BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – When Kew found out she was pregnant, she knew immediately that she wanted to have an abortion. So she did a web search for “abortion clinic in Birmingham Alabama.”
“I tried to call two numbers. They were disconnected,” Kew explained. “And then I started seeing different news articles. They were all from January and they said, “Abortion clinic closed in Birmingham,’ and I was like, seriously?'”
With more than a million residents, Birmingham is Alabama's largest metro area. Now it’s also one of the largest cities in America with no abortion clinic — Birmingham's only clinic quietly closed in January. Planned Parenthood, who operated the clinic, declined to comment for this article.
Kew, who did not want her full name published due to the sensitivity of the subject, is 22 and heading into her senior year of college. She works at Wal-Mart, where she makes a little over $8 an hour. Kew's mom supported her decision to have an abortion, but Kew decided not to tell friends and family, many of whom say that women who have an abortion will go to hell.
“They make you feel like you should keep it. You should struggle. You should be on welfare, and you should stay in the projects if that’s what it takes for you to keep your baby. And that’s not the life that I want to live,” Kew said. “The cycle has to end somewhere. My mom told me this morning that she doesn’t want any of her kids to struggle through what she had to struggle through.”
Access to transportation is another barrier to abortion.
All three states have little to no public transportation connecting major cities, making it difficult for women to travel to get an abortion. Laurie Bertram Roberts, president of the Mississippi chapter of National Organization for Women (NOW), recounted how she recently helped a Mississippi woman get to Alabama for an abortion. The woman was 17 weeks pregnant, had little money, no car, and three kids.
“Even though [abortion's] not illegal, you have to know people,” Roberts said, comparing the current situation in the South to Jane, an underground group in Chicago pre-Roe v. Wade that connected women with safe, affordable abortions.
Kew had to travel too. A hotline referred her to a clinic in Columbus, Georgia, a 3-hour drive across the state line. She made an appointment, asked two friends to accompany her, and cleared out her bank account to pay for gas ($40) and the abortion ($420).
“All the way from Birmingham to Georgia just to get an abortion,” Kew said. “In a way you are trying to control someone’s life when you take away those options.”
Her situation is far from unique.
“We get 100 calls a week from women looking for an abortion clinic in Birmingham,” explained Diane Derzis, sitting in a counseling room of her closed clinic in downtown Birmingham. Derzis has been working as “an abortionist” — a term she uses freely — since shortly after the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.
Her clinic in Mississippi is currently in court over a state law that would require doctors have admitting privileges at a local hospital. Out-of-state doctors who fly in to perform abortions at clinics across the South are unable to get admitting privileges at local hospitals. Derzis and other providers argue that local doctors are often unwilling to perform abortions for fear of being attacked or their practices picketed.
The same law has been passed in Alabama and Louisiana, where they are tied up in similar court battles.
In 2013, Alabama passed a series of laws to more strictly regulate abortion providers. One new requirement is that clinics meet the surgical standards of an ambulatory surgery center, meaning, among other things, that hallways would need to be widened to allow gurneys to pass, sprinkler systems installed, and additional exits created. The deadline for compliance was July 1.
The bills were introduced by Representative Mary Sue McClurkin, a Republican whose district includes a portion of Birmingham. In 2014, McClurkin also introduced a “fetal heartbeat bill” that would ban abortions at around four to six weeks after conception, when a heartbeat can be detected. McClurkin agrees the bill, if passed, would have effectively made abortion illegal in Alabama.
“It’s only right. My goodness, that’s a life,” she said. “We do so many things in our society to defend life, but we turn our backs on abortion, where we have killed millions of babies in the United States since Roe v. Wade.”
A “fetal heartbeat” bill was passed in Arkansas where it is currently under court injunction pending litigation. McClurkin believes there is great support for the law in the Alabama legislature, and that it will be reintroduced next year.
Most of the legislation regulating abortion in Alabama has been the work of Eric Johnston, a civil rights lawyer and pro-life advocate.
“[Abortion] is something that is legal right now, but that does not mean that it is right,” Johnston said. “I don’t believe in a woman’s right to choose. I think [that’s] a mistake, and I would hope that someday the Supreme Court would reverse itself and recognize that it was wrong to do what they did.”
Johnston said the recent wave of laws are not intended to close clinics, but keep women safe. However, studies have long shown that abortion is one of the safest outpatient procedures. Less than 0.3 percent of women in the U.S. who have an abortion have a complication that requires hospitalization. In addition, a paper by the Guttmacher Institute notes that the Supreme Court ruled in 1983 that there was no health or safety reason to require second trimester abortions to be performed in a hospital.
However, Alabama, Johnston noted, never voted to legalize abortion. Prior to Roe v. Wade, abortion was a crime in Alabama except when the woman's life was threatened.
“That law has never been repealed by the Alabama legislature. It was repealed by the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade, so it is unenforceable,” Johnston said. “I think the majority of people in Alabama would say that abortion is wrong, and I think the Alabama legislature would pass a law [making abortion illegal] in a minute if the Supreme Court opened the door to do that.”
While abortion clinics have closed in Birmingham, another type of medical office has taken their place.
In Vestavia, a suburb of Birmingham that fans out from the highways in small hives of strip malls and gated communities, a large billboard advertised the Pregnancy Test Center. In the center’s waiting room, two teenage girls filled out paperwork.