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Ahead of Supreme Court hearing, activists in New Orleans protest new abortion restrictions

 Hundreds gathered for an abortion rights rally in New Orleans on Oct. 2, 2021.
Bobbi-Jeanne Misick/WWNO
Hundreds gathered for an abortion rights rally in New Orleans on Oct. 2, 2021.

As restrictive abortion bans take shape across the nation and legislative battles make their way to the highest court, protesters on Saturday gathered in their respective cities, including New Orleans, to march for reproductive rights as part of the Women’s March movement.

But in the Crescent City, the group of roughly 200 that took over downtown felt the stakes were especially high for people who become pregnant in the Deep South.

In the weeks leading up to October 2, New Orleans bartender and social justice activist Meredith Hammock searched for details about a rally in the city. There wasn’t one, so the self-described “anarchist, bad b***h” signed up to organize one herself.

She wanted to ensure that access to abortion and comprehensive reproductive healthcare is maintained for women and people who can get pregnant in Louisiana.

“We have to keep fighting here in Louisiana to make sure that the three abortion clinics that we have here stay open, stay relevant and stay safe for all people,” Hammock said in an interview before the March.

The Supreme Court is preparing to hear a case on a 2018 Mississippi law that restricts abortion access after 15 weeks, before a fetus is considered viable outside the womb — between 22 and 24 weeks of pregnancy. It will be the first abortion rights case that all three of the Justices appointed by former President Donald Trump will sit in on.

If the court allows the law to be implemented, that decision would overturn legal precedent set in 1992’s Planned Parenthood v. Casey that reaffirmed 1973’s Roe v. Wade decision granting women the right to abortions and protected a woman’s right to have access to the procedure before a fetus reaches viability.

“It's beyond me that in 2021, this is something that we're still fighting for when in 1973 Roe vs. Wade was supposed to have to completed that chapter in our lives,” Hammock said. “And yet here we are still fighting for fundamental justices — fighting for reproductive justice.”

Louisiana passed its own 15-week ban on abortions in 2018 and attached the law to Mississippi’s. If the Supreme Court upholds Mississippi’s law, Louisiana’s legislation is also set to take effect.

Rain poured down on the large crowd of mostly young women who gathered in Louis Armstrong Park on Saturday afternoon, but they appeared undeterred.

“I strongly believe in the right for a woman to choose, no matter the circumstances. So of course I'll be out here fighting, even if it's raining,” said 17-year-old Peyton Weeks, adding that she wishes adults making decisions about reproductive rights would speak to young people like her. “It is our future that's being affected. If this gets passed everywhere, I have to live in the reality of where I can't choose what I can do with my body.”

Her friend, Caitlin Russell, 17, has been attending Women’s Marches since she was in the sixth grade.

“As a queer woman, I feel like it’s important to stand up for what you believe in,” Russell said. “Our freedom is being taken under control by the government, and our right to choose for our bodies and for future generations is being put at risk.”

During the March to Duncan Plaza across from City Hall, through the French Quarter and back to Louis Armstrong Park, Russell led chants, shouting, “This is what empowerment looks like!” and “We have the power.”

As the group approached City Hall, 66-year-old Baton Rouge resident Jennifer Tenhundfeld held up a sign that said “Ruth Sent Me,” referring to former Supreme Court Justice and champion of reproductive rights Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who died last September. Wearing a light pink knitted cap with kitten years, better known as a p***y hat, she remembered the rights that she was not afforded when she got married at 19.

“I went to do something as simple as open an account at the utility company for our home. They wanted me to give my husband's name. When I went to get a library card, they wanted me to have my husband sign, because I couldn't be responsible for the financial cost,” she said.

Tenhundfeld drove to New Orleans because she wanted to add to the number of voices demanding reproductive rights, including access to abortion.

In Duncan Plaza, new mother Tara Zapp shared her abortion story with the crowd. In the second trimester of her pregnancy, she and her partner learned that their unborn child had a birth defect that threatened the fetus’ viability and Zapp’s life.

The couple made the choice to terminate the pregnancy, Zapp said, but could not find a hospital to conduct the dilation and evacuation procedure needed for a late-term abortion and were running out of time. Eventually, they were connected with the only doctor in the state who could provide the abortion and fought through the hospital’s red tape to get it done.

“Being able to terminate my unviable pregnancy gave us this chance to have a family,” Zapp, who later gave birth to a healthy baby boy in March, said. “I really don't think we would have if it weren't for the ability to have that surgery.”

Generational New Orleanian, activist and musician Arsene DeLay challenged the crowd to listen to Black women, who are most often affected at greater rates by laws that govern reproductive rights. According to the CDC, in 2016 Black women received 61% of all abortions provided in Louisiana.

“To have Black representation at these events is so crucial because Black women have been telling people this for years,” DeLay said in an interview before the rally.

Addressing the crowd, she urged white people to employ “radical empathy” for marginalized women, trans-people and non-binary individuals.

“We need to normalize the discomfort of not minimizing or gaslighting when women of color or queerness or disability are laying their traumas bare in the attempt to make the more privileged give a damn,” she said.

She urged the people at the event to “cut this performative bulls**t” and do more than speaking out on social media or voting against anti-abortion rights in elections.

Eighteen-year-old Loyola University student Maya Davis listened to DeLay while sitting in front of a sign that she made that said “I am an angry Black woman.”

“I was hoping I would come here and hear a speech that spoke to marginalized people,” she said. “I feel like those are the beings that are going to be most affected by this ban,” referring specifically to the new law in Texas.

Last month, the Supreme Court issued an unsigned order refusing to block an anti-abortion rights law in Texas that makes most abortions in the state after six weeks illegal. It encourages citizens to sue people they believe are providing abortions or are helping someone access abortions after six weeks.

Louisiana’s abortion clinics are seeing an influx of patients from Texas seeking abortions. The ban has also essentially blocked abortion care for Louisiana residents with unwanted pregnancies that live close to the state line and might normally find it easier to seek abortions in Texas.

Davis is from Dallas and said the Texas ban affects not only people who can get pregnant in Texas but people all over the South.

“I’m just concerned. If something were to happen to me, where could I go?” Davis said. “My parents have disposable income, and they would support me, but I’m very concerned for people who are not economically advantaged and can’t cross state lines."

If a 15-week ban in Louisiana is passed, women seeking second trimester abortions will likely have to cross multiple state lines to access the procedure.

Hammock, who organized the march, is optimistic that Louisiana’s activists can keep state politicians from passing any more anti-abortion rights laws. Her ultimate hope is that laws are passed that will permanently protect abortion rights so that she and other women can stop fighting for comprehensive reproductive health care.

Copyright 2021 WWNO - New Orleans Public Radio

Bobbi-Jeanne Misick