This week, the ACLU is back in court working to protect the constitutional right to abortion in Arkansas. In 2017, the state legislature passed four anti-abortion laws to severely restrict access to abortion. If allowed to take effect, these laws would ban the only method of abortion provided in Arkansas after approximately 14 weeks in pregnancy; require that patients’ partners or others be notified of their abortion; force the health care center to report teenage patients’ abortion to local police where there is no reason to suspect a crime; and force physicians to request a vast number of medical records for each patient with no medical justification, violating physician-patient confidentiality and delaying — or outright blocking — access to abortion care.
While the ACLU has successfully blocked these laws since their passage, we are still fighting in court to keep them blocked. The stakes of this fight could not be higher. In the few hours this week the laws were in effect, patients’ appointments were cancelled, and the consequences would be devastating if these laws are upheld. Five patients provided testimony in our lawsuit, sharing their stories of what access to abortion in Arkansas has meant for their lives.
For Joan Doe, the partner notification requirement would have been untenable. “My boyfriend was abusive and controlling. If the clinic had had to notify him about the procedure, he would have used that information to exert even further control over me. He would not have wanted me to get an abortion, and would have attempted to prevent me from having one. [If this requirement was in effect at the time of my abortion], I would have had to try to travel out of state to avoid the clinic hav[ing] to notify him, even though I do not know how I would have been able to afford to do that. I barely had enough money to afford the procedure at the time, and the cost of traveling out of state would have been prohibitively expensive.”
Mary Doe explained the burden these laws place on minors. “At 16 years old, I had an abortion at Little Rock Family Planning. At that time, I lived in my rural hometown of about 600 people with my mother and step-father ...We lived in a secluded area, and we didn’t have enough money for many expenses. When I got pregnant, I knew I needed to have an abortion … my parents provided parental consent … But we could not tell [my boyfriend’s] parents ... we were terrified what would happen if they found out. [We] were really scared that his parents would beat him up or kick him out of the house if they knew.
“If the clinic were required to tell the local police about my abortion ... This is especially concerning for me because I have family members on the local police force. I fear that they would disown me if they knew about my abortion. Even if it were meant to be kept confidential, it is a small community and the fact that I had an abortion would get around … I probably would not have gotten an abortion in Arkansas if notification to my boyfriend’s parents or the local police were required. I likely would have tried to travel out of state to get the abortion. I couldn’t afford this, so I would have to go without eating much for a week or two to be able to save up to travel.”
Kate Doe suffered life-threatening complications during a prior pregnancy, and spoke about the impact that delaying care to collect a wide array of medical records would have. “I would have been frightened and intimidated if I could not have had an abortion unless the clinic first requested medical records from my prior doctors. That would be a huge invasion of my privacy. Seeking an abortion is a private decision, and I do not think it is necessary or appropriate to inform all of my previous doctors of my decision … I am concerned that if I had to contact my prior physician, information [about] my abortion would leak into my community.
“Obtaining all prior medical records would also take additional time, and I am worried about the emotional and physical toll that delaying an abortion could place on women. Delaying the abortion could have put my body at risk for more complications, as with my last pregnancy. It would have been emotionally stressful as well, because it was important to me to terminate the pregnancy as soon as possible after I made up my mind that an abortion was the right thing for me and my family.”
May Doe came to the decision that she needed an abortion when she received news of a life-threatening fetal diagnosis in the second trimester later in her pregnancy. After being denied care in her home state, she traveled to Arkansas: “If I hadn’t been able to get the abortion because of the new laws, it would have been torture. I had already waited nearly six weeks since receiving the diagnosis, and any further delay would push me beyond the gestational age limit to have an abortion in Arkansas. I am not sure what I would have done, or if there is another place I could go to get an abortion. I may have had to remain pregnant, and give birth to a baby that would shortly die. This would have been horrible for both my mental and physical health.
“I feel fortunate that the Arkansas laws did not yet go into effect, and I was finally able to get the abortion I needed. I feel a lot of relief now that this ordeal is over. But if these laws go into effect, I know there are others like me who would not be able to access the care they need.”
The ACLU will never stop fighting for the many people who, like these patients, need access to abortion care in Arkansas. Abortion is a right, and access to it should never depend on where you live. We’ll continue to remind Arkansas politicians of that for as long as it takes.