Recognizing Fundamental Human Rights for Abortion Clients and Providers

Renee Chelian

In 1966, at age 15, I had an illegal abortion. I later became a provider. The constant violation of the rights of clients and providers led me to participate in the first Universal Periodic Review to advocate for people whose rights need to be protected.

This article is part of a series published by Rewire in partnership with the Center for Reproductive Rights. It is also published in recognition of International Human Rights Day, December 10th, 2010. Read more International Human Rights Day 2010 posts here.

In 1966, I had an illegal abortion. I was 15 and I desperately wanted the chance to live my life without being a mother at such a young age.  My very brave parents talked with me, then, working through a network of strangers, they arranged for me to have an abortion. It was dangerous, very expensive but at least it was close enough to home that we didn’t have to travel far.  I could not tell anyone about my abortion for fear of mine and my family’s safety.  I also felt the tremendous shame and stigma that many women experience as a result of illegal abortion. I survived my illegal abortion, and was lucky that I was not left infertile, but I was the exception.

After the legalization of abortion in 1973, I became passionate about working to ensure that NO woman would ever have to experience another back alley, illegal abortion.   As I watched my daughters and their friends grow up, my commitment to the women of this world deepened and became stronger than I ever imagined.

So I became an abortion provider.

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I founded three health centers that offer reproductive health and abortion care in the Detroit, Michigan area. My dream was to create a health care center for women that offered affordable, high-quality reproductive health care, including abortion, delivered by compassionate, well-trained physicians. My dream became a reality and more…my clinics are a place where women are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve, where women have access to comprehensive pregnancy decision counseling and options for birth control without fear of intimidation or harassment.

My dream was not mine alone. In the years following the Roe decision, clinics such as mine opened across the country operated by health care professionals who shared the same passion about women’s rights and safety.   And you have to be passionate about these things in order to keep doing this work.  Anti-abortion extremists know THAT IF THERE ARE NO PROVIDERS, THEN THEY’VE WON THE BATTLE.

Abortion providers, and I am including clinic staff as well as physicians in this term, deal with intimidation and harassment from anti-abortion extremists every single day.  We are threatened verbally and physically.  Protestors picket us at our homes.  They harass our families.   They try to turn our neighbors against us.  My clinic, like so many other clinics, was blockaded, with several hundred people surrounding the clinic and obstructing the doors, and otherwise trying to prevent patients from getting into the clinic.  We get letters with anthrax threats and white powder inside the envelope.  Some clinics have been bombed.  At one of my clinics, someone used chemicals to make the facility unusable.  Some clinics have been set on fire.

We spend much of our time with the police, FBI, politicians, picketers, protestors or bomb squads and the media that follow them.  We spend more money on security than we do on medical equipment. Our homes have been staked out by protestors. We have been hunted and stalked.  Some of us have been murdered in our clinics, our homes and, most recently, in our houses of worship.

All of this affects us dramatically.  Our lives are filled with enormous stress and anxiety, and yet, we continue to love and remain dogmatically committed to the work we do.   It also affects our children.  When my children started pre-school and then elementary school, I found it necessary to make special security arrangements with the schools because of my profession.  When protestors came to my home, they terrified my young daughters and their friends.  My youngest daughter suffered a sleep disorder, nightmares and fear of just about everyone and everything- including playing in our yard.  She cried every night before bed for us to please brick in her bedroom windows so that the protestors could not come in and kill her and us.  We put alarms in our home and cars, but despite these security precautions, the anti-abortion zealots destroyed her feeling of safety, all to try and intimidate me into quitting my job.

It is no wonder that many of the doctors, nurses and other health care professionals who chose to provide abortion care, have left the field.  The ever-present fear for personal and family safety and the constant state of siege becomes just too much.  My former medical director, and a good friend, stopped providing abortions and moved to another state to escape the relentless pickets and threats at his medical office and home… and he is not the only one.  As a result, there is a nationwide shortage of abortion providers:  87% of counties in the US have no abortion provider.  Some states have only a single abortion clinic, and the physicians who do abortions there fly in from out of state.

And so these anti-abortion extremists hurt our patients in multiple ways.  By terrorizing and intimidating abortion providers to stop doing abortions, they have created a country where some women have to travel hundreds of miles for a legal medical service.  Rural women, in particular, face enormous travel distances and thus a much harder time accessing abortion.  Low-income women struggle to come up with the funds for an abortion, just like they do for many other forms of healthcare.  However, women who are on Medicaid, the government healthcare program for low-income people, generally won’t have coverage for an abortion, even when it’s needed to protect their health, unlike other forms of healthcare.   Even when we can get funding assistance for the cost of a low-income woman’s procedure, she has to find the money to pay for transportation and child care, and has to be able to afford to take the time off from work.  The time it takes to raise the necessary money often forces women to delay their procedures.  And make no mistake, first-trimester abortion is one of the safest medical procedures out there, but the risks to a woman’s health do increase as time goes by.  If a low-income woman lives in one of those 87% of US counties without an abortion provider, she also has to find a way to come up with the funds to travel.  And if she lives in one of the several states that requires 2 trips to the clinic, in person, first listen to a state-mandated lecture designed to discourage her from seeking an abortion and then to return for the abortion at some later point, she’s going to have to come up with the funds for a hotel stay too.

When patients get to the clinic, they are harassed by anti-abortion protestors in yet another way.  At least one clinic has had to hire security guards to protect patients as they walk from the clinic’s parking lot to the clinic door.  Protestors use cameras to record patients entering the clinic, and, sometimes, post pictures of patients on the Internet in an attempt to make their identities public.  Outside my clinics, protestors scream angry words at my patients, calling them ugly names and shoving graphic pictures and propaganda in their faces.  The protestors tell these women, and those who are accompanying them, that they are evil and will go to hell. They say God will punish them and that they will never have another child because of their sins.  On a recent Saturday morning at one of my clinics, 400 protestors appeared out of nowhere, marching down the sidewalk in 2 by 2 formation, then surrounded the clinic and chanted at high volume over a loudspeaker.  For the 45 minutes they stood there, no one could use the sidewalk in front of the clinic.

I came to Geneva to participate in advocacy around the United States’ first-ever Universal Periodic Review because I wanted to put a face on who we are, the women and men who provide abortion care in the United States.  And I wanted to explain how the anti-abortion protestors who terrorize us are harming not only us but, ultimately, the millions of women who come to us for quality reproductive health care.  I appreciate that, under President Obama, the federal government has taken steps to reinvigorate its commitment to work with state and local law enforcement to protect providers against harassment, intimidation, and violence.   And I hope that the cruel and punitive policies that withhold funding for most abortions from the women on Medicaid who need them will be repealed.  But there is much more that could, and should, be done to protect women’s human right to affordable, accessible, acceptable, quality health care. I hope that the UPR process leads to an ongoing conversation between the U.S. government and those of us on the ground about how best to ensure that all women can access safe abortion care, regardless of where they live and how much they earn.

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