“Choose life,” urges Jim Haskins’ sign, which is attached to a large wooden crucifix. “Abortion kills.”
On the Saturday morning before the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision granting women access to abortions under federal law, five pro-life activists stand in front of the Tampa Woman’s Health Center on Fletcher Avenue in North Tampa.
“You see all the vultures?” Haskins says, pointing across the street at two large black birds perched in a tree. “There are usually hundreds here.”
Health center staffers haven’t noticed any large flocks of predatory birds in the vicinity. But they do have to contend with another kind of regular visitor: self-styled “sidewalk counselors” like Haskins who come from faith-based organizations every Saturday to proselytize at area clinics from Largo to South Tampa, rain or shine.
Protesters are hardly the biggest obstacles standing in the way of women seeking abortions. The last two years have seen anti-abortion measures passed in record numbers across the country, and the number of abortion providers is decreasing.
The pro-choice activists who successfully fought Florida’s proposed Amendment 6 last fall saw their campaign as a needed wake-up call. Still, the subject of abortion remains, even four decades after Roe, fraught with mixed emotions.
“It’s seen as so shameful instead of a common experience among women,” says Jennifer Ellerman-Queen, women’s studies professor at the University of South Florida. “We don’t talk about it. We’ve got to open up a dialogue.”
Chris Gladu, a jovial-looking middle-aged man with a thick salt-and-pepper beard, has been spending his Saturdays outside abortion clinics for 20 years. He comes equipped with a Bible, a carafe of hot coffee, and a small velvet-lined wooden box in which he displays plastic models of fetal development.
“We are driven by love,” Gladu said. “We are here to save the babies and save the mothers from a lot of pain.”
Women walk hurriedly toward the door, some with friends and family, some alone, some with their partners. Gladu, standing on the sidewalk outside the clinic fence, tries to reach over and hand them pamphlets.
“Women don’t have abortions to be empowered, they do it because they feel trapped,” Gladu said. “I think it is wrong to pit the interests of the woman against the child and let the other person go on intact.”
One in every three American women will have an abortion by the age of 45, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which studies sexual and reproductive health. Fifty-eight percent of those women will have the procedure while in their 20s. In 2008, Florida represented 7.8 percent of all of the abortions undertaken nationwide. Of the 381,500 pregnancies statewide that year, 25 percent resulted in abortions; that’s about 27 abortions for every thousand women.
At the same time, legislators have attempted to make access to abortion more and more difficult. Many pro-choice advocates say that the chipping away of abortion rights can be traced back to the 1992 Supreme Court case Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which upheld the right to an abortion but expanded the ability for states to enact all but extreme restrictions on women’s access. “They can uphold a decision that makes it nearly impossible for women to get the procedure,” says Kellie Dupree, vice president of public policy and communications at Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida.
In 2011, 42 states and the District of Columbia passed 92 abortion restrictions, the highest number ever. The numbers decreased in 2012 — only 24 passed in just six states.
“Last year there were four bills specific to abortion and several others attempting to inhibit a women’s right to choose,” Tampa area House Democrat Janet Cruz said.
Restrictions that have gone into effect in the state this month include mandatory pre-abortion ultrasounds and a 24-hour waiting period.
“And we’re not talking jelly-on-the-belly ultrasounds,” says Ellerman-Queen. “We’re talking about a transvaginal ultrasound. It’s not comfortable. To have to be forced to look at this, regardless of the point in pregnancy, is traumatizing.”
Providers are also required to ask women if they’d like to see the fetus.
“Generally the argument across the country is if a woman has an ultrasound, she is more likely to change her mind about abortion,” says Planned Parenthood’s Dupree. “We don’t think laws imposed to shame women are best for a woman’s health.”
Additionally, minors must notify parents 48 hours before an abortion. Public funding for an abortion is available only in cases of rape or incest, or if a physician determines the woman’s life is in danger.
Meanwhile, no new laws were passed in the state to improve access to family planning or comprehensive sex education.
Gladu acknowledges that he doesn’t often get his message across.
“By the time they get here, they’ve mentally aborted the child,” Gladu says. “Some are open to being talked out of it. It’s a mixed bag.”
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