After a valiant several-year struggle with breast cancer, Robin Rothrock, who ran an abortion clinic in Shreveport, Louisiana for many years, died peacefully at her home recently. Robin’s death is a huge loss, not only, obviously, to her son and daughter in-law and other family and close friends, but also to the close-knit community of abortion providers who cherished her. Indeed, Robin was a central figure in creating this community. With the help of her son, Michael, about ten years ago she put abortion providers (and advocates, researchers, medical students, etc) on line, through the creation of an ever-growing number of listservs that moved thousands of messages a day. In doing so, she facilitated a 24/7 community of people separated by geography (and national borders) but who shared a commitment to quality abortion care.
Robin will of course be missed enormously by her co-workers at the Hope Medical Group, the facility she established over 30 years ago. As a young social worker (and self-described surfer) in Florida, she was told by a colleague about a large area in the South, including parts of Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas, in which no abortion facility existed. She moved with her young son to Shreveport, and set about opening a clinic—only to be met on the first day with 1000 protesters (as well as six patients). The next 30 years brought periodic encounters with protesters of varying degrees of threat, including self-described militia men and in one especially unnerving case, an ex-psychiatric patient wielding a sledgehammer and shouting: “The Lord has sent me and this building is coming down.”
But the most consequential adversary of all in Robin Rothrock’s 30 years of abortion care was the state of Louisiana, which repeatedly passed legislation intended to make abortion provision extremely difficult, if not impossible. With the heroic help of lawyers at the Center for Reproductive Rights, Robin sued the state some 30 times, and she usually won. Her last battle with the state before her death involved an unusually egregious attack, even by Louisiana standards.
Late in the afternoon of the Friday of Labor Day weekend, the state without warning shut down Hope Medical Group, notifying the media first, and only then faxing the clinic of its decision. Hope Medical was the first clinic to feel the brunt of a recently passed state law, which permitted the Louisiana Secretary of Health to close an abortion facility without prior warning. In the midst of a round of chemotherapy, and with her CRR lawyers working throughout the holiday weekend, Robin fought the state, as she always did, and within a week Hope was re-opened.
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In spite of these unending challenges, Robin never wavered in her commitment to the mainly poor and vulnerable women in her clinic waiting room. Her nickname, Rocket Woman, originally stemmed from the fact that several of her family members worked in the space program, and until the end of her life Robin thrilled at the opportunity to watch rocket launchings. But the name also came to represent her willingness to continually replenish her willpower and meet her adversaries, whether outside her clinic’s door or in the statehouse in Baton Rouge.
Speaking personally, as one who has long studied the world of abortion providers, I have learned much from Robin about what makes people able to sustain this work over time, meeting challenges that most of us would find unendurable. One lesson Robin taught me is the importance of having interests outside this work, and she was an accomplished artist who had her own gallery. Having both a strong sense of social justice and a sense of humor also seems crucial and Robin had no shortage of either. But perhaps her greatest lesson about what makes it possible to stay in such a beleaguered field is how essential community is to our efforts. And now the community in which she was such a central member both mourns and celebrates our beloved Rocket Woman.