Why Abortion Is At The Center Of The 2016 Election — & What Women Think

Photographed By Ricky Rhodes.
Blaire* puts her hands next to positive messages volunteers and staff have scrawled on the clinic's parking lot to help patients feel welcome, even as anti-abortion protesters gather outside.
On Cleveland's Shaker Boulevard, number 12000 is a nondescript, gray medical building on a stretch of road full of them. But on the Sunday before the 2016 Republican National Convention, the sidewalk out front was an explosion of color.

Bright chalk letters proclaimed: "Jesus doesn't shame women," and, "You are loved, you are strong, you are brave, you are beautiful." Intertwined daisies and sketches of smiley faces covered the parking spaces. But the largest message was scrawled across the driveway itself, so that any car pulling in would be able to read it: "The people outside don't know you, your story or your challenges. Abortion is normal."

"We have protesters outside of our building every day that we see patients. The protesters know when we’re open for patients, and so we face a barrage of insults, sometimes rising to the level of threats," said Nancy Starner, director of development and communications at Preterm, Ohio's largest abortion provider.

Clinics like Preterm face different kinds of threats from lawmakers. Just a few miles away in downtown Cleveland last week, Republicans formally chose Donald Trump and his staunchly anti-abortion running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, to be their presidential ticket. During the four-day-long convention, the GOP ratified its most anti-abortion platform yet.

At their own convention this week, the Democrats have pledged to protect and expand access to abortion. Their platform includes a proposal to repeal the Hyde Amendment, which currently prohibits taxpayer money from being used for abortion services. Both party platforms, coupled with the brewing battle over who will name the next Supreme Court justice, show that reproductive rights are once again front and center in America's presidential politics.
Photographed By Ricky Rhodes.
Blaire* had an abortion two years ago at Preterm. She said she has never regretted her decision.
Preterm is one of the many clinics already on the front line of that fight. The chalk drawings are one way that staff and volunteers have tried to counteract the protesters and make patients feel more comfortable, Starner said. She also wears a laminated name badge with the phone numbers of the local police, FBI, and bomb squad on the back. Preterm said it performed 5,234 abortions last year.

"Women’s full equality is scary to many people still, and abortion rights is part of that. I think that as long as women’s rights are frightening to some people, we are going to have to take steps to make us safe," she added. "It’s not pleasant to walk through that every day, and it does take a toll. But coming here is such a mission for me... [There are] not very many jobs where you hear people say that you saved their lives. And they mean it."

Starner said that remaining safe and open is the clinic's main goal. Laws similar to the one passed in Texas and struck down in the landmark Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt Supreme Court case forced many other Ohio abortion clinics to shut their doors. According to nonprofit group NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio, half of the state's clinics were forced to close after such legislation was passed.

"With these clinic closures, what we have seen is that women are having to wait longer in pregnancy to access abortion care and they’re driving from longer distances, which really makes clear that these laws serving women’s health is a ruse," Starner said.

Ohio law bans most abortions after 20 weeks, and includes a 24-hour waiting period and a mandatory sonogram for any woman seeking an abortion before the cut off. Women must also undergo mandatory counseling and acknowledge if a fetal heartbeat was found during their examination.
Photographed By Ricky Rhodes.
Inside Preterm, Ohio's largest abortion clinic. The clinic said it served 5,863 patients last year for both abortion services and sexual wellness care.
Joanne*, a 27-year-old who works in the field of women's health, said she immediately recognized the symptoms of pregnancy and realized she wasn't ready to be a mother. She made her first appointment at a Planned Parenthood when she was about six weeks pregnant last spring. By the time she returned for her second appointment, she was almost eight weeks pregnant. She called Ohio's restrictions "an insult."

"The counseling isn’t there for the emotional health of a woman. It’s just tons of paperwork you have to sign. Even when you’ve decided that you don’t want to look at your sonogram, you have to sign a sheet of paper that says you recognize there was a fetal heartbeat detected," Joanne said. "I’m a woman. I have two degrees. Even if I didn’t have those degrees, I know there is a fetal heartbeat because I’m pregnant. I know that there is a viable pregnancy, so I don’t need that shoved in my face as if I don’t know what’s going on in my own body."

But if Republicans take the White House this Fall, their priority is to expand such restrictions nationwide, a move that has garnered praise from groups such as the Susan B. Anthony List, a nonprofit dedicated to ending abortion in the U.S.

"The GOP platform has always been strong on the pro-life issue, but the language ratified last week is the strongest ever in support of policies that protect unborn babies and women from abortion," Mallory Quigley, the group's communications director, told Refinery29 in an email.
Photographed By Ricky Rhodes.
Joanne* had an abortion earlier this Spring. She said she wants to see Ohio remove restrictions on women's access to the procedure.
The fact that both parties are also vying to fill the late Antonin Scalia's Supreme Court seat has added a new sense of urgency to the decades-long debate over abortion. And after Trump turned sharply to the right on the issue, anti-abortion groups are looking to seize on that momentum.

"Last summer, Donald Trump explained his conversion on the issue of abortion on the debate stage in Cleveland. Undoubtedly, this is a conversion that he shares with many Americans who have become increasingly aware of the horrors of abortion. His commitment to appoint pro-life Supreme Court justices will impact decades of decisions that mean life or death for the innocent," Katherine Franklin, communications director with Ohio Right To Life, told Refinery29 via email.

But for Blaire*, who chose to have an abortion at Preterm two years ago after finding out she was pregnant while recovering from bariatric surgery, politics should have little to do with it.

"Just the fact that an important talking point for someone to run of president of this country is controlling other people’s reproductive rights is ridiculous to me," Blaire said. "When women want a baby, they will have a baby. And when they don’t want to have a baby, they know that, too. Stop trying to make us look or sound like people who are non-thinking, reckless, and don’t know what we want."
Photographed By Ricky Rhodes.
One of Ohio's laws mandates that the sign (above) be posted in clinics, advising women they cannot be forced to have abortions. Preterm added its own sign (below) advising women they can't be forced to continue pregnancies.
Neither Joanne nor Blaire said they regret having an abortion.

"I am looking forward to planning my pregnancy, to sitting down and saying, ‘Hey, I want kids,’ and then taking the steps for that, and knowing that I am stable in every way I can be and bring this new person into the world and nurture them into an awesome adult," Joanne said. "I do feel, in some ways, that abortion is a parenting decision because it’s deciding what type of parent I want to be. And if I’m not able to be that type of parent right now, then abortion is the way to go."

Blaire said that when she learned she was pregnant, her sister-in-law was also expecting. Sometimes, she said, she looks at her nephew and thinks about the choice she made.

"I do see my nephew and I wonder what would have happened if…" she said. "Then I am like, well, because I didn’t, I’ve been able to do all this. I’ve been able to travel, have my job and my house and all these different things. I think it’s very normal to think about the 'what if' with anything in life, but at the end of that thought, the answer is always: I’m okay with that decision."

She also has a strong message for those who are trying to take that decision away from her.

"Women know what they need, and abortion is necessary for us to accomplish our goals," Blaire said. "For us to be able to raise healthier children when we already have them, for us to be able to move forward in our jobs and in our lives. So get out of our way, basically."

*Ed. note: Names have been changed to protect subjects' identities, at their request.

Photographed By Ricky Rhodes.
Chalk drawings on the clinic's sidewalk and parking lot try to counteract the messages of protesters that are outside nearly every day, Starner said.
Refinery29’s News team is on the ground covering the Republican National Convention and the Democratic National Convention. Follow along @R29News and check out our full coverage of the 2016 race here.

Correction: An earlier version of this story contained an typo in Preterm's address. It is 12000 Shaker Boulevard.

More from Politics