by Irene Davall
Donna Jean pulled into the parking lot as her dashboard clock clicked over to 7:10. The lot was already more than half full.
Donna Jean and her friend had left home at 1:30 that morning. With only a couple of coffee stops, they had driven 300 miles from Scottsluff to Omaha. It was imperative they arrive at the Women’s Medical Center by 8 a.m.; otherwise Donna would have to wait a whole day to get the abortion she needed.
Nebraska, in the heartland of America, occupies an area one-third larger than New York state. As a place to live it offers many amenities: Clean air, pure water, abundant crops, good schools and roads.
But for women who need an abortion more than clean air, the paucity of providers is a distinct disadvantage. It should be noted, however, that Nebraska has no corner on that market. After 17 years of legal abortion in America, 93 percent of rural counties have no abortion providers. In Nebraska the figure is not 93 percent, but a whopping 98 percent and its two clinics are located, not too conveniently, in the southeastern corner of the state; both are in the same city.
Linda Allen, Development Director of Omaha Planned Parenthood, says “The Women’s Service and Women’s Medical Center are the only two abortion providers in the state. Seven thousand pregnancies were aborted in those two clinics in 1989. Most of the women were state residents, but a goodly number had traveled from South Dakota [which now has only one abortion provider], Iowa and other nearby states. In Wyoming more than half the women go out of state for their abortions.”
Some women arrive the day before the procedure. Others, like Donna, arrive before 8 a.m. and elect to have the procedure under local anesthesia. In that case they are permitted to return home the same day, provided they have someone to drive them. Most arrive accompanied by a friend, husband, mother or boyfriend, the person we have learned to call “the designated driver.”
No one can question the determination or the resourcefulness of women who travel two, three or even 400 miles to secure an abortion. One woman, Maryanne (not her real name), came to the Women’s Service when she was scarcely 15 years old. Maryanne’s mother was killed in an auto accident a year earlier, and she and her brother, mourning their mother’s death, acted out their grief by rebelling against society’s rules. The boy took to petty thievery while Maryanne sought comfort in a sexual relationship. Not surprisingly, by her 15th birthday Maryanne found herself pregnant. Her boyfriend, only a couple of years older than she, was attending school, had no money, no job and was unsuited to taking on the problems of a wife and child.
Realizing she was too young to be a mother, Maryanne was afraid to tell her dad she was pregnant and wanted an abortion. She said “I borrowed a check out of dad’s check book and convinced my boyfriend to drive me to Omaha in his father’s car. At the clinic I signed dad’s name to the check and that’s how I paid for the abortion. Some people might think what I did was wrong, but I am too young to take care of myself. How can I even think about having a baby and raising her?” Prices at the two Omaha clinics are reasonable and vary with the length of gestation. Up to six-and-a-half weeks, the procedure costs $125 under local anesthesia. From seven through 12 weeks the cost is $225; it is $295 if the woman elects to have a general. From 13 to 16 weeks a general anesthetic is the rule and the cost is $350.
These days, about 88 percent of all abortions in America are performed in clinics such as the two in Omaha. In 1973 when the Supreme Court declared abortion was the right of every woman, financial exploiters and privately owned or proprietary hospitals rushed to buy up facilities and often charged up to $800 for early abortions. The National Association for Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL) declared that limiting abortions to hospitals and their clinics contravened the law and deprived hospitals of critically needed bedspace. After a short debate it was decided the only rational solution was a network of freestanding, ambulatory clinics, using vacuum aspiration under local anesthesia. Women in early pregnancy could be admitted and released in three or four hours.
If such rational decisions were made nearly 17 years ago, why are such clinics not now operating in Lincoln, Cheyenne, Sioux City and other populous centers in midwestern states? One answer, according to Allen, is that an individual physician or a freestanding clinic must have hospital backup nearby in case of emergency. In these and similar towns, hospitals are often owned and operated by religious groups that refuse back-up services for abortions.
Years ago abortion was considered a moral or religious matter. Today most people understand that abortion is a political issue, not only at the local and state level, but on a national level as well. For example, in July the site of the 1992 Democratic Party convention changed from Louisiana to New York City because the Louisiana legislature banned abortions unless the pregnancy endangered a woman’s life, or was caused by rape or incest. The bill (vetoed by Gov. Buddy Roemer), which cost New Orleans a lucrative convention, began as a law against flag-burning, but in the final frantic days of the session was amended to ban most abortions. An ACLU spokeswoman commented: “A flag-burning law becoming an antiabortion law is truly bizarre.”
And then in what appears to be prophecy come true, she said, “Organizations that support abortion rights might boycott New Orleans as a tourist and convention site if the law were signed.” Flag-burning and abortion came together on July 4th in Norfolk, NE, a town which has a boulevard named after its most illustrious citizen, Johnny Carson.
An antiabortion organization was formed in Norfolk early in the year. Soon afterward, the local newspaper front-paged a report by local citizens who traveled to Washington, D.C. to participate in an antiabortion march. Perhaps being part of that demonstration energized the fledgling group to purchase a full-page ad in the Norfolk Daily News declaring “Abortion is Destroying America’s Future – One Life At a Time.” The ad, signed by 600 people, described the development of fetuses from eight weeks to three months.
I went to Norfolk the first week in July to attend a family reunion and to collect information about abortion facilities in the state where I was born.
On the Central Plains, July 4 was always a cause for daylong joviality and so it was this year. The festivities began with a noontime parade up the town’s main street and ended after dark with fireworks only slightly less spectacular than Macy’s annual gift to New Yorkers. The parade included floats praising Norfolk industry, farm products and people. This year’s patriotic theme was opposition to flag-burning.
Parade planners may not have been aware of the coincidence but, for the first time ever, the Norfolk parade included a float mounted on a flat-bed truck proclaiming antiabortion sentiments.
In 1989, another rural state made national news when the Supreme Court handed down Webster vs. Reproductive Health Services, the session’s most famous case. In that decision the Court upheld a Missouri law barring the use of public money, employees or sites for abortions – in effect shutting down public hospitals as a venue for the procedure. It also required doctors to conduct viability tests on some fetuses and allowed to stand a statutory declaration that “life begins at conception.”
The Webster decision doubtless energized antiabortionists throughout the midwest, including Norfolk’s “Pro-Life” group. While antichoice people were jubilant over Webster, the number of abortions performed in Missouri actually went up slightly in 1989, so it would appear the effects of the decision on Missouri women are more symbolic than real.
But that is not the whole story. Potentially the most serious effect of Webster was to end the training of University of Missouri medical students in abortion procedures. “That’s going to be one of the most negative longtime effects,” said Karen Carlson, director of Planned Parenthood of Kansas City. “Graduates of state medical schools are not going to have the training they need to do abortions, nor are they being exposed to an environment that is likely to produce advocates for a woman’s right to choose.”
A Norfolk attorney declared that the most obvious legacy of the Webster decision is the influence it will have on politics and activism. “I believe unequivocally in the right of every woman to control her own body,” he said. “I was overseas during World War II and saw little children digging in garbage dumps for food. No one should be forced to have a baby they don’t want or cannot care for. The dumbest woman alive is a better judge of her ability to bear and care for a child than the smartest man we ever sent to Washington.”
Reproductive Health Services (RHS), the clinic that challenged Missouri’s abortion statute, continues to handle half the 8,000 abortions performed each year in Missouri, drawing patients from 10 states. But one thing has changed. The not-for-profit clinic now has an adoption agency. If a woman wants to bring her pregnancy to term, RHS will find parents for the child – maybe.
Estelle M. is a 22-year-old mother. She called several adoption agencies, but they told her they couldn’t help her because she was Black and Black children are hard to place. Estelle gave birth to a baby in May and has now given him to an adoptive family that doesn’t care about his color. Many other women are not so fortunate.
A cursory study of abortion in America will show it to be “overwhelmingly a phenomenon of young, unmarried women, the majority of them teenagers or in their early 20s,” writes Rosalind Petchesky, Director of Women’s Studies at Hunter College in New York City.
“Two-thirds had family incomes under $25,000 a year and two-thirds were white, even though abortion rates are higher for Black and Latino women….Well before the Webster decision public hospitals, upon which most poor and rural women rely for their health care, increasingly refused to provide abortion services, accounting for only 13 percent of induced abortions in 1985. To whatever extent such policies affect the actual number of women getting abortions, they frame the meaning of abortion as an individual and social experience.”
Republican Kay Orr, who occupies the governor’s seat in Nebraska, chaired the Platform Committee at the National Republican Convention in 1988. Her press secretary, Doug Parrott, told us that platform expressed the Governor’s personal views. She believes the right to life of the unborn is fundamental and must not be infringed. She commends the efforts of individuals and private organizations to provide alternatives to abortion by making adoption services a viable alternative.
During the past decade, Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush have clung tenaciously to their antiabortion tenets. Despite their strong and steady rhetoric, the Congress has not passed a single major piece of antichoice legislation since the 1977 Hyde Amendment curtailing federal funding of abortions.
Despite Governor Orr’s views, the Republican Party is not a bastion of antichoice sentiment. Indeed, many Republican politicians now view the “prolife” position as a serious liability at the polls. Governor Orr, who is currently campaigning for a second term, does not agree.
Before leaving Nebraska, several people told me the “prolifers” are louder, but they are a minority. One woman said, “You were raised here and you know how we feel about government interfering in our lives, especially when it’s a private family matter.”
And that’s how it is in Nebraska 16 months after Webster.