What’s Changed Inside and Outside Abortion Clinics Over 30 Years

April 22, 2019
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by Priyanka Boghani Digital Reporter & Producer

In 1983, a decade after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision on Roe v. Wade, FRONTLINE went inside an abortion clinic on the outskirts of Chester, Pennsylvania. In Abortion Clinic, director Mark Obenhaus focused on the experiences of young women dealing with unplanned pregnancies, speaking to people working in the clinic and the protesters calling for its closure.

At the time when Abortion Clinic was released, lawmakers and the public were grappling with the film’s central issue. Almost four decades later, as the U.S. remains bitterly divided on abortion, Obenhaus returns to Pennsylvania with co-producer Elizabeth Leiter to see what has changed. Like its predecessor, FRONTLINE’s latest documentary, The Abortion Divide, paints a portrait of the complicated, personal issues surrounding abortion.  

One key difference explored in the film is the availability of a different method of terminating a pregnancy:  RU-486, often called “the abortion pill,” which was approved by the FDA in 2000. In the above excerpt, two women — Taryn and Megan — begin the process of a medical abortion. They take one pill in the clinic and will take another in the privacy of their homes.

“A medical abortion procedure is very similar to inducing a miscarriage. It is safe for women to do up to ten weeks of their pregnancy,” Dr. Rebecca Mercier, who works at the Philadelphia Women’s Center — an offshoot of the clinic from the first film — explains in the clip. This method, which is less invasive than a surgical procedure, accounts for a third of all abortions in the state of Pennsylvania.

The women in the film carefully weigh the implications of the decision for themselves and their families.

“What I hope I feel is a sense of peace, not only with myself and the decision that I’ve made, but also a sense of peace with these two beings that I’ve chosen not to bring into the world,” says Taryn, a mother of two who became pregnant with twins. “Thank you for choosing me. And I’m honored to be given this gift of life. And also, I can’t do it right now. I can’t accept that mantle in terms of the other lives that I’m taking care of and I’m responsible for.”

Megan and her husband, Charles, anticipate that they’ll feel sadness and guilt, but are resolute. “I’m confident in the decision we made,” Megan says.

Outside of the clinic, the introduction of medical abortions has caused a shift in the tactics of anti-abortion activists. Dr. Monique Ruberu, an obstetrician-gynecologist who opposes abortion, stands outside Philadelphia Women’s Center trying to persuade women not to go through with the procedure. Before medical abortions, protesters trying to stop women from obtaining an abortion were present on the days they knew surgical procedures were taking place. Now, with an abortion process that can begin by swallowing a pill, Ruberu feels they must be more vigilant.

“The RU-486 pill has completely changed the landscape of abortion, and it really necessitates that somebody is present outside of these abortion centers every single day, every hour that they’re open,” she says.

Standing near the clinic’s entrance, Ruberu tells women who are exiting, “If you took the abortion pill, we can reverse it.” She’s referencing a controversial method of prescribing the hormone progesterone to a woman who’s taken the first pill. Some abortion opponents say this can reverse a medical abortion, but the evidence they cite is anecdotal.

The Abortion Divide shows the realities of continued deep division. The clinic shown in the film has bulletproof glass separating the public areas from the interior, and volunteers escort women in and out of the clinic to shield them from protesters.

Meanwhile, abortion opponents, who have enjoyed some political victories in Pennsylvania, have set up their own facilities: crisis pregnancy centers that offer free services to women while counseling against abortion, and shelters that offer pregnant women a temporary home in the months before and after they give birth.

For all of the changes since 1983, The Abortion Divide, which airs April 23, chronicles an unwavering reality surrounding abortion: the deeply personal choices and the impassioned fight on both sides of the debate.

The Abortion Divide premieres Tuesday, April 23 at 10 p.m. EST/9 p.m. CST on PBS stations (check local listings) and online.

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