Exclusive: Meet the Doctor Helping Transform Abortion Care in Alabama

With Dr. Leah Torres as its new medical director, West Alabama Women's Center will expand its services in a state hostile to abortion rights.

[headshot of Dr. Leah Torres]
"I don't know why people are surprised at expanding abortion access. When people get pregnant and they don't want to be pregnant, abortion is needed." Courtesy of Dr. Leah Torres

In May 2019, anti-choice lawmakers in Alabama made international news by passing the Human Life Protection Act, which attempted to ban abortion statewide. It was the most restrictive abortion law in the country, and lawmakers enacted it with one goal in mind: to be the state that brought about the end of legal abortion.

It hasn’t quite worked out that way, though. A federal court promptly blocked the measure from taking effect and, on the one-year anniversary of the law’s passing, abortion rights advocates celebrated the “banniversary” in an unexpected fashion. One of the state’s abortion funds, the Yellowhammer Fund, announced it was purchasing the West Alabama Women’s Center (WAWC) in Tuscaloosa, the largest of three abortion clinics in the state. It was a huge announcement, reflecting a shift in abortion care strategy by consolidating one of the state’s abortion funds with a clinic. And it signaled that, despite the never-ending attacks on abortion care in the South, advocates weren’t just fighting back: They were forging ahead in radical and exciting new ways that could transform abortion care across the country.

Change in Alabama is not slowing down. On Monday, WAWC announced that Dr. Leah Torres will be joining the staff as the clinic’s new medical director. Torres is replacing Dr. Louis Payne, who will retire after more than 25 years at WAWC.

With Dr. Torres at the helm, WAWC intends to expand its abortion services to the full gestational limit set by Alabama law, as well as introduce full-spectrum reproductive and sexual health services. That will include well-person exams, contraceptive options, STI testing and treatment, prenatal care, and trans health services—transforming WAWC from a stand-alone abortion clinic into a comprehensive reproductive health-care center.

I caught up with Dr. Torres as she was days away from leaving her former practice in New Mexico for Tuscaloosa. The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Rewire.News: There are going to be people who are surprised at the idea of expanding abortion access at this time—let alone expanding abortion access in the South; let alone expanding abortion access in Alabama. Let’s talk about that.

Dr. Leah Torres: OK, but can we also talk about expanding prenatal care? Because it’s just the same spectrum of things.

I don’t know why people are surprised at expanding abortion access. When people get pregnant and they don’t want to be pregnant, abortion is needed. We can also address expanding food availability for the children in Alabama. Because 1 in 4 have food scarcity. Maybe we should also talk about that, since that is relevant to the context of reproductive health. When you’re having children, are we as a society able to feed them? That’s important. Are we as a society able to educate them?

Abortion can’t be discussed in a bubble. Yes, we should expand abortion care—just like we should expand education—and we should expand access to contraception, and we should expand access to breast cancer screening, and we should expand access to all of these things.

Abortion care is just one of many that needs to be expanded in the state that has children who are hungry, people who are homeless.

Part of your move to Alabama is taking over the practice from somebody who has been practicing in the area for 25 years. That’s something, I don’t need to tell you, that’s an issue in this space. I have found that even folks who are very invested in these issues don’t have a good understanding of the the politics involved in training providers, and what somebody has to go through just to be an OB-GYN who practices abortion care too. Can you speak to that a little bit, since that’s part of this move to Alabama?

LT: Part of the issue of becoming an abortion provider and why it’s so difficult, and why there are so many hoops to jump through, is because of the greater health-care system that demonizes the procedure.

I guess before I get into this, I should say one thing: If you can’t provide all of the things that your specialty requires you to provide, if you can’t do the full scope of your job, find a different job. That goes for pharmacists. That goes for roofers. If you’re afraid of heights, maybe don’t go into roofing, I don’t know.

That being said, when you’re an OB-GYN, your responsibility is full spectrum pregnancy care—management of infertility, if I can’t get pregnant but I want to be pregnant—all the way to the opposite end of that spectrum, which is if I’m pregnant and I don’t want to be. That’s the gamut.

I don’t care if you have a religion. I don’t care if you have moral issues. If you can’t do abortion care, don’t go into OB-GYN—just don’t.

You don’t see this, for example, in internal medicine residencies, where they learn end-of-life care, where they learn hospice care, where they learn withdrawing life support, where they learn organ transplant donation coordination. You don’t see this anywhere else, except when it comes to a pregnant uterus.

Looking ahead, pretend you’ve been in Alabama now five years.

LT: Oh, looking ahead. OK, yeah.

We’re going to actually have some fun. We’re constantly in this moment of, oh God, everything is so awful, particularly now in the pandemic and everything. But imagine five years from now, your practice is a smashing success.

LT: Of course.

What does that mean to you, to have it be a smashing success? What does that look like? Where is it in the community?

LT: It looks like the community being served well. In order to do that, they have to have access. That also means that laws have changed, that systems within our health-care system have changed, that systems within our society have changed such that health care is a human right and not a privilege.

It also means that other clinics elsewhere are looking to this clinic as a model, are at least realizing that, hey, this can actually work. That to me would be the greatest reward.

We haven’t seen it yet. I know it probably exists out there. I’m sure it does. It’s not common enough. It’s not commonplace enough. People go to an OB-GYN clinic, and they expect pregnancy care, STI checks, Pap smears. They never expect abortion care.