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.

News Law and Policy

Three Crisis Pregnancy Centers Served for Breaking California Law

Nicole Knight Shine

The notices of violation issued this month mark the first time authorities anywhere in the state are enforcing the seven-month-old Reproductive Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care, and Transparency (FACT) Act.

The Los Angeles City Attorney is warning three area fake clinics, commonly known as crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), that they’re breaking a new state reproductive disclosure law and could face fines of $500 if they don’t comply.

The notices of violation issued this month mark the first time authorities anywhere in the state are enforcing the seven-month-old Reproductive Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care, and Transparency (FACT) Act, advocates and the state Attorney General’s office indicate.

The office of City Attorney Mike Feuer served the notices on July 15 and July 18 to two unlicensed and one licensed clinic, a representative from the office told Rewire. The Los Angeles area facilities are Harbor Pregnancy Help Center, Los Angeles Pregnancy Services, and Pregnancy Counseling Center.

The law requires the state’s licensed pregnancy-related centers to display a brief statement with a number to call for access to free and low-cost birth control and abortion care, and for unlicensed centers to disclose that they are not medical facilities.

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“Our investigation revealed,” one of the letters from the city attorney warns, “that your facility failed to post the required onsite notice anywhere at your facility and that your facility failed to distribute the required notice either through a printed document or digitally.”

The centers have 30 days from the date of the letter to comply or face a $500 fine for an initial offense and $1,000 for subsequent violations.

“I think this is the first instance of a city attorney or any other authority enforcing the FACT Act, and we really admire City Attorney Mike Feuer for taking the lead,” Amy Everitt, state director of NARAL Pro-Choice California, told Rewire on Wednesday.

Feuer in May unveiled a campaign to crack down on violators, announcing that his office was “not going to wait” amid reports that some jurisdictions had chosen not to enforce the law while five separate court challenges brought by multiple fake clinics are pending.

Federal and state courts have denied requests to temporarily block the law, although appeals are pending before U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

In April, Rebecca Plevin of the local NPR affiliate KPCC found that six of eight area fake clinics were defying the FACT Act.

Although firm numbers are hard to come by, around 25 fake clinics, or CPCs, operate in Los Angeles County, according to estimates from a representative of NARAL Pro-Choice California. There are upwards of 1,200 CPCs across the country, according to their own accounting.

Last week, Rewire paid visits to the three violators: Harbor Pregnancy Help Center, Los Angeles Pregnancy Services, and Pregnancy Counseling Center.

Christie Kwan, a nurse manager at Pregnancy Counseling Center, declined to discuss the clinic’s noncompliance, but described their opposition to the state law as a “First Amendment concern.”

All three centers referred questions to their legal counsel, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), an Arizona-based nonprofit and frequent defender of discriminatory “religious liberty” laws.

Matt Bowman, senior counsel with ADF, said in an email to Rewire that forcing faith-based clinics to “communicate messages or promote ideas they disagree with, especially on life-and-death issues like abortion,” violates their “core beliefs” and threatens their free speech rights.

“The First Amendment protects all Americans, including pro-life people, from being targeted by a government conspiring with pro-abortion activists,” Bowman said.

Rewire found that some clinics are following the law. Claris Health, which was contacted as part of Feuer’s enforcement campaign in May, includes the public notice with patient intake forms, where it’s translated into more than a dozen languages, CEO Talitha Phillips said in an email to Rewire.

Open Arms Pregnancy Center in the San Fernando Valley has posted the public notice in the waiting room.

“To us, it’s a non-issue,” Debi Harvey, the center’s executive director, told Rewire. “We don’t provide abortion, we’re an abortion-alternative organization, we’re very clear on that. But we educate on all options.”

Even so, reports of deceit by 91 percent of fake clinics surveyed by NARAL Pro-Choice California helped spur the passage of the FACT Act last October. Until recently, a person who Googled “abortion clinic” might be directed to a fake clinic, or CPC.

Oakland last week became the second U.S. city to ban false advertising by facilities that city leaders described as “fronts for anti-abortion activists.” San Francisco passed a similar ordinance in 2011.

News Politics

NARAL President Tells Her Abortion Story at the Democratic National Convention

Ally Boguhn

Though reproductive rights and health have been discussed by both Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) while on the campaign trail, Democrats have come under fire for failing to ask about abortion care during the party’s debates.

Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, told the story of her abortion on the stage of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) Wednesday evening in Philadelphia.

“Texas women are tough. We approach challenges with clear eyes and full hearts. To succeed in life, all we need are the tools, the trust, and the chance to chart our own path,” Hogue told the crowd on the third night of the party’s convention. “I was fortunate enough to have these things when I found out I was pregnant years ago. I wanted a family, but it was the wrong time.”

“I made the decision that was best for me — to have an abortion — and to get compassionate care at a clinic in my own community,” she continued. “Now, years later, my husband and I are parents to two incredible children.”

Hogue noted that her experience is similar to those of women nationwide.

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“About one in three American women have abortions by the age of 45, and the majority are mothers just trying to take care of the families they already have,” she said. “You see, it’s not as simple as bad girls get abortions and good girls have families. We are the same women at different times in our lives — each making decisions that are the best for us.”

As reported by Yahoo News, “Asked if she was the first to have spoken at a Democratic National Convention about having had an abortion for reasons other than a medical crisis, Hogue replied, ‘As far as I know.'”

Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Cecile Richards on Tuesday night was the first speaker at the DNC in Philadelphia to say the word “abortion” on stage, according to Vox’s Emily Crockett. 

Richards’ use of the word abortion was deliberate, and saying the word helps address the stigma that surrounds it, Planned Parenthood Action Fund’s Vice President of Communication Mary Alice Carter said in an interview with ThinkProgress. 

“When we talk about reproductive health, we talk about the full range of reproductive health, and that includes access to abortion. So we’re very deliberate in saying we stand up for a woman’s right to access an abortion,” Carter said.

“There is so much stigma around abortion and so many people that sit in shame and don’t talk about their abortion, and so it’s very important to have the head of Planned Parenthood say ‘abortion,’ it’s very important for any woman who’s had an abortion to say ‘abortion,’ and it’s important for us to start sharing those stories and start bringing it out of the shadows and recognizing that it’s a normal experience,” she added.

Though reproductive rights and health have been discussed by both Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) while on the campaign trail, Democrats have come under fire for failing to ask about abortion care during the party’s debates. In April, Clinton called out moderators for failing to ask “about a woman’s right to make her own decisions about reproductive health care” over the course of eight debates—though she did not use the term abortion in her condemnation.