The future of abortion in the United States could soon look a lot more like Anna Rupani’s everyday reality.
She works in an undisclosed location, in an undisclosed part of Texas to help women leave the state to get abortions elsewhere.
Her group, Fund Texas Choice, is raising money to pay the average $800 US it costs to get patients transportation, food and lodging in states with freer abortion access.
On Sept. 1, the demand for her group’s services exploded.
That’s the day Texas’s new law severely restricting abortion access went into effect — and Rupani’s work changed instantly. Her group used to get 10 to 15 requests per week for help, often for inexpensive things, like cab fare to a local clinic. But on that first day alone, it received 42 requests, including patients needing money for interstate travel.
What worries her now? That her reality is about to spread.
The U.S. Supreme Court has just begun its fall session and will soon hear a case the country has spent years been bracing for: One that could overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision that treats abortion as a constitutional right.
When asked the kind of scenario she envisions for the coming months, Rupani is blunt.
“Dire,” she said. “It’s going to be very tough.”
It’s already exhausting, she said. Members of her team are wiping their digital footprints off the internet as part of security precautions. They get threatened with lawsuits and worse, she said, and have been called murderers, Nazis and snakes destined for hell.
Team members have also installed security cameras at their homes and are preparing for the possibility of future legal challenges against their work.
Groups like hers are now at the forefront of the abortion battle in Texas.
That’s because the new bill allows anyone to sue anyone who offers help to someone in an obtaining an abortion in Texas on a fetus where a heartbeat can be detected, which comes as early as six weeks and before some women may even realize they’re pregnant.
Defendants have no right to move the case to their home county, meaning a suit filed on one end of this sprawling state could conceivably require someone to drive up to 12 hours to mount their own defence.
Roe v. Wade challenge coming this year
There’s now a strong chance Texas will find itself — again — at the forefront of the national abortion struggle.
Texas is where the Roe v. Wade case was launched, leading to the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that abortion restrictions violated the constitutional right to privacy.
A new conservative super-majority on the Supreme Court has already made its presence felt by allowing the new Texas law to stand.
And on Dec. 1 the Supreme Court will hear the Mississippi case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, which could end Roe and create a patchwork approach across the U.S.
About two dozen states already have laws, or have promised laws, that would curtail or end abortion access in a world where Roe is struck down. It would be like archipelagos of abortion access: some states allowing it, some not.
That would instantly unleash an interstate scramble, as women in states banning abortion would have to travel out of state for the procedure. And that would likely shift the terrain of abortion fights to their next battleground — one centred on interstate services and groups like Rupani’s.
In 2019, a group of researchers predicted that the net result would be a 13 per cent decline in abortion rates across the country under the new legal reality.
Where it all began in Texas
That idea of stopping abortion brings pride to a small community in east Texas that introduced the original version of that state’s law.
Two years ago, there had been rumours that an abortion clinic might open up in Waskom, the last town out of Texas on Highway 20, as the neighbouring state of Louisiana tightened its abortion restrictions.
A Baptist pastor there got a phone call from an anti-abortion activist in his part of the state, asking if he’d support a proposal to ban abortion locally in Waskom. The activist was working to line up the support of religious leaders before the idea was formally presented to city council in the town of less than 2,000.
Pastor Ivy Shelton said yes.
“A lot of scrutiny came with that [policy], but I think that’s OK,” Shelton said in an interview.
“We want to be defenders of the unborn. … Scripture is very clear that life begins at conception,” he said, citing several biblical verses including from the Book of Jeremiah.
Shelton’s style from the pulpit is not one of flame-flickering rhetoric. His individual words were temperate and thoughtful in a sermon where he welcomed CBC News and urged his congregation to be equally welcoming.
His views on abortion, however, are unyielding.
Asked whether he agrees with not allowing any exemptions to the Texas law, even in cases of rape and incest, he replied that he’s struggled with this issue.
But ultimately, he said, he agrees: There should be no exemptions; abortion should be forbidden, even in cases of rape or incest.
He said Christians will have to step up in new ways to support life, such as adopting children born from unwanted pregnancies and given up for adoption.
And would he report someone he knows for violating the law? Yes, he said.
The law was the work of a conservative lawyer John Mitchell who had an insight: An abortion ban might have a better chance of withstanding court challenges if it was enforced by private citizens instead of government.
His idea of letting ordinary citizens file lawsuits won over the east Texas anti-abortion activist Mark Lee Dickson, who contacted Shelton and other community members.
With local support lined up, they took the idea to the town council. The entire council supported it and it was put on the agenda for a June 2019 meeting.
And that’s how in the normal course of business — alongside regular agenda items like maintaining roads and sewers, and controlling stray cats and dogs and feral hogs — a tiny municipality took a swing at Roe v. Wade.
The whole council, comprised of five men, voted 5-0 for the ordinance.
“If there was anybody against it, nobody ever contacted me or made it known. I never heard one negative comment about it,” Mayor Jesse Moore said in an interview, in front of a mural proclaiming his municipality a sanctuary city for the unborn.
Down the road at the church, after Sunday service, members of the congregation said they’re delighted with their town’s legacy in shaping state law.
“I love it. I’m so proud of Waskom,” said one senior citizen, Julie Gill.
One man said this isn’t the original claim to fame for the community. What originally put it on the map, Leonard Johnson said, was a local woman winning the Miss Texas pageant and finishing third in the 1962 Miss America contest.
But he said this is great, too.
“We’re not sticking our chest out [bragging]. We’ve just done what needed to be done,” said Johnson, a retiree from the steel and farming-equipment business. “We’re just common people and just want to do what the Lord wants us to do.”
The Texas law, Senate Bill 8, is being re-litigated, with the Biden administration suing to try to halt its enforcement.
In the meantime, people who help someone get an abortion within Texas risk being sued for a minimum penalty of $10,000 and forced to pay their accuser’s legal fees.
Rupani said this will have a devastating impact on abortion access for Texans.
She described working with one teen who was stranded for days in Oklahoma when she went for the procedure there; she faced money shortages and problems with her identification. After stumbling into so many hurdles, she came home to Texas, still pregnant.
“At that point, the teenager felt like everything was working against her. And she’s like, ‘Maybe I’m just supposed to deal with this and have this child.’ And [she] came back to Texas without getting her abortion,” Rupani said.
“And that’s going to happen.”
Warning: An uneven road ahead
She said the new reality will entrench a disparity: Wealthier patients will still travel for abortions, while poorer ones won’t unless they get financial help.
Disparities aren’t new.
One Texas woman said she struggled to get a procedure when she was 17 and already had a child. The woman, who asked to remain anonymous, said she didn’t have the written parental consent required in Texas.
Her father was homeless and her mother was in and out of jail, she said. Living with her partner at the time, she didn’t want a second child.
WATCH | Members of Congress shared their own personal abortion stories at a recent hearing:
Rep. <a href=”https://twitter.com/CoriBush?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@CoriBush</a> in front of the House Oversight Committee:<br><br>“Today I sit before you as that nurse, as that pastor, as that activist, that survivor, that single mom, that congresswoman—that in the summer of 1994 I was raped, I became pregnant, and I chose to have an abortion.” <a href=”https://t.co/nd3JfqhyaY”>pic.twitter.com/nd3JfqhyaY</a>
The woman said she went to court and managed to convince a judge to allow the abortion. But now, she said, these new abortion laws will make it even harder for poor women to end a pregnancy and will create different classes of citizens.
“People that have money [will get abortions more easily]. People that are white,” she said.
The woman now leads one of the groups in Texas working on abortion access through a national network, like Rupani’s. She uses the pseudonym HK Gray in that work, where she says she gets death threats almost every other day.
She’s preparing for things to get even harder for groups like hers, after the Supreme Court hears the Mississippi case.
“We’re hoping for the best,” she said. “But we’re definitely planning for the worst.”