Crosses to Bear

At the Planned Parenthood Clinic in Bryan, questions of faith, conscience, biology, and politics collide every day on the front lines of the new war over abortion.

WITH HER ARMS WRAPPED TIGHTLY around herself, answering the nurse’s questions. The nurse knew only the facts stated in the medical record: The patient was twenty years old, African American, a single parent. Carefully, the nurse elicited the information she needed to know.

“So when did you realize you were pregnant?”

“About three weeks ago,” the woman said. She was tall and poised, and she wore her hair back in a tight ponytail. Although she was barely out of her teens, she spoke with the resignation of an older woman.

“Have you thought about bringing this pregnancy to term?”

“I have a three-year-old, and we’re really struggling,” she said. Her face was solemn. Behind her glasses, her eyes had begun to water. “I want to give my daughter a good life.”

“Does the man involved know that you’re pregnant?”

She nodded. “He’s not too concerned.”

“Have you considered other options, like adoption?”

“No,” she said. Her voice hardened. “No. I wouldn’t be able to give my baby away.”

The two women talked for what seemed like a long time. When the nurse was satisfied that she had gone over all the alternatives, she explained how the abortion would be performed: what risks were involved, the instruments the doctor would use, how much pain should be expected. “Are you sure this is the right choice for you?” the nurse asked.

The woman looked tired in the morning light. “I’ve prayed on it, and I’ve prayed on it,” she said. Her tone was weary but firm. “I’ve come to peace with what I need to do.”

EVERY WEDNESDAY, JUST PAST DAWN, women from across East Texas arrive at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Bryan. Some have traveled only from their dorm rooms at Texas A&M University, in the neighboring town of College Station. Others have taken more indirect routes, through the outlying farmland of the Brazos Valley or from the Piney Woods as far north as Nacogdoches, more than two hours away. The clinic is the only place women who live in East Texas can get an abortion, unless they are able to travel as far as Houston, Beaumont, or Baton Rouge. They come however they can—with borrowed money, in a friend’s car, with a child under their arm—to the south side of Bryan, to a nondescript building at the end of a stretch of strip malls. Here, tucked between fast-food restaurants and drive-through banks and other banal conveniences of modern life, the war over abortion wears on. Seven days a week, ten hours a day, picketers line the sidewalk, trying to change hearts and minds. On Wednesdays, when abortions are performed, they hold placards (“Please pray! 1654 babies have been killed at Planned Parenthood in Bryan”), beseeching each woman who arrives to turn back. “Mom, we want to talk to you!” they cry, or “Please don’t kill your baby!”

What anyone passing by the squat, beige building on Twenty-ninth Street cannot see is the human drama that plays out each day inside the clinic. This is not just a place where questions of faith, conscience, and biology collide. It is also a place where a task as simple as opening the mail is done with caution. Here, the fear of violence has lingered for so long that its presence has become almost ordinary, as much a part of the fabric of life as the bulletproof vests that are casually slung over the backs of staffers’ chairs. What rattles employees more than the protesters who stand at the gates is the enemy they cannot see—the people in their community who have, for four years, waged a campaign of intimidation. “Wanted” posters bearing a photograph of the clinic’s doctor have been tacked to telephone poles all over town. Postcards with pictures of dismembered fetuses have been sent to clinic employees’ neighbors, warning them of the “baby killer” in their midst. Nurses have been followed, volunteers harassed. Even clients have not been spared. The parents of several A&M students have learned of their daughters’ abortions from postcards that arrived in the mail.

That the clinic is the only medical facility performing abortions for nearly one hundred miles in every direction is not an accident. The practical reality of operating a clinic, thirty years after Roe v. Wade, is grim. The terror tactics of anti-abortion extremists—seven murders, 41 bombings, and a barrage of acid attacks, anthrax hoaxes, and death threats—have generated a war of attrition. In Texas, the number of abortion providers has decreased since 1981 by more than half, from 135 to 65. Few medical students learn how to perform first-trimester abortions anymore, and only 12 percent of ob-gyn residency programs require it. The majority of the doctors who do know how to perform abortions are 65 or older, putting them at, or beyond, retirement age. Of those doctors who are schooled in the procedure, few are willing to take the risk of becoming “abortionists”—so few, in fact, that only 15 of the 254 counties in Texas now have abortion providers. Rural areas are not the only places hard hit; many mid-sized cities, like Amarillo and Wichita Falls, do not have a single clinic where a woman can get an abortion. Though the national debate focuses on whether or not the U.S. Supreme Court will someday overturn Roe v. Wade, the reality on the ground is less abstract. Abortion has been slowly pushed to the margins, shuttled off to clinics, like the one in Bryan, that are under siege.

This is where the real politics of abortion play out—not in the Texas Legislature or the U.S. Supreme Court, but on ordinary streets of ordinary towns. And while extremists in Bryan and elsewhere may have drawn the battle lines, most people who oppose abortion do not condone their terror tactics. In Bryan the pro-life community is made up of decent, law-abiding, churchgoing people who believe that what takes place inside the Planned Parenthood clinic each Wednesday amounts to murder. They have made their voices heard through the Brazos Valley Coalition for Life, a group of parishioners from


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