The bedsheets are big. Some are light pink, others hot pink or purple, connected and stretched taut by people holding wooden poles. Together, the sheets form a barrier across the parking lot. The activists, who are supporting a woman’s right to an abortion, wear bright pink vests with PRO-CHOICE in black emblazoned on the front.
This is the front line of protection for pregnant women who drive to this women’s center for an abortion. The sheeting forms a tunnel for them to leave their cars and enter the center, unseen by anti-abortion protesters trying to stop them.
‘There’s very little conversation’
This is the daily scene at the Bristol Regional Women’s Center. The abortion-rights activists stay inside the center parking lot; the 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, “Honk Twice for Choice.”
A local church organizes the anti-abortion protesters. Natalie, who asked to use only her first name for safety reasons, is 24. She has been coming here weekly for seven years, saying, “This is what the Lord has called us to do.” She says no patient has ever approached her for help.
Another young protester, Haven, says he’s handed out a few pamphlets but it is difficult to approach the women because of the sheeting. He has not spoken to the doctors or the abortion-rights protesters, adding, “There’s very little conversation that can happen.”
The abortion-rights protesters chose not to speak to VOA about their views and asked us to leave. One shone a flashlight into the lens of our video camera.
Inside the clinic, women are given an ultrasound on the first visit. If no fetal heartbeat is detected, they return for a second ultrasound in 48 hours. Again, if no cardiac activity is heard, they are given counseling before a medical abortion.
That is not the case in the adjacent state.
Legal and illegal separated by a street
Bristol, Tennessee, is a border town.
The state line is marked by numerous 20-centimeter-long brass plaques that run down the center of State Street, separating Tennessee from Virginia and its different laws.
As soon as the U.S. Supreme Court in June struck down abortion as a constitutional right, some states instituted “trigger laws” outlawing some or all abortions.
Tennessee’s trigger law outlawed surgical abortions and allowed medical abortions, which use medication to end a pregnancy, during the first six weeks of a pregnancy or until a heartbeat can be recognized, which typically occurs near that time limit.
That means abortions remain legal in Virginia but across State Street, they are restricted in Tennessee.
Olivia, who prefers to use only her first name for safety reasons, is a medical assistant at a women’s clinic in Bristol, Tennessee. She says in the past month, her clinic has had to turn away women in tears, some who had driven many hours to reach the clinic, because an ultrasound found fetal heart activity. The office refers them to Virginia offices if they live nearby. But some drive from eastern Tennessee, and a delay of an extra day to reach another state that’s closer than Virginia can affect the legality of an abortion.
“It becomes a bigger issue,” Olivia says, giving as an example, “North Carolina, [where] you have two separate visits with a 72-hour waiting period.”
Star Eans is a makeup artist on TikTok. The U.S. Supreme Court decision motivated her to become a abortion-rights activist. Eans had a medical abortion less than a year ago when she lived in Tennessee, and complications required a surgical abortion.
“It just makes me angry thinking that, like, if that had happened this year, I would have just died,” Eans says. “If I was still living in Tennessee, and I had to have this baby that I didn’t want, I was very much on the verge of ending myself.”
Doctor looks to move across the border
On Aug. 25, another Tennessee law will prohibit all abortions, surgical and medical.
Because of that, the doctor who runs the Bristol women’s center is considering a satellite office less than a mile away where abortions are 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 earlier in July at the Virginia clinic and alerted residents, including Emmitt Russell, whose house is next door. He objects to the anti-abortion protesters and the clinic and says a Virginia ban would motivate him to the polls.
“I didn’t vote in the last two presidential elections … but I would vote against abortions in Virginia, yes,” he said.
No trigger laws exist in Virginia. But Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin is supporting making abortions illegal after 15 weeks. Republicans hold a majority in the state House and could support a ban, but experts think it would be defeated in the Democrat-controlled Senate.