As last week’s deadly rampage at two Massachusetts abortion clinics transfixed the country, Susan Hill was in Jackson, Miss., supervising construction of a new clinic that will terminate pregnancies.
The opening of the comprehensive women’s health center in Jackson, scene of protests last year against Mississippi’s sole abortion doctor, is a victory for abortion advocates.
But it is a limited victory: The Jackson center may be the only clinic offering abortions to be built this year.
“People are afraid to provide services,” said Hill, president of the National Women’s Health Organization, operator of nine women’s clinics in eight states. “It’s crazy that in 1995, under a pro-choice president, there’s only one clinic opening in this country.”
Despite Bill Clinton’s inauguration two years ago and a flurry of laws and court decisions that rein in antiabortion protesters, the ranks of abortion providers are shrinking. The losses suggest abortion supporters are winning battles but may be losing the war.
Some 200 sites that provided abortion, mostly in smaller rural and public hospitals, have halted the procedure in the last four years under threat of violence, financial woes and political opposition.
As hospitals end such services, the number of medical residency programs training doctors in abortion has dropped by half. Fewer doctors are able, or willing, to replace retiring abortion doctors.
The militant anti-abortion move ment has raised costs for those trying to keep services running. Hill estimates her organization has spent $1 million in security and legal fees since the early 1980s.
“It’s been a state of siege for 10 to 12 years. The metropolitan areas are just realizing it now themselves,” she said.
It is to these metropolitan areas women must now turn for abortions. Eighty-four percent of the nation’s counties have no abortion services.
With abortion concentrated in the larger cities, it is easier for antiabortion protesters to marshal their forces and narrow their targets.
“Have they injured us? Yes,” said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, which runs security programs for abortion clinics. “What they are doing is making it tougher on poorer, younger women who don’t have means of transportation.”
While abortion advocates aren’t prepared to admit defeat, the antiabortion movement is eager to claim victory.
“There is no doubt the pro-life side is winning,” said Paul deParrie, editor of Life Advocate Magazine in Portland. “The outlying communities have stopped doing abortions, and it allows us to concentrate on the hardcore abortion mills in the cities.”
The nation’s abortion numbers have been dropping steadily. The Alan Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit corporation that studies reproductive issues, says 1.5 million abortions were performed in 1992 - 80,000 fewer than 1990 and the lowest figure since 1979.
“It’s definitely the effect of the rescue movement. We’ve stopped over 500 abortions here by talking to women going into the clinics,” said Joseph Scheidler of the ProLife Action League.
But Guttmacher spokeswoman Susan Tew said other factors, including a declining fertility rate and advances in family planning, have contributed to the decline.
“What we don’t know is if more unplanned conceptions are being carried to term or are we looking at better contraceptive use,” she said.