For continuing coverage of how COVID-19 is affecting reproductive health, check out our Special Report.
Last year, lawmakers nationwide defied legal precedent by passing blatantly unconstitutional abortion bans—the state of Louisiana was no exception. State legislators handed a near-total abortion ban off to their Democratic governor, John Bel Edwards, who signed it into law.
SB 184, which prohibits abortions around six weeks of pregnancy before most people even know they are expecting, is currently held up in court. But the message state officials sent to abortion care providers was clear: We want the services you provide to end.
So abortion care providers weren’t shocked when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and anti-choice legislators ramped up their attacks on reproductive health care. As Rewire.News has reported, pregnant people in the hardest-hit states are risking exposure to the virus to get the care they desperately need. But less discussed is how abortion care providers are putting their own bodies on the line to provide what is undeniably an essential, time-sensitive health-care service. What’s particularly dangerous at this moment is that these health-care professionals are not being treated as such by local, state, and federal officials.
As AJ Haynes, a longtime patient advocate at the Hope Medical Group in Shreveport, Louisiana, explained in an interview this week, “we’re putting ourselves at the same risk as [health-care professionals] in hospitals—if not even more—because we’re seeing patients coming in from other states, other cities. We’re just as vulnerable, and we’re not receiving the same amount of support that they are.”
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Rewire.News spoke with Haynes about her experience working at an abortion clinic in a state hostile to abortion, where COVID-19 is spreading fast. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Name: AJ Haynes
Location: Shreveport, Louisiana
Occupation: Patient advocate at Hope Medical Group
Tell us about the work you do at Hope Medical Group as a patient advocate.
My job is to make sure that when a patient leaves my office, they have all the information they need to inform their decision to have an abortion; to make sure that we’re providing all of the support that we can; and to make sure that they understand all of the processes. The title used to be “counselor,” but we changed it because it could be misleading. “Counselor” kind of comes with this subtext of someone needing to work through things, and oftentimes our patients don’t.
In the state of Louisiana, there’s a 24-hour “waiting period,” so part of what we do is not only go over the state-required form, but each patient sits down one-on-one with a patient advocate and addresses any questions they have. The range of what I cover is sex education (I joke with my patients that they’re in Sex Ed 301), what to expect on the day of the abortion, and financial assistance to make sure that they have the resources to pay for their procedure. We work with the National Abortion Federation as well as other regional funds to make sure patients have their costs covered if they’re struggling. We get them scheduled, and we’re there to reassure them in whatever their decision is.
I’ve been a patient advocate with Hope since 2009, off and on, and have seen the clinic go through different changes as the political climate shifts. It’s been an interesting journey.
How, if at all, has your role changed during the COVID-19 pandemic?
I don’t think the role has changed—I just think that things are more stressful because we’re seeing more patients [including those from other states, Texas in particular]. To make sure that each patient is receiving quality care, we really have to work diligently.
The Greek root of the term “apocalypse” means to make plain or to reveal. For me, working as an abortion care provider, things are just made even clearer during this global pandemic: The work that we’re doing is even more important. People are panicked. When people are panicked, when things are heightened, it’s the job of the patient advocate to do everything to make clear to them, to each patient, what their needs are and how we can address them. So determining how to navigate the kind of emotional [situation]—not to say the choice is always an emotional choice—but in a heightened environment because we’re dealing with not only a global pandemic, but the clinics have always been under pressure. So we’re dealing with pressure on top of pressure.
How has the pandemic affected access to abortion in your community?
I think what’s happened with this pandemic is that all the systems, all the things that we knew were wrong, that we knew were flawed, are exacerbated, and those flaws are laid bare. The things that we were already aware of working in abortion care are finally being seen by others.
It’s kind of like… you know when it’s really cold outside and all the molecules are, whatever the science of it is that happens where we can just see and hear everything clearly? It’s a similar parallel to that. So, for example, one thing that’s been made even more clear is that the people who want to see us close down are using this virus as a way to try to justify closing clinics at a time when we’re most needed.
We’ve gotten reports of people trying to record our phone calls, trying to catch us saying something other than what we’re trained to say and giving people accurate information. There have been fewer antis coming to our clinic to—I don’t even call it protesting. It’s really bullying, is what they’re doing. It’s antagonizing. We’ve had less of them coming to our clinic to antagonize because of the social distancing mandates that are happening. But they’re still calling, I would say, if not more [now than before] to try to make their presence known. What scares me is that because things are so heightened, that they’re going to feel even more emboldened—and that is terrifying.
On a more positive note, our community and the people who support us have been really showing up for us. So while the kind of negativity—the response from the antis has changed and in fact amplified in some ways—I feel like the people who support us are surpassing them in a lot ways. We’ve gotten a lot of love: I’ve had friends come by just to tell us how thankful they are. People are bringing us food, which, you know, food is my love language, so I’m happy about that. [Laughs.] We’ve gotten a lot of community support.
So it’s not that a lot has changed during the pandemic, so much as things are more heightened than they were before?
Yeah, absolutely, because access is becoming so restricted to so many people. Things are changing day to day; it’s a bit like whiplash. We as an entire globe don’t understand this pandemic. There’s no vaccine. We’re having to adapt to something we don’t know how it works. We don’t know what the ramifications are. That general anxiety, in addition to the uncertainties that we already deal with as abortion care providers, it’s like there is no center.
Abortion care providers are at the epicenter of vulnerability, with seeing who is vulnerable and how people are dealing with people’s emotional vulnerabilities as well. We ourselves are vulnerable. We are health-care providers; we’re not being seen or treated as health-care providers by our legislators, by people in these positions of power. And yet we’re putting ourselves at the same risk as people are in hospitals, if not even more because we’re seeing patients coming in from other states, other cities. We’re just as vulnerable, and we’re not receiving the same amount of support that they are. I don’t even think our hospitals are getting that much support right now. I think everyone is flailing.
But what’s amazing to me is that even with not as many resources as a lot of hospitals have, I’m so excited coming to work every day and just seeing how important everyone understands this is. I don’t know how the fuck we do what we do. I really don’t. It’s baffling to me how we continue to show up and provide really great care for our patients in the middle of this goddamn crisis. It’s beyond me. But we are, and that’s really cool.
How can people support the work you and your clinic are doing?
The Center for Reproductive Rights is a great organization to donate to. They are the reason we’re open. They’ve been fighting for us since they began as an organization. You can also help shift the language, the culture, and how we [in our society] understand abortion and autonomy by plugging into people and organizations, like Keep Abortion Safe in Denver and Shout Your Abortion, that are trying to end abortion stigma. If we don’t change the culture, if we don’t get rid of the stigma around abortion, if we don’t talk about how abortion is normal and how it affects us in a real way, then we’re not able to steer our story. We’re not able to control our narrative. And the people with misinformation that are louder are going to ultimately change people’s minds, regardless of what the facts are, regardless of what our experiences are.
Money is really the best way to support this work. And getting rid of the stigma.
What’s your biggest hope right now?
The solidarity and community that we have as abortion providers. With the Texas clinic closures, my hope is that during this time even though things are uncertain, we know that we support each other. In my down time, whenever I can, I’m trying to figure out how we can really bolster our network and open more communication between clinics. Clinics are largely isolated because we—everyone’s tired. The extra energy that you would have for more regional, community engagement is gone because you need to preserve yourself. But the more we can push to really share our experiences and even just having clinics calling to check in on us. It means so much to know that we are thinking about each other or praying for each other, if you’re a praying-type person. It helps us feel like we’re not alone.