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After 42 years providing abortion access, rural Louisiana clinic closes its doors

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A for-sale sign recently went up in front of the - one of the last clinics to provide abortions in Louisiana. As Rosemary Westwood from member station WWNO reports, following Louisiana's near-total ban on abortions, the clinic has been forced to close.

ROSEMARY WESTWOOD, BYLINE: Kathaleen Pittman stands outside the clinic she runs, Hope Medical Group for Women, on a recent sweltering afternoon in Shreveport. It's a squat, beige building that hasn't changed in decades. The sign is faded. The paint's peeling.

KATHALEEN PITTMAN: It's looking a little worse for wear.

WESTWOOD: Stephanie Chaffee is the clinic's second-in-command.

STEPHANIE CHAFFEE: And then the other day, we came out and noticed that the sign with the hours of operation had just kind of, like, fallen off the door.

WESTWOOD: And they have no plans to fix it. The parking lot is empty. The protesters are gone. After 40 years of making sure women in this rural part of the South had access to abortions, Hope is closing. Inside, chairs and boxes are stacked in a corner. There's an empty magazine rack and a corkboard that used to hold messages of support.

CHAFFEE: I still have my plants in here because that's something that's living and growing. You know, the quiet is kind of - it's just eerie.

WESTWOOD: Hope opened in 1980. As the story goes, founder Robin Rothrock, who'd been working at a women's clinic in Florida, was sitting at a seaside bar wondering whether to open a new clinic in Louisiana. She asked for a sign from God. Pittman says Rothrock went to the ladies' room.

PITTMAN: And on the inside of the stall door, it said, if men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament. That was her sign.

WESTWOOD: Pittman joined Hope about a decade later and took over after Rothrock passed away. In recent years, the clinic performed about 3,000 abortions annually. Pittman says they served women from every walk of life.

PITTMAN: From the evangelical churches, from the more liberal churches - we've seen relatives of politicians come through.

WESTWOOD: Miranda Slavoff was a patient a few years ago. She's the mother of five from a conservative Christian family, and she worried her latest pregnancy - after previous complications - could kill her.

MIRANDA SLAVOFF: The only thing that I had that I knew I could turn to was this clinic. You know, what do you do then if you don't have that to turn to?

WESTWOOD: Over the years, Hope has faced physical attacks. At one point, its windows were shot out. And it's fought dozens of legal battles against laws restricting abortions. The ultimate blow came last June when the U.S. Supreme Court overruled Roe v. Wade. Hope hung on for a few months and fought a Louisiana trigger ban that criminalizes nearly all abortions. But a state court ruling shut the clinic for good last month. Since then, it's been quiet at Hope, except for the phones that keep ringing, sometimes with a dozen calls a day.

CHAFFEE: Hope Medical Group. This is Stephanie. May I help you?

WESTWOOD: A woman on the line says she just found out she's pregnant.

CHAFFEE: You're probably looking at maybe Kansas, Illinois, or if there's a place you can get in in Florida.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Kansas, Illinois or Florida?

CHAFFEE: Yes, ma'am.

WESTWOOD: Chaffee thinks most of their former clientele can't afford to travel for an abortion. Many live in the surrounding low-income communities, and the majority are Black women. But on these calls, Chaffee can't resist urging them to do the one thing that could one day bring back abortion rights in Louisiana.

CHAFFEE: You need to pay attention to who you're voting for and vote. That's...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Right.

CHAFFEE: That's why we're like - that's why we're having all this right now.

WESTWOOD: Pittman and Chaffee are continuing the fight too. Hope is moving to a state where abortion remains legal. Pittman won't say where, but the goal is to be as close to Louisiana, and the women here who need abortions, as possible.

PITTMAN: I want to go out on my own terms and not be the person that got shut down. I won't have it.

WESTWOOD: In the meantime, Pittman plans to come to work and sit in her cleared-out office until the building sells and she's forced to leave for good.

For NPR News, I'm Rosemary Westwood in New Orleans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rosemary Westwood is the public and reproductive health reporter for WWNO/WRKF. She was previously a freelance writer specializing in gender and reproductive rights, a radio producer, columnist, magazine writer and podcast host.
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