In the US, abortion laws differ across the road

Bedsheets are big. Some are pale pink, others are hot pink or purple, attached and pulled by people holding wooden poles. Together, the sheets form a barrier in the parking lot. Activists supporting a woman’s right to abortion wear a bright pink vest with Pro-Choice in black on the front.

It is the front line of protection for pregnant women who visit this women’s center for abortion. The sheets create a tunnel for them to leave their cars and enter the center, which anti-abortion protesters did not try to stop them.

‘There is very little conversation’

This is the daily scene at the Bristol Regional Women’s Centre. Abortion-rights activists live inside the center’s parking lot; Anti-abortion protesters stand on the sidewalk. They walk next to a busy street with posters reading “Love Your Baby and Yourself” or “Babies Are Murdered Here” next to competing pink signs that read, “Hone Twice for Choice.”

A local church organizes anti-abortion protesters. Natalie, who asked to use only her first name for security reasons, is 24 years old. She has been coming weekly for seven years, saying, “This is what the Lord has called us to do.” She says that no patient ever approached her for help.

Natalie, 24, protests next to a women's center offering abortions.  Abortion rights activists protect the identity and arrival of patients with sheet tunnels at office doors.  (Caroline Presutti/VOA)
Natalie, 24, protests next to a women’s center offering abortions. Abortion rights activists protect the identity and arrival of patients with sheet tunnels at office doors. (Caroline Presutti/VOA)

Haven, another young protester, says they have given some pamphlets, but because of the sheets, it is difficult to contact the women. He didn’t speak to doctors or abortion-rights protesters, saying “there could be little conversation.”

Abortion-rights protesters chose not to speak to the VOA about their views and told us to leave. One shone a flashlight into the lens of our video camera.

Inside the clinic, women are given an ultrasound on their first visit. If fetal heartbeats are not detected, they are returned for a second ultrasound in 48 hours. Again, if no heart activity is heard, they are consulted before a medical abortion.

Not so in the neighboring state.

legally and illegally separated by a street

Bristol, Tennessee, is a border city.

The state line is marked by several 20-centimeter-long brass plaques that run across the center of State Street, separating Tennessee from Virginia and its various statutes.

As the US Supreme Court outlawed abortion as a constitutional right in June, some states instituted “trigger laws” outlawing some or all abortions.

Tennessee’s Trigger law outlawed surgical abortion and allowed medical abortions, which use medication to terminate a pregnancy, during the first six weeks of pregnancy or when a heartbeat can be recognized. Usually happens near that time frame.

This means abortion is legal in Virginia but in State Street, they are banned in Tennessee.

These brass markers run down the center of State Street, serving as the official border between the states.  They differentiate Bristol, Tennessee, where abortion is prohibited, from Bristol, Virginia, where they are legal.  (Caroline Presutti/VOA)
These brass markers run down the center of State Street, serving as the official border between the states. They differentiate Bristol, Tennessee, where abortion is prohibited, from Bristol, Virginia, where they are legal. (Caroline Presutti/VOA)

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 had to see women in tears, some running for hours to reach the clinic, because an ultrasound found fetal heart activity. The office refers them to Virginia offices if they live nearby. But a few drives from East Tennessee, and an extra day’s delay from Virginia to get to another state nearby can affect the legality of abortion.

“It becomes a big issue,” says Olivia, giving as an example, “North Carolina, [where] You have two separate visits with a waiting period of 72 hours.”

Bristol, Tennessee, medical assistant Olivia prepares the exam room for the next patient.  Tennessee's 'trigger ban' prohibits medical abortion after six weeks of pregnancy.  (Caroline Presutti/VOA)
Bristol, Tennessee, medical assistant Olivia prepares the exam room for the next patient. Tennessee’s ‘trigger ban’ prohibits medical abortion after six weeks of pregnancy. (Caroline Presutti/VOA)

The star is a makeup artist on eons tiktok. The decision of the US Supreme Court inspired her to become an abortion-rights activist. Eons had a medical abortion less than a year before she lived in Tennessee, and complications required a surgical abortion.

“It just annoys me thinking that, if it had happened this year, I would have died,” says Eons. “If I was still living in Tennessee, and I had to be this kid I didn’t want, I was on the verge of exhausting myself.”

the doctor wants to cross the border

On August 25, another Tennessee law will prohibit all abortion, surgery, and therapy.

Because of that, the doctor who runs the Bristol Women’s Center is considering a satellite office less than a mile away where abortion is legal in Bristol, Virginia. A GoFundMe page has raised more than $100,000 for the new clinic, and an update on July 29 said it had opened.

But anti-abortion protesters held a rally at a Virginia clinic in early July and alerted residents, including Emmit Russell, whose home is next door. He objected to anti-abortion protesters and the clinic, saying the Virginia ban would propel him to the polls.

“I didn’t vote in the last two presidential elections … but I will vote against abortion in Virginia, yes,” he said.

No trigger law exists in Virginia. But Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin is backing making abortion illegal after 15 weeks. Republicans hold a majority in the State House and may support the ban, but experts believe it will be defeated in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

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