By Gloria Gomez/UA Don Bolles Fellow/AZ Mirror
PHOENIX — From a legal perspective, the implications of overturning abortion rights and the landmark Roe v. Wade decision are worrying, said Erin Maher.
“The way constitutional law is built is like building blocks,” the recent law school graduate explained.
Legal decisions are stacked on top of previous ones, and doing away with Roe v. Wade in the manner that the U.S. Supreme Court appears poised to do in a draft opinion of the court that was leaked will have a ripple effect. In the past two decades, the court has used the same legal rationale that established a right to abortion in order to protect the rights of LGBTQ Americans, including their ability to get married.
But in the draft opinion, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that the legal underpinnings of all those cases are fundamentally unconstitutional. If the final opinion — which could be different in minor or substantial ways — retains that conclusion, then it will be open season for challenges to the constitutionality of laws ensuring the rights of LGBTQ people.
Marian Letellier, 76, worked as a nurse during the time before the sweeping abortion protection was enacted. She witnessed the horrors of botched abortions performed by desperate women, and showed up at the state Capitol on Tuesday afternoon to rally for abortion rights and protest the leaked Supreme Court ruling that threatens to bring those days back.
Now, Letellier is a psychiatric nurse practitioner, and her new role affords her insight into how having options can affect a person’s mental health.
“It’s overwhelming,” she said, “It’s not fair to force a family — force women — to make a decision that they should be able to make on their own.”
Besides, she said, those who champion pro-life causes don’t offer much help beyond ensuring the birth itself. If they really cared, they’d fund and advocate for supports like free childcare.
The crowd clustered around a fellow protestor, holding up hand-made signs and joining as he led them through chanting “My body my choice!” and “No more wire hangers!”
Nearby, 22-year-old Arizona State University student Kathryn Tapia watched the proceedings, occasionally lending her voice to the chants. She held a sign that read “This is not a surgical device. We won’t go back!” with a wire hanger drawn over the words in stark relief. Her mask read “Bans off our bodies” and around her shoulders was a shiny pink Planned Parenthood banner, worn as a cape.
“I came out because the rights of people with uteruses are under siege, and that’s very dangerous,” she said.
Tapia decided to join the protests, organized by Planned Parenthood, after she heard the news about the leaked Supreme Court draft, putting aside her “shock and heartbrokenness” to make her disapproval known.
Mom Lynn Robbins took a break from the heat of the late afternoon, sitting on a stone bench on the House Lawn, her 25-year-old nursing student daughter Emily standing beside her. Abortions, Lynn said, have been a part of women’s reproductive healthcare for nearly 50 years, and banning them put women at higher risk of pregnancy-related deaths.
“It’s just another way for old, rich, white men to control women, because they’re afraid of (us),” she said.
Emily added that abortions aren’t going to stop simply because they’re not legally available — they’ll just become more dangerous, because women won’t stop wanting them, and that increased danger is something Emily is particularly afraid of.
“People I love have had abortions. I would hate for someone I love to die,” she said.
‘This is about their future’
The Federoffs drove up from Tucson to protest at the Capitol. Kay Federoff is the president of her local chapter of the National Organization for Women, a women’s rights group. She noted that anti-abortion legislation is already poised to go into effect in Arizona if federal protections are nullified: Senate Bill 1164, prohibiting abortions after 15 weeks, was signed into law last month. The bill was widely criticized for not including exceptions for cases of rape or incest.
“It’s just unreal to me. Unreal that you would force women to give birth if they were raped or suffered incest. How to ruin a life,” she said, shaking her head.
Teddy Enright ferried her three children, 7, 5 and 3 to the Capitol, all of them running around her in little blonde blurs. Enright is a full-time nursing assistant and student at Mesa Community College, and she worries that banning abortion will lead to more deaths and a shortage of beds in the health care system as people take measures into their own hands. Most of all, she worries for her kids.
“This is about their future,” she said.
Nurse Ashleigh Feiring and doctor-in-training Hadley Pope echoed Enright’s concerns about an increase in medical emergencies. Both Feiring and Pope work at Camelback Family Planning, a local abortion clinic. Pope said that abortions won’t stop if the procedure is deemed illegal, they’ll merely be replaced by unsafe alternatives that put women at risk.
“It scares me to someday have to see women die,” she said.
Feiring said that history is clear about the dangers of making abortion inaccessible. Whole hospital wards used to be dedicated to sepsis patients — victims of home abortions gone wrong. Women used to introduce bleach into their bodies, or make use of wire rods, and mortality rates were dramatically higher than the statistics of a modern, medically safe abortion.
Velera Ferrante-Gima concentrated as she moved her purple marker in an arc, forming a cartoon face. The 7-year-old picked it up when she was satisfied and trotted over to join the growing crowd — the white poster paper was easily half her size.
When asked why she opted to take the little girl to the gathering, her mother, Niya Gima, turned her face to the side for a long moment, her eyes watering.
“I just want her to know we did something,” she said.
Niya, a history teacher at Apollo High School, married her partner in Connecticut in 2010, five years before same-sex marriages were granted federal protection and could be held in Arizona. She worries that overturning Roe v. Wade will eliminate that protection, and spell out worse consequences for countries which have only recently begun to enact inclusive marriage rights.
“What happens here is such a reverberation around the world,” she said.
Anti-abortion activists clash with protesters
Organizers led the crowds in a march around the Capitol; the long line of protestors snaked around the block, walking — and in some cases, rollerblading — shoulder to shoulder. They waved signs at drivers passing by, sometimes earning loud honks which elicited raucous cheering in turn.
The group made one trip around the block and returned to the Capitol lawn, where things became combative as counter protestors made an appearance. One anti-abortion protestor held up a sign with pictures of an infant and announced the various developmental stages at which fetuses suck their thumbs or open their eyes.
For Gerardo Torres, 50, this was too much. He took up a stance in front of her, holding up his own sign that read “Against abortions? Get a vasectomy”.
“I don’t think people who don’t have vaginas should make decisions about women’s health care,” he said in Spanish. “We are in a patriarchal system, and that needs to end.”
Protestors around him began chanting “pro-life is a lie, you don’t care if women die” to drown out the comments from their opponents.
Fewer rights, less freedom
The day drew to a close, and the sun set, leaving the Capitol in shadows, but abortion advocates remained. Bonnie Oakes, 68, went so far as to invite her date to the protest for their first meeting, unwilling to leave. No stranger to protests, Oakes’ walker was expertly decked out in hand-made posters.
“I don’t want my granddaughter to have less rights than I’ve had for the last 50 years,” she said firmly.
Mckenzie Aver also remained at the protest through the evening, despite her visible pregnancy. She highlighted it, in fact, dressed in a red tube top and with the phrase “pro-choice”, flanked by two hearts, painted on her stomach.
“My daughter should not have less freedom than I do,” she said.
She showed up for the rights of her future daughter, and for the rights of everyone else to make their own choices. Pregnancy is a scary ordeal, she said, and one she hadn’t been totally sure of herself at first.
The masses of people filling the Capitol lawns and sidewalks made for a colorful array, with bright poster boards and customized clothing, all of it put together with hours notice. Meagan Tanner dressed up as a Handmaiden from the “Handmaid’s Tale,” a television show about a dystopian future where theocrats rule America and brutally oppress women. It seemed fitting, she said.
The event, which was slated to end at 7:30, lasted well past that, with attendees spilling into 17th Avenue directly in front of the Capitol. Organizers moved through the crowds with a speakerphone, attempting to convince them to go home with little success. At one point, an enthusiastic chorus of “F*** Alito” broke out.
Bha Vana Bellamkonda and her coworker Gabby Settembre watched as interactions with counter protestors from the Kari Lake campaign and anti-abortion camps grew more combative. Bellamkonda and Settembre are social workers who hoped to advocate on behalf of their clients, many of whom are persons of color with less access to health care and other resources that they sorely need.
“This is bullsh**. Women have rights and we’re here to protect them,” said Settembre.
Bellamkonda pointed out that it was important to stand up for the rights that were hard-won.
“We can’t let the work of so many women who came before us go to waste,” she said.
Gloria Gomez, a senior at the University of Arizona, is the 2022 UA School of Journalism’s Don Bolles Fellow working with editors from the Arizona Mirror. Gomez has interned at the Arizona Daily Star and worked at the Arizona Daily Wildcat. She is a dual major in journalism and political science, with a Spanish minor. She’s a member of the Investigative Reporters and Editors and National Association of Hispanic Journalists. The UA School of Journalism started the fellowship in 1977 to honor Don Bolles, an Arizona Republic reporter killed in a 1976 car bombing.