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Ground zero

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A necessary but brutal story about what it was like to be at an abortion clinic in Houston when Dobbs was barfed out by the Supreme Court:

Despite the tension, for the next hour, the workers tried to focus on their particular responsibilities, including answering the phone, which rang constantly. The faster they worked, the more patients they could ready to see the doctor, who would either give the eligible women pills to begin a medication abortion or proceed with a surgical one. But at 9:11 A.M., before the doctor had walked through the door and any abortions had commenced, Sheila heard from an A.C.L.U. lawyer. “Roe, overturned,” she said flatly. Ivy, emerging from the lab, hadn’t caught Sheila’s exact words, but she understood them when she saw her hands shaking.

For a few seconds, no one said a word. Ivy retreated to an area of the clinic where women’s vitals were taken and a urine sample awaited analysis. Alone, she pressed her fingers to her welling eyes. Other workers wrapped their arms around one another. Confused, one of the patients left her seat and interrupted their silence. “Why are y’all crying?” she asked. Sheila, trying to collect herself, wiped her tears away and turned to the woman and three other patients in the waiting room. “Ladies, I’m so sorry to tell you that the law for abortion has been overturned,” she said. “We are not able to perform any abortions at this time, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t have an option, O.K.?”

Two of the patients, wearing bright fluffy slippers, stared into space, speechless. A third, who wore black horn-rimmed glasses, burst into sobs. The fourth, who spoke no English, asked, “Qué pasó?” Sheila kneeled by her side, and, in broken Spanish, said, “No podemos hacerlo ahora,” meaning “We can’t do it now.” The woman, who was of Cuban origin, had no reaction, so Sheila asked Ivy to do a better translation. “Mi amor, the Supreme Court just ruled that abortion is banned in Texas,” she said in Spanish. “We cannot assist you.” The woman froze, in disbelief.

Before long, the afternoon’s patients started showing up, despite the voice mails that workers had been leaving. Every time the door alarm chimed, staff members turned in unison to the front entrance, their faces drawn. “I’m not sure if you’ve heard the news,” the receptionist told a woman who seemed on the brink of tears. Another patient arrived and, baffled, asked Sheila what the law was now. “Since Roe v. Wade has been overturned, it goes back to each state making the decision,” she explained. “So, obviously, we live in a conservative state and it becomes illegal.” Around her, Sheila’s colleagues were already starting to refer to Roe in the past tense, as if evoking some distant era in which abortion had been a right.

During a momentary lull in patient traffic, Sheila sank back against a cabinet to rest. “We can fall down now,” she told the others. A staffer in her sixties named Linda, who had been working at the clinic for forty-two years, respectfully disagreed. She remembered the years when picketers would break into the clinic with stink bombs or flood the premises with hoses through the front door’s mail slot—often enough that drain holes had been drilled into the clinic floor. “If you fall down,” Linda said, in a grave voice, “they’ll walk right over you.”

One of the many sad and horrifying things about this awful moment in history is how many women don’t know or don’t have a clear idea of what has happened. This will be an ever-expanding horror.

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