

"I don't know who cried harder, the staff or the patients," she says.

Now, after a New Orleans judge issued a temporary restraining order on a series of state abortion restrictions, the clinic is temporarily able to offer the procedure again. But the staff's short-term relief is paired with immense concern about the future for its patients.

Abortion rights advocates say it's unclear which abortion bans are in place

After Friday's Supreme Court ruling, lawyers for the Center for Reproductive Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union were ready with legal challenges to the trigger laws in several states, winning some temporary victories in state courts on Monday and Tuesday.

In Louisiana, abortion rights advocates argued it was unclear which of the state's multiple abortion bans were in place — and that the bans themselves are confusing. The judge temporarily blocked enforcement of those laws, pending a July 8 hearing.

Staff members at Hope Medical Group began calling their patients — including J.

"Thank goodness," she says. "I was just really happy to hear that I could still come."

On Monday, in the hours after the New Orleans judge issued the restraining order allowing the clinic to re-open, Pittman took a short break from the phones to watch local news on a waiting room TV. An image of the clinic's front door flashed on the screen, drawing some surprised reactions from a couple of employees. But Pittman is used to this fight.

"It's just a way of life," she said. "I can't imagine coming to work in the morning and not having something hanging over my head."

"At the moment, we're not making any new appointments"

Kayla Stewart started working at the clinic only five months ago, not long after SB 8 started sending hundreds of Texas patients to their doorstep for help. She spent all day Monday trying to reach patients who'd been sent home on Friday, trying to get them back on the schedule. But the phone never stopped ringing with requests for new appointments. News of the restraining order was spreading.

"At the moment, we're not making any new appointments," she told a distraught woman over the phone.

Stewart, 23, was there on Friday when news broke about Roe v. Wade and they had to send several patients back over the state line, some of whom had driven through the night to make their appointments that day. And while she said that most people were "really happy" to get the call to be put back on the schedule, coming back isn't possible for everyone.

"I think five of the women we had scheduled are now too far along," she said. "And others can't make the drive all the way back here."

And as for those desperately trying to get on the books for the first time? Stewart's colleague, Steffi Chaffee, tried to calm another panicked voice on the phone after telling her they were completely booked.

"I understand, honey," she said to the caller. "The whole thing isn't fair."

"You know the scariest part?" she said after hanging up the phone. "Half of them don't even know what's going on. 'What's Roe vs. Wade?' They don't follow the news that closely, if at all."

Chaffee says it's hard enough for her to keep up with all the legal updates, even while her own job depends on it. But the goal for now is to "just keep the doors open as long as we can."

The phone rang again and Chaffee reached for it.

Outside, protestors try to dissuade patients

Meanwhile, Chris Davis was praying outside of the clinic's metal gate. He said the facility wasn't supposed to be open and that he came to "make sure" the clinic wasn't performing any abortions that day. When asked how he could tell from the sidewalk, he said he can see it on the women's faces after they leave the building.

"Women walk in pregnant and they walk out empty," he said.

Davis is an anti-abortion advocate who approaches patients outside of the clinic to try and talk them out of their procedures. He said he works with an organization that offers a room and prenatal care for pregnant women until the baby is 3 months old.

"There is no medical need for an abortion," he said, while giving a factually flawed explanation of ectopic pregnancies and the female reproductive system. He brushed off any conflicting medical information, claiming that any doctor who disagrees with him is simply "a pro-choice doctor."

When asked if he himself was a doctor, he replied, "Almost."

"I want to walk away from this feeling better''

The phone was already ringing without pause on Tuesday morning as staff opened the clinic and patients pulled into the parking lot.

Jamie Cantrell, a volunteer escort, approached each car to suggest they back into the spaces in order to hide their license plates.

"Sometimes, folks will come out with cameras and take photographs," she said, alluding to the wave of legal fights that could await people who either seek abortions or who help them in any way.

Jeff Landry, Louisiana's Republican attorney general, has vowed to defend his state's abortion restrictions. And Sarah Zagorski, communications director with Louisiana Right to Life, says she's confident abortion will soon be banned here and the restraining order will be lifted.

"It's going to get dismissed, and our Louisiana law will stand," she says. "There's nothing vague about our 2022 Reaffirmation of Human Life Protection Act. In our opinion, they're just really pulling at straws to try to keep their doors open."

Inside those doors, J and other patients are busy following instructions from clinic staff to fill out paperwork and silence their phones. J says she's looking forward to getting back home to her family.

"I want to walk away from this feeling better," she says. "Because right now I feel extremely sick, and I'm unable to function and take care of my kids."

In her office, Pittman has spent the past few days trying to keep up with the phone calls from patients, and communicate with attorneys about the clinic's options leading up to the court date on July 8. She says she understands that her victory might be temporary.

"To someone on the outside looking in, they may see it as a fruitless battle," she says. "And to that, I would refer you to the patients that are seen in the meantime. Because it means all the world to them."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lauren Hodges is an associate producer for All Things Considered. She joined the show in 2018 after seven years in the NPR newsroom as a producer and editor. She doesn't mind that you used her pens, she just likes them a certain way and asks that you put them back the way you found them, thanks. Despite years working on interviews with notable politicians, public figures, and celebrities for NPR, Hodges completely lost her cool when she heard RuPaul's voice and was told to sit quietly in a corner during the rest of the interview. She promises to do better next time.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.
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