The real state of abortion rights, before Alito

Published: January 12, 2006

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On Tuesday, I accompanied a friend into the dingy lobby of a Bleecker Street building, where I was greeted by graying carpets and a metal detector. "You'll have to wait here," my friend told me, as she fished through her pockets for her driver's license. A woman stood behind bulletproof glass, checking incomers for identification.

We had come to this East Village clinic so that my friend could secure her next month of birth control pills. The security we encountered--which left me standing in a lobby with my friend's half-drunk can of San Pellegrino Arranciata--was because this reproductive health clinic was also an abortion clinic.

In all the years I have spent writing and thinking about a woman's right to choose, I have never set foot in an abortion clinic, because I have never needed to. In my mind, I had always pictured a clean and comfortable place, not unlike the health clinic I had once been admitted after suffering a major foot infection. Alas.


This was no Westchester clinic. The place was dirty and dark and the women in the room outside the metal detector were standing, as there were no chairs. A woman beside me was crying. She leaned into the bulletproof glass, yelling to the woman behind it. "Are you sure?" the crying woman asked.

"It's too late," the woman behind the glass said. "Come back tomorrow."

"I just saw someone go in there," the first woman said. "She was going in for the same thing as I was."

"She wasn't," the woman behind glass said. "She was going in for birth control."

It turned out the crying woman was looking for a doctor, or, at the very least, for access to Plan B, otherwise known as the Morning After Pill. She was turned away, as it was too late in the afternoon.

This was a scene from New York City, an oasis where most blood runs democratic blue. And it was a scene from 2006, where advances in medicine should make such situations obsolete. Outside, the modern world thrived. New Yorkers moved in throngs through the city. The Bohemian Bourgeoisie dunked donuts into macchiatos at the arty café across the street. But not here. Outside, it was the culture of cool, of the young and the rich and the desperately hip. Inside, it was metal detectors and old carpeting, poverty and disillusionment.

In the coming weeks, the issue of abortion and its legitimacy will be at the very foreground of American politics. Samuel Alito, Jr., the President's nominee for the soon-to-be-vacant spot on the Supreme Court, will face countless questions regarding Roe v. Wade. In the press, the issue of the right to choose will be reduced to the terminology of precedent and privacy.

But the visceral reality of abortion--the grimy clinic, the sobbing and hapless young woman, the need for a metal detector in the place in which one undergoes the most solitary and personal of procedures--cannot be understood by such desensitized vocabulary. The truth of the matter is, even in our richest cities, in a country where abortion is technically legal and Constitutionally protected, abortion is still a dirty word. Women pay for their misdeeds in waiting rooms nothing like the cushy, magazine-filled offices of plastic surgeons. The cold, clinical reality is that no money is appropriated to the abortion clinic, and no safety is guaranteed it, either. You get what you pay for, and, over 30 years after Roe v. Wade became the rally cheer of the Women's Lib Movement, that still doesn't amount to very much.

We can kick and scream all we want about the dangers posed involving the right to choose. Yes, the right would like to curtail--if not abolish completely--abortion rights. Yes, the induction of new members to the Supreme Court, selected by our conservative president, will no doubt affect the future constitutionality of abortion.

But, it must be remembered that abortion has never been socially accepted. In that East Village clinic, the pervasive feeling was that of shame. Women bowed their heads when they entered the building. They took care to conceal their licenses so their identities remained private. A note above the door stated that the clinic could not legally release the names of any women who came to the clinic for any reason.

It is already a problem, and one that promises to get worse. It is already a problem, because women are being turned away, or being made to feel bad about their already difficult decisions. It is already a problem, because abortion clinics have become the dirty little secret of the medical profession.

They shouldn't be. Should we be ashamed of our inadequate health care system that does not provide for women as well as it does for men? Yes. Should we be ashamed of the government's inability to address the mind-blowing problem of American poverty, which makes abortion an increasingly viable option for impoverished families? Yes. But should we make women feel ashamed of their decisions and relegate them to dirty clinics and bulletproof glass? No. For now, abortion is legal, and one of our goals should be to take it a bit more seriously.


Hannah Selinger is a weekly contributor to Raw Story.


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