The innocuous white office building at the intersection of Fitzhugh and the Central Expressway in Dallas is an unlikely site for a battleground. Speeding between Ken’s Mufflers and the headquarters for Young Life, most drivers miss it entirely on most days. Saturdays, however, are different. Picketers line the sidewalk, proselytizing (“Finding God is like a great sale at the Gap”) and handing out pamphlets ( Children—Things We Throw Away?). They carry placards, the poster of choice being a small blackened baby resting peacefully beside an adult hand holding a single red rose. “ ABORTION IS MURDER,” the poster says. Should you pull into the driveway behind the building, the picketers will swarm toward you and, prohibited from crossing onto the property, scream at you from the sidewalk. “Please don’t kill that baby!” they might shout. A particularly zealous protestor might even holler, “That’s right—go and spread your legs for the doctor so you can go out and fornicate again!”
Travel across the parking lot, through a courtyard, and up a flight of stairs, and you will find two businesses, facing off across a landing. One is the Routh Street Women’s Clinic, where doctors perform an average of four thousand abortions a year. Across the way is the White Rose Women’s Center, which advertises itself as a confidential abortion-counseling service but which, supported by Catholic organizations, is absolutely dedicated to eradicating legal abortion. On Inauguration Day it was even more apparent that all the bitterness and horror of the abortion fight could be found at this single address in Dallas. “ NO TRESPASSING,” ordered the usual sign on the door to the Routh Street clinic. “Anyone entering these premises to disrupt or protest a woman’s right to have an abortion will be considered a trespasser and will be prosecuted.” Three banners in the White Rose’s windows reveal the center’s true orientation: “ SOMETHING MUST BE DONE,” the first said. “ SOMETHING WILL BE DONE,” said the third. In between was a photograph of the bloody, severed head of a 27-week-old fetus, held aloft by a pair of forceps. The universal “no” sign was splashed across the picture.
Sixteen years after abortion was included in the right to privacy by the U.S. Supreme Court, it remains the issue that will not go away. Divisive public debates like the Vietnam War, Watergate, and Reaganomics have come and gone since the 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, while abortion climbs ever higher on the public agenda. A new kind of protestor, more vocal and more violent, is emerging. Hundreds of picketers were recently arrested in Austin and San Antonio; in Dallas arsonists set fire to three abortion clinics at Christmastime. Now the Supreme Court has agreed to hear a Missouri case that gives it the opportunity to overrule Roe v. Wade. If it does, state legislatures will be free to make abortion a crime, as it used to be in Texas. Fifty state capitals will become battlefields.
As successful as the anti-abortion protesters have been in generating publicity and political pressure, they have been less successful in affecting the behavior of Americans. The visit to the abortion clinic has become a ritual of life in the United States. Thirty percent of all pregnancies end in abortion—an estimated 20 million since 1973. Abortion is the most common outpatient surgery in America.
Still, abortion remains the great taboo. We have learned not to think about it, much less talk about it. (“King’s ex,” a friend whispered. “Do you think it’s murder?”) As pressure to ban abortion grows, members of the pro-choice majority keep their contradictions to themselves: We want abortion to be legal and painless, but don’t want it taken for granted. We want to see abortions as heroic for poor women who shouldn’t overpopulate the earth, but selfish for yuppie couples. We want to condemn men and women who do without contraception—unless they happen to be friends or family. We want to call it a baby if it’s wanted, but a fetus if it’s not.
For someone still asking questions, the squat, dingy building on Central is the place to go. Here the two sides present their cases to the world. Six days a week the battle rages, immune to time, events, and the muddled thinking of those who try to find common ground.
Just a Statistic
Even to the staunchest advocate of legal abortion, the Routh Street Women’s Clinic is oppressive. To compensate for the drawn blinds, which protect patients’ privacy and defend them from the insults of protestors, the clinic owners have painted the walls a promising peach and decorated them with posters quoting feminists like Margaret Sanger (“No woman is ever truly free until she can control her own reproduction”). A television featuring rented movies or talk shows—Oprah was chatting up Donald Trump on one of my visits—seems to prolong the tedium rather than ease it.
The truth is simply inescapable: The women who crowd into this waiting room are pregnant when they arrive in the morning, and by late afternoon they aren’t. All sorts of women occupy the sofas and chairs, from prosperous, pony-tailed coeds to middle-aged Hispanic women in flimsy clothes that don’t ward off the cold. Sometimes there is a child or two, often a husband or boyfriend. Mothers accompany daughters, girlfriends come with classmates; some women sit along, listlessly flipping through magazines. The scene reminds me of something a friend told me recently: that the lasting impression of her abortion was not a feeling of relief or ordinariness. “I found out I was just a statistics,” she told me.
One of today’s statistics is a 23-year-old Hispanic woman I’ll call Sylvia Muñoz. With a cascade of black hair pulled off her face by a large plastic clip, her short denim skirt, and a Neiman Marcus sweatshirt, Sylvia looks more like a high school girl than the mother of a two-year-old. But today she is seven and a half weeks pregnant, and she wants an abortion. In one of Routh