Nancy Starner was among the millions of people across the United States and around the world who took to the streets this weekend to protest President Donald Trump and demand equal rights for women. But for Starner, who works at one of the largest abortion clinics in the United States, Saturday’s march was part of a decades-long battle. “Every day – across the United States and around the world – good women have abortions for all kinds of personal reasons,” Starner told Refinery29. “For those women, we will never stop fighting.” As the director of development and communications at Preterm in Cleveland, Ohio, Starner said she has pledged to be a “loud and unapologetic voice” in the abortion debate. In July last year, I travelled to Preterm to speak with Starner and other women ahead of the 2016 Republican National Convention. Later that week, the Republican party passed its most anti-abortion platform in decades. For his part, Trump has promised to fill the vacant seat on the Supreme Court with an anti-abortion justice. So on Friday, just before Trump was set to be inaugurated as the country’s 45th president, we called Starner to check in. She said it was business as usual at the clinic. “Friday is a busy day for us, so we have a lot of staff and a lot of patients here who are working on delivering and receiving world-class abortion care. I would say that everyone’s hope for President Trump and for all of our politicians is that we really start to listen to the women who have had abortions, and abortion providers as well,” Starner said. “I also know that even if they don’t listen, we will be fighting and pushing back every step of the way,” she added. Ahead, Starner discusses the fight to keep abortion legal and accessible in the US under the Trump administration.
What is the status of abortion rights in this country as President Trump takes office? One of the things that’s important to remember is that for years now, politicians across the country have been working to curtail access to abortion. And so while we face a really troubling future, we’re also really used to fighting this battle. In a lot of ways – in Ohio specifically and all across the country – this isn’t a new fight. It’s just a fight that continues. Tell us about the work you do at Preterm... We are the largest abortion clinic in Ohio and one of the largest abortion clinics in the country. We are a non-profit with a mission of never turning away a patient because of their inability to pay. We try to live up to that mission every day. We serve thousands of women every year. We not only provide the highest quality healthcare to our patients because they deserve it, we also have a mission of training the abortion providers of tomorrow. We train medical students and resident physicians from all of the major hospitals as well as students and residents from around the country who come here for training. The last piece of our mission is that we are a vocal advocate for reproductive health rights and justice in our community. Our community really looks to us as a voice, as someone who will speak up unapologetically for abortion rights, abortion access and the critical role it plays in people’s lives and the health of our community. Every day, we see the power of abortion in helping women maintain control of their bodies and their lives and their futures. We see the thoughtfulness that women bring to this decision. We see the complexities of their lives that they bring to this space and this moment, and we see what it does to their futures. We see how it makes their lives better, and how it makes our communities stronger and healthier. Some clinics in Ohio, as well as other states, have been forced to close due to the passage of what are known as TRAP laws [Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers]. What happens when clinics close and what kind of burden does that put on women? I think there are two parts to that. What happens to women’s access to abortion when clinics close is that in many cases, it forces women to jump through additional hoops. It forces them to wait longer – which is not in their best interest, or in the best interest of their health. It forces them to drive longer distances, to take off more time from work, to get further behind in school. That’s what happens to the women who do manage to access abortion care even as clinics close. But we also know that for some women, the barriers become too great. For some women, closing clinics absolutely curtails access to what should be their legal right. And it’s for all of these women that we really fight every day. We know that the women who will be stopped from getting an abortion are the most marginalised among us. They are low-income women, women of colour, immigrant women, young women without access to resources and incarcerated women. It’s women who have the least who suffer the most under these laws and restrictions as clinics close. What do you think of the platform passed by the Republican Party? What kind of restrictions have politicians already placed on abortion access? The RNC’s platform absolutely was the most regressive, anti-choice platform we have seen in decades. We know that in some ways, this is nothing new, that this is part of a pattern for years now. Politicians have taken really cruel steps to restrict access to abortion from every single angle possible. We have seen restrictions forcing clinics to close, or forcing clinics to maintain standards that no other healthcare provider has to maintain. We have seen restrictions that curtail access to abortion in terms of the number of weeks of pregnancy; rolling back abortion care from 24 weeks of pregnancy to 20. Some states have bans that push abortion care back even further than that. We’ve seen the attempts to push six-week bans, so-called Heartbeat Bills that ban abortion as soon as a foetal heartbeat is detected. We’ve seen mandatory ultrasound laws. We’ve seen laws that require providers to show or talk about the ultrasound to patients even if they don’t want to. We’ve seen waiting periods – which are bad enough at 24 hours – in some states go to 48 or 72 hours. We’ve seen laws restricting access to medication abortions, which is an early and very safe pill version of abortion. Now we are seeing restrictions that would force clinics or patients to go through cremations or burials for their embryos or foetuses rather than going through a typical process of medical waste disposal. People are horrified at these restrictions. There’s clearly no medical basis for any of these. They’re not serving women’s health. They’re not serving the public interest. Their naked goal is to shame and humiliate women and make abortion as difficult and stigmatised as possible.
What is it like to come to work right now? What are some of the stories or experiences women having abortions at Preterm have shared with you? Everywhere I look today, whether it’s patients walking into the clinic or people on the streets, people have a concerned look on their faces. I think people are seriously concerned about access to healthcare and access to abortion care in this country. What I think is also important to remember is what we hear from our patients. Some of the quotes we get every day from our patients are so inspiring. Here’s a quote that came in just after the election: ‘I feel so fortunate to have been able to go to Preterm. I was treated the way I would want my sister and friends to be cared for.’ Another wrote: ‘I felt at peace with my choice and I can thank your amazing and understanding staff for that.’ You have been open about your own decision to have an abortion. Your clinic also created the “My Abortion, My Life” project that lets people share their experiences without shame. Why do you think that is so important? Abortion stigma runs throughout our culture. We assume women are doing this for a bad reason. We make assumptions about who has an abortion and why, and this stigma silences people. It silences the women who have had abortions, it silences other people who have supported friends or loved ones who have had an abortion. It really silences us all. I believe so deeply in helping people find their voice and talking about abortion. If we move away from debating the morality of abortion and start recognising the lived experiences of women, trans folks and gender-nonconforming folks who have abortions every day, we start to see it in a very different light. We start to see it as an experience that many of our loved ones will go through in their lives. We move away from this place of judgment and toward a place of empathy. I think it’s really important to note that people of all walks of life, no matter how they feel about abortion, all want the women in our families to be loved, supported and comforted throughout their lives. Is there any advice or call to action you want to share with other women? I would encourage everyone to take some kind of action every day. That’s one of the things I try to do in my life. Every single day, I try to push back on the system in some way, no matter how small. For a lot of us these days, I know that can mean signing an online petition, and that’s great; sometimes, it means going to an event. But I think in a lot of instances, it’s as simple as having a conversation. It can mean engaging your neighbour when you walk out your door at the same time and commenting on something meaningful and substantive – in this case, abortion. These are the ways people really connect, and long-term, that is how power really moves and pushes the system. When only the wealthy and powerful are making demands on the system, then our system moves in ways that support the wealthy and powerful. So all of us – every single day – need to do something, no matter how small. That is how real change works. Ed. note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.