The sheets are great. Some are light pink, others bright pink or purple, bound and stretched by people holding wooden poles. Together the leaves form a barrier across the parking lot. The activists, who support women’s right to abortion, wear bright pink vests with PRO-CHOICE in black emblazoned on the front.
This is the first line of protection for pregnant women who drive to this women’s center for an abortion. The tarp forms a tunnel allowing them to leave their cars and enter the centre, unseen by anti-abortion protesters trying to stop them.
“There is very little conversation”
This is the daily scene at Bristol Regional Women’s Center. Abortion rights activists remain inside center parking lot; anti-abortion protesters stand on the sidewalk. They walk alongside a busy street with posters reading ‘Love your baby and yourself’ or ‘Babies are being murdered here’ alongside competing pink signs reading ‘Honk Twice for Choice’.
A local church organizes anti-abortion protesters. Natalie, who asked to use only her first name for security reasons, is 24. She’s been coming here every week for seven years, saying, “That’s what the Lord has called us to do. She says no patient has ever approached her for help.
Another young protester, Haven, says he has distributed some brochures but it is difficult to approach the women because of the tarpaulins. He did not speak to doctors or abortion rights protesters, adding, “There are very few conversations that can take place.”
Abortion rights protesters chose not to speak to VOA about their views and asked us to leave. One of them shined a flashlight on the lens of our video camera.
Inside the clinic, women undergo an ultrasound at the first visit. If no fetal heartbeat is detected, they return for a second ultrasound in 48 hours. Again, if no cardiac activity is heard, they are counseled before a medical abortion.
This is not the case in the adjacent state.
Legal and illegal separated by a street
Bristol, Tennessee is a border town.
The state line is marked by numerous 8-inch-long brass plaques that run down the center of State Street, separating Tennessee from Virginia and its various laws.
As soon as the United States Supreme Court in June invalidated abortion as a constitutional rightsome states have instituted “trigger laws” banning all or part of abortions.
Tennessee’s trigger law banned surgical abortions and allowed medical abortions, which use drugs to end a pregnancy, during the first six weeks of a pregnancy or until a heartbeat can be recognized, which usually occurs near this time limit.
This means abortions remain legal in Virginia, but across State Street they are restricted in Tennessee.
Olivia, who prefers to use only her first name for security reasons, is a medical assistant at a women’s clinic in Bristol, Tennessee. She says that over the past month her clinic has had to turn away tearful women, some who had driven many hours to get to the clinic, because an ultrasound revealed fetal heart activity. The office refers them to the Virginia offices if they live nearby. But some trips from eastern Tennessee and an extra day’s delay to reach another state closer than Virginia can affect the legality of an abortion.
“It becomes a bigger problem,” Olivia says, giving as an example, “North Carolina, [where] you have two separate visits with a 72 hour waiting period.
Star Eans is a makeup artist on TikTok. The U.S. Supreme Court decision motivated her to become an abortion rights activist. Eans had a medical abortion less than a year ago when she lived in Tennessee, and the complications required a surgical abortion.
“It just makes me angry thinking that if it had happened this year, I would have died,” Eans said. “If I was still living in Tennessee and had to have this baby that I didn’t want, I was about to kill myself.”
The doctor tries to cross the border
On August 25, another Tennessee law will ban all abortions, surgical and medical.
Because of this, the doctor who runs the Bristol Women’s Center is considering a satellite office less than a mile from where abortions are legal in Bristol, Virginia. A GoFundMe page raised over $100,000 for the new clinic, and a July 29 update announced its opening.
But anti-abortion protesters held a rally earlier in July at the clinic in Virginia and alerted residents, including Emmitt Russell, whose house is nearby. He opposes anti-abortion protesters and the clinic and says a Virginia ban would motivate him to the polls.
“I haven’t voted in the last two presidential elections…but I would vote against abortion in Virginia, yes,” he said.
No trigger laws exist in Virginia. But Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin supports making abortions illegal after 15 weeks. Republicans hold a majority in the State House and could support a ban, but experts believe it would be defeated in the Democratic-controlled Senate.