A lot happened between March 6th, when Sam traveled 200 miles to get an abortion, and April 3rd, when she crossed four states for her follow-up. Last weekend, she sent me a photograph taken with her phone of a hand-painted sign outside of the American Family Planning Clinic in Pensacola, Florida: Bigger than the typical warnings about baby-killing and the photographs of bloody fetuses, it read in all caps: HIGH CORONAVIRUS RISK ZONE. “Every time the door of the clinic opened you could hear them yelling,” Sam says. The protestors “were rowdier that day.”
Almost six weeks ago, when she decided to cross state lines for a medical abortion, the decision was an obvious one. There is currently one clinic authorized to perform the procedure in the city where she lives. In Louisiana, “informed consent” laws mean women who want an abortion are required to read pamphlets about fetal development and wait 24 hours between when they have an appointment and when they can receive care. “I had a couple different friends here who told me they had abortions in New Orleans,” she says. “Most of their stories were horrific.”
Sam didn’t want counseling about her options; she wanted medication that would terminate her pregnancy. “I was already having a hard time talking to my people, I had a lot of head stuff going on,” she says. Her family wouldn’t approve, which is why Sam asked her full name not be printed. Recently, “my aunt called me and told me she had a dream I was pregnant,” she told me. Rather than run through a series of appointments and look at renderings of her fetus in Louisiana, Sam Googled “abortion clinics in the South” and called one of the first she found, which happened to be the Florida clinic where abortion doctor John Britton was killed in 1994, and which a homeless man firebombed in 2012.
“Hey, is this a thing where I can just come in?” Sam asked. Yes, but “expect to be here all day,” an administrator warned. Sam and her partner made “a little abortion getaway out of it.” They drove the three-and-a-half hours from New Orleans to Pensacola and booked a hotel on a nearby stretch of scenic route in Nevada Beach. The appointment was for early afternoon but the doctor’s flight didn’t get in until 4:30PM. Sam felt fine afterward, if a little tired. Her partner, not realizing she couldn’t drink, had purchased her two bottles of Malört, the bitter liquor that reminded her of home. It was her first abortion. The beach was chillier than they’d expected. Sam visited some garden stores and the Crocs outlet and stared wistfully at the bottles of booze. She slept a lot. Then they went home.
In New Orleans, Sam worked as a florist and a server at what she characterizes as a “glorified taco joint.” Even by early March, when she scheduled that abortion, work had mostly dried up or been temporarily put on hold. She was primarily living on unemployment at that point. Her partner helped her out with the $595 for the abortion, which included the $100 discount for people traveling from out of state.
By the end of March, New Orleans had emerged as another vector for coronavirus infections; throughout the month, covid-19 cases grew at faster rates in the city than nearly anywhere else in the States. Officials in Florida, where Sam needed to eventually return for her follow-up appointment, refused to close the beaches or issue statewide orders for residents to shelter in place. But on March 27th, preferring a targeted approach, Governor DeSantis announced the institution of checkpoints along state borders. People traveling from states including Louisiana would be met by uniformed public health officials and questioned about their plans.
On April 3rd, a week after DeSantis’ order, Sam and her partner traveled back to Pensacola. It was a much shorter trip. She’d called the clinic earlier to make sure she would be able to get across state lines: Just show them your confirmation email if you have any trouble, the American Family Planning Clinic said. Since the appointment in March, the catalytic convertor had been stolen off of Sam’s car. “I’m lucky to work with people who are close to me,” she says. She borrowed her boss’ Lexus to make the trip. The luxury vehicle put her even less at ease. Sam and her partner scoured Google Maps, trying to find an exit off the freeway that wasn’t marked with the floating bubble that suggests police presence. But there wasn’t really a way into Louisiana without hitting some flashing lights.
At the checkpoint, an official asked Sam and her partner if they had been to any of the affected states in the last 30 days. They said yes. It was, after all, a Louisiana license plate. The pair was shepherded into a way station where they filled out a two-sided form with their names, license plate numbers, driver’s license information, and length of stay. The paper they signed informed them of thousands of dollars in fines should they lie about their plans or fail to quarantine. Sam didn’t check off either box when the form asked her whether her travel was for business or personal reasons. Instead, she indicated she was visiting for “medical” reasons. She included the clinic’s address, but definitely not its name.
Sam was already rattled, but the second and theoretically easier appointment was much worse than the first. Social distancing rules meant her partner had to stay outside. The people trying to contain the anti-abortion protestors kept having to come into the clinic to “cool off” from their interactions with the people waving signs outside. During the first appointment, she’d felt angry at the anti-abortion protestors, and protective of the women inside. This was different. She didn’t have the energy to tell the protestors to fuck off. She’s not sure if it was frayed nerves from so much travel, or the ambient anxiety of living through a pandemic, or the energy of the crowds outside. The medical workers who asked her about her cycle and if she’d been feeling any pain seemed harried and brusque; when Sam said she didn’t want a prescription for birth control, one made a reference to her partner getting a vasectomy: “It shouldn’t just be a party between your legs,” she remembers them saying. “We left as soon as we got out of the clinic,” Sam says.
Sam told her boss about the checkpoint, seeing as it was her Lexus they were driving with Louisiana plates, but no-one has followed up yet to make sure she and her partner didn’t remain clandestinely in the state. Sam is from Chicago, originally. She remembers taking pamphlets from the Planned Parenthood in Wicker Park, and says she couldn’t have imagined then that her own procedure, at 29, would be this hard. “Like people who haven’t lived in the South, I was so naive,” she says. “The laws are so not fair to the people down here, women trying to find healthcare. It was such a mental nightmare. There are so many things to do.”
Taking all the steps she did would be nearly impossible now. “Even making the decision to leave the house right now, and drive four states over” feels dangerous and weird. “I can’t imagine how Texas is navigating this right now.” Sam also says she entertained becoming a clinic escort, but none of the websites she visited from the Pensacola waiting room could tell her how.