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On the Front Lines in Abortion War : Clinics’ Clients Must Cope With Personal and Political Conflict

Times Staff Writer

Her blond hair pulled back in barrettes makes her look much younger than 15. Until two months ago she thought abortion should be outlawed. But then she became pregnant.

So here she was on a school day sitting in the crowded waiting room of the Planned Parenthood Clinic in Pomona, her history text and notebook tucked neatly under the chair, waiting anxiously with a dozen other clients for her turn to have an abortion.

“It was hard to decide, but it isn’t the right time. I can’t support (a baby) and I don’t want it,” Kim said emphatically.

Fortresses Under Siege

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For the estimated 1.6 million American women and girls like Kim who have abortions each year and for those who oppose them, the issue has once again become the focus of a high-stakes debate. In recent months, nearly 20,000 protesters have been arrested nationwide after disrupting medical care at abortion clinics, in some cases calling patients murderers, shoving bloody pictures in their faces and setting firebombs. A major protest will be mounted later this week in the Los Angeles area.

The pro-choice factions have responded with armies of their own, and scores of clinics throughout Southern California have become like fortresses under siege. The atmosphere is charged with fear, anger and a resolve not seen since the abortion rights fights of the late ‘60s.

But the women patients still flock there for help, absorbed by their personal pain and fears, magnified in some cases by the stresses of the abortion rights battle. At these clinics, one can sense the heightened drama and the ordinariness of the issues.

“We’ve become generals in a war,” said Darlene Asbill, the 47-year-old clinical director of the Feminist Women’s Health Center of Los Angeles. “We are on military alert, but the clinics are staggering to defend. There are so many fronts spread out across the city.”

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Her own duties have expanded to include screening the clinic mail and phone calls because of threats. Recently, she and another staff member were stopped outside the clinic by a man who took their photograph, a tactic that has been used by some anti-abortion groups to identify abortion providers and clients for later harassment.

Asbill said she does not fear the anti-abortion forces, even though her family worries about her (she is the mother of four and grandmother of eight). A minister’s daughter, she is angry at the religious overtones of the anti-choice rhetoric. “I’m a Christian, too,” she said. “This is a civil rights issue.”

On a recent day, a dozen women gathered in the multistoried building, a type of site much favored by clinic managers because it is easier to defend. The nonprofit clinic was moved to this Mid-Wilshire location three years ago after an arson-suspected fire. The clients are among those who obtain more than 300,000 abortions yearly in California, including 100,000 in Los Angeles County.

The clients, aged 19 to 37 from a variety of walks of life, sat in the conference room, which looked like any doctor’s office except for the large photograph of nurse Margaret Sanger (she opened the first birth control clinic in the United States in 1916). Asbill explained that the women wait as a group to give one another support. Like many clinics, abortion fees are on a sliding scale, most costing around $200 to $240.

Most of the women arrived here after consulting the Yellow Pages. “You don’t feel like asking friends where to get an abortion like you do a place to get a haircut,” one said.

Tina, a college student, was the only one who visited other clinics before making a choice. Like the other women, she asked that her real name not be used.

A few sat silently, like the blond, long-haired high school student in cowboy boots who stared stoically at the wall. But others munched crackers, sipped ginger ale and talked among themselves, sometimes breaking into laughter that belied the nervousness in their eyes.

They grasped their medical records with index fingers that bore cotton swabs from earlier blood tests. When health care worker Monica Markiewicz entered to take their blood pressure, they dutifully rolled up their sleeves. They were offered tranquilizers to help them relax. Most took it gladly. Asbill offered motherly pats, hugs and medical information. She and a nurse accompany the patients during the abortion. “You won’t go through it alone,” she assured them.

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One woman in tears, stopped her in the hallway. Asbill talked quietly to her, and the woman left. “Sometimes they don’t want to go through with it. That’s OK, too.”

Rena, a 20 year-old, exclaimed, “What if abortions were illegal. Wouldn’t that be something? I mean no one else owns our bodies.” The women excitedly vented similar thoughts.

“I would have come here if I had to crawl through a line of picketers,” said Rena, who like most of the women was in the first trimester of pregnancy. “I’d risk jail. I’m not afraid of them. I’d tell ‘em, ‘Sure I’ll have this child if you help me.’ Where are the free day-care centers and medical care other countries give mothers?”

Tina volunteered that she went through a picket line in Dallas last year with a pregnant friend. “They were calling her names. I pretended I didn’t hear, but I was glad it wasn’t me.” She added that her own pregnancy was a shock. “I was taking birth control pills. I thought I had the flu. My fiance and I are in college and working. We couldn’t face this.”

Linda, a 30-year-old schoolteacher said: “I thought I’d know immediately that I wanted an abortion, but my boyfriend and I really had to deliberate. It was upsetting. But I think the right to a safe abortion is one we have earned as women.”

Markiewicz showed photos, noting that a local anesthetic is injected into the cervix. Then the cervix is stretched with narrow straw-like rods, and a tube attached to a suction machine is inserted into the uterus.

The women stared, fascinated. Some fidgeted, others asked questions, mostly about the pain. “It only lasts about 30 seconds. You might have some heavy cramping feeling. Some do; some don’t,” said Ruth Holmes, a registered nurse.

Holmes added that in rare cases, complications such as blood clots, hemorrhage, incomplete abortion or perforation of the uterus can arise. But she said early abortion is one of the safest operations, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control. She emphasized that they should call clinic staff if there is heavy bleeding, temperature or severe cramps.

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She reminded them to come back for checkups in two weeks. “We will give counseling for anyone who wants to start birth control.” She noted that most of the women get abortions because their method of birth control failed. “Only abstinence is foolproof.”

One woman insisted she wanted to see what is extracted during her abortion. Asbill told her that she could if she wanted to, but that there was little to see.

“It’s not shaped like a baby?” the woman pressed.

“No,” Asbill assured her, explaining what little tissue is there is liquefied during aspiration.

When the first women disappeared into the procedure rooms, restlessness set in outside. A few women paced the halls.

“If she hollers, I’m leaving,” said 28-year-old Gloria, juggling candy from hand to hand. She has two children, one only a year old, and said, “Another pregnancy leave would mean no job, no money, no food for the kids.”

Maria, a 20-year-old music student, was ushered into the procedure room. She lay back on the table and looked up at the picture of a pastoral scene taped on the ceiling.

Asbill chatted with Maria about jewelry. The doctor entered, pulling on surgical gloves. Maria took a deep breath. The doctor told her to cough while he injected the anesthetic. Asbill distracted Maria, asking about school. “Yes, I sing, everything, yes,” she said, her voice catching, as the aspirator was finally turned on. It made a loud humming sound that could be heard out in the waiting room.

“Oh,” Maria exclaimed, cringing and scrunching down on the table. She grabbed Asbill’s hand so tightly it turned pale. “You are doing fine, Maria,” Asbill said, smoothing Maria’s hair back. She asked her more questions, and Maria gasped out answers.

“Count to 10, and it will be over, Maria,” the doctor said. Maria burst into tears.

“It’s not the pain,” she sobbed. “It’s the whole thing. Being alone out here with no family, being so alone.” She gulped for air, and continued, the words running into each other. “I just couldn’t have a baby now. My boyfriend took off on me. I couldn’t have a baby with no father, no money. My father was never there for me. We had a tough time growing up. I don’t want a child of mine to have that.” Her body shuddered. “But I’m OK. I’m OK.”

Asbill hugged her. “You aren’t alone. We are here if you need us for anything.”

Later in the recovery area, women lay on couches with hot water bottles on their stomachs for a little while.

Kathy, a 37-year-old mother of four children, lay crying on the couch. “This was not an easy decision,” she said, brushing at the tears. “My husband and I talked a long time. I’m almost 40 and want to go back to school. We barely get by. I had to think of the other children.”

Slouched on the couch, Gloria said: “It wasn’t so bad. But I’ll never do it again, get in this problem. Let’s go get my kids and get a cheeseburger.”

“Well, it was bad for me,” grimaced her sister, who accompanied her into the abortion room. “I was feeling every single thing you did.” Rena, smiling as she left, said, “I feel so light, like a free woman.”

Asbill, exhausted after the grueling day, leaned against the counter looking at charts, her once perfect hairdo falling around her face.

Maria was one of the last to leave. “I feel better now,” she said, throwing her arms around Asbill. “Thank you, thank you.”


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