HAMMOND, LA. – Most Saturdays, college freshman Taylor Gautreaux rolls out of bed just after 6 a.m., puts on something carefully neutral – no slogans or religious symbols – and drives about 45 minutes from her dorm in Hammond, Louisiana, to Baton Rouge.
On those mornings, Ms. Gautreaux joins a group that gathers just outside the property lines of Delta Clinic, a squat brick building off Goodwood Boulevard on the city’s west side. Sometimes she arrives to find the place empty. Other times women have already lined up, waiting for one of the last three abortion clinics in the state to open its doors.
Ms. Gautreaux’s job is to talk these women out of going inside. She keeps her voice low, avoiding words like “God” or “hell.” She tells the women – and their partners or mothers, whomever they’re with – that she understands they’re in a difficult spot. But do they realize what they’re getting into, she asks, what the science says about what happens when a woman ends a pregnancy? Do they know there are resources to help them so they don’t have to kill their child? Ms. Gautreaux tells them there’s a center with those resources right next door.
“We don’t want to scrutinize a woman,” she says. “We don’t talk bad about the abortionist. We recognize their humanity, just as much as we recognize the humanity of the unborn.”
Ms. Gautreaux is the type of young activist – articulate, well-trained, and utterly sincere – who has helped take the antiabortion movement to the brink of achieving its long-term goal of overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion in the United States. For years groups like Louisiana Right to Life, where Ms. Gautreaux volunteers, have trained advocates to frame their cause as a human rights campaign that considers the well-being of both the fetus and the mother. This approach, in contrast to the violence and religious hysteria that marked the movement in the 1980s and ’90s, adopts the languages of social justice and science.
And it’s been mostly successful. Over the past two decades, antiabortion activists have helped push state legislatures to pass hundreds of measures restricting the procedure in anticipation of a Supreme Court case that could lead to Roe’s repeal. Just this week, Louisiana lawmakers took another step toward passing a bill that would make abortion illegal after six weeks of pregnancy. The same day, the governor next door, in Alabama, signed a law that would ban abortion almost entirely in that state, subjecting doctors who perform them to prosecution and leaving no exceptions for rape or incest.
The Alabama law is so strict it has little chance of being upheld in court, and even some conservatives have expressed concern that it’s too extreme. At the same time, abortion rights advocates are pushing back, with states like New York and Virginia passing their own measures to protect the right to abortion in case Roe is overturned.But in Louisiana, where a brand of socially conscious religious conservatism aligns many Democrats and Republicans against abortion, the twin approaches of compassionate rhetoric and bipartisan lawmaking have been highly effective for abortion opponents.
Along with the six-week bill making its way through the legislature, the state mandates counseling for women seeking an abortion, a 24-hour waiting period between counseling and when the abortion is performed, and physician licensing requirements for anyone who performs the procedure. In April, the legislature passed the “Love Life Amendment,” which, if approved by voters via ballot in the fall, would change the state constitution to say there is no right to an abortion and taxpayer dollars cannot be used to fund the procedure.
The Supreme Court is expected next term to take up another Louisiana law, Act 620, which would require that doctors who perform abortions have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the clinic. Opponents say the law could reduce the number of doctors performing abortions to as few as one, and the court issued a temporary stay in February blocking the law from going into effect. But many court observers believe the measure could wind up playing a pivotal role in an incremental overturning of Roe.
“Our goal is twofold: to make abortion illegal and to make it unthinkable,” says Alex Seghers, education director for Louisiana Right to Life. “Louisiana looks very successful compared to the rest of the country.”
A women-centered strategy
Ms. Gautreaux, who’s studying to be a teacher at Southeastern Louisiana University (SLU) in Hammond, where she grew up, discovered activism while researching abortion for a psychology class her senior year of high school. Like many Louisianians, she’s a devout Roman Catholic and was drawn to the idea of applying her faith in the service of what she sees as the most vulnerable humans. She got in touch with Alex Seghers, then director of Louisiana Right to Life’s youth program. Ms. Seghers invited Ms. Gautreaux to a training camp for teenagers interested in learning about abortion and other issues, like bioethics and euthanasia.
Ms. Gautreaux went to her first PULSE Immersion Weekend in February 2018. Over two days, she heard lectures about the different ways abortion is performed, the purported side effects, and the moral arguments against the procedure. She attended workshops on how to convince others that “the unborn” is a person and how to dispute arguments by abortion rights supporters. She took part in dialogue exercises, including one called “trot out the toddler.”
“Say a woman gets pregnant. She has her baby, and the baby’s around 2 or 3 years old, and all of a sudden [the woman] loses her job,” Ms. Gautreaux explains during a conversation this spring at SLU’s Catholic student center. “You would ask the person who’s pro-choice … ‘Would it be morally permissible for her to kill her toddler?’”
After that weekend, Ms. Gautreaux attended the PULSE weeklong Leadership Institute, held in June, and soon was staffing PULSE weekends herself. When she started college in the fall, she joined the campus pro-life club, where’s she’s now vice president. “I’m super active,” she says. “That’s probably the biggest part of my life.”
PULSE is a study in the so-called new rhetorical, or women-centered, strategy developed in the late ’90s by physician and antiabortion activist David Reardon. Until about 2015, the program was known as Camp Joshua, a name still used by some Right to Life affiliates in other states. But the Louisiana chapter wanted to drop the biblical theme and make the camp more inclusive to students who opposed abortion but weren’t religious. They left behind the giant crucifixes and gruesome photos, recognizing that fear and guilt were unlikely to change anyone’s minds.
They instead developed arguments based on material used by proponents of the women-centered strategy – for instance, that abortion not only harms the fetus but is also linked to depression, post-traumatic stress, and infertility as well as increased risk of breast cancer, which all are claims that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has flatly refuted. Advocates are encouraged to support women at whatever stage of their decision.
“Being in the pro-life movement requires not only a knowledge of the unborn, abortion, and the trauma of abortion, but also compassion, coming from a nonjudgmental place,” says Mia Bordlee, the new youth programs director at Louisiana Right to Life.
It’s a powerful framework that draws young people to the cause. Claire Seymour, a high school junior who’s been involved with Louisiana Right to Life since she was in eighth grade, keeps a big binder of the pamphlets and handouts she’s received from her PULSE weekends. “Every few nights I just go back to it and refresh my memory,” she says from the patio of her parents’ home in Luling, just outside New Orleans. Like Ms. Gautreaux, Ms. Seymour’s personal story contributed to her activism: her parents adopted her from a young single mother in Daejeon, South Korea, when she was about six months old.
“What if she’d decided not to keep me?” Ms. Seymour asks. “I want to make sure that if a woman is going through that type of crisis that she has a place to feel comforted that is not in an act of violence such as abortion.”
Kameron Kane also spends a lot of her time outside an abortion clinic. Not in Baton Rouge, though; Ms. Kane is a junior at Tulane University in New Orleans. Her stomping ground is the Women’s Health Care Center, a nondescript building on General Pershing Street, about a mile and a half from campus. But unlike Ms. Gautreaux, Ms. Kane isn’t trying to steer women away from the clinic. She’s there as a clinic escort, to make sure the women can get inside safely with as little harassment from protesters as possible.
With only three left in the state – down from 11 in 2000 – abortion clinics in Louisiana are easy targets for protesters. Some come from as far as Texas or Mississippi, looking for a place to strike. And although groups like Louisiana Right to Life have embraced a less confrontational approach to their advocacy, plenty of others still prefer the old aggressive tactics.
“As the women enter the clinic, these people like to shout things,” Ms. Kane says, frustration creeping into her voice. “‘Why are you killing me, Mommy?’ ‘Why would you do this to me?’”