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Arkansas preps for the end of abortion rights


Arkansas’s longest-running protest against the end of abortion rights happens in Harrison, where a dedicated squad of rural progressives shows up at the Boone County Courthouse square every evening with salty signs in hand.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s draft decision to erase federal protections for abortion access and allow the states to do what they will leaked out May 2, and the Harrison protesters started showing up May 3. The team usually includes half a dozen or so people, and they come out when the heat of the day relents around 5 or 6 p.m. They stay for about an hour, long enough to be seen and short enough to clear out before the mosquitos show up. Their messages range from staid and straightforward (End the filibuster) to raucous and ribald (If abortion is murder then a blowjob is cannibalism).  

These protesters in Harrison, along with protesters in Fayetteville, Little Rock, Mountain Home and Jonesboro, have little power to hold back the Arkansas trigger law that will go into effect as soon as the Supreme Court’s decision is officially released, peeling back rights encoded by the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling. Abortion access here will cease immediately, even for victims of rape and incest. The only exception in Arkansas will be to save the life of the mother. Arkansas lawmakers passed this trigger law without much sweat in 2021, revealing a disconnect between Arkansas voters and the people they send to the state Capitol on their behalf.

“We get more positive reactions than negative,” Harrison protester Melissa Weaver said. “We get a lot of honks and waves and peace signs and thumbs up. We get an occasional thumbs down, or people yelling that we’re baby killers.” 

This support for protecting abortion access, even in arguably the most conservative county in Arkansas, reflects what the poll numbers tell us. Most people in the United States support at least limited access to abortion, even in Arkansas.

Weaponized civility

Plenty of anti-abortion Republicans spent recent weeks patting themselves on the back for what they characterize as their decades-long civil, disciplined approach to overturning Roe, a sentiment usually expressed with corollary disdain for Democrats’ sidewalk chalk terrorism and pink pussy hats. “Please don’t protest at people’s homes. Please don’t intrude on people attending their houses of worship. Organize politically, be civil civically,” conservative columnist Bill Kristol chided. Congratulations are warranted here to Republicans for their bottomless capacity for obfuscation; these lofty claims of moral superiority leave out the chapters on abortion clinic arson, bombings and the fatal shooting of a Kansas abortion provider, killed while attending a service at his own church.

Brian Chilson
ON THE FRONT LINES: Clinic escorts Sarah Samuels (left) and Karen Musick do their best to shield women seeking abortion services from the protesters out front.

In Arkansas, bullying from anti-abortion protesters at the only operational medical abortion clinic in the state continued into May, at least once at the hands of a state official, no less. 

Marsha Boss, a pharmacist who Governor Hutchinson appointed to the Arkansas Board of Health in 2018, is a regular protester at the West Little Rock clinic, where she holds a sign that says “I REGRET MY ABORTION.” While the street and sidewalks were mostly empty, no other cars or people, when we visited on a Tuesday morning, Boss beelined right into one of the volunteers who was there to help patients get into and out of the clinic with minimal harassment.

“You were taking up the whole sidewalk,” Boss said, then offered an apology. The two bickered, and one of the protesters started filming with her cell phone. “I already said I’m sorry. Let’s just pray,” Boss said.

Skirmishes like this one happen often in front of the Little Rock Family Planning Clinic, Arkansas Abortion Support Network co-founder Karen Musick said. Musick volunteers nearly full time at the clinic, donning a signature rainbow vest and manning the clinic parking lot Tuesdays through Fridays to keep protesters off clinic property and try to make patients feel safe.

“They push and shove on a regular basis,” Musick said of the anti-abortion protesters. “I’ve been purposely tripped, many of us have been pushed. We just try to stay out of their way. And keep the focus on protecting the patients.”   

On that particular day, patients included women who drove themselves to and from their appointments, carseats visible through their back windows, and an out-of-state patient with a “Trump 2024” bumper sticker on her car. One clinic patient who planned ahead arrived in a white sedan with its license plate temporarily removed so as not to be identified.

Boss and her fellow protesters politely declined requests for interviews. “That’s funny that they won’t talk to you, because they talk to me all the time,” Musick said, loudly enough for all to hear. “They call me a demon.” One of the protesters, rosary in one hand and a poster with a Bible verse in the other, said that’s not true.

On to Plan B (and Plan C)

Brian Chilson
WHAT SHE SAID: Protesters invoked the words of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

With decorum or no, reproductive rights advocates will certainly keep showing up. At a Bans Off Our Bodies rally at the state Capitol on May 14, the most noticeable contingent included men and women of grandparenting age, some who rolled up with walkers, out there to secure rights that were hard-won the first time and will likely be so again. (Clever signs belied the seriousness of the crowd: “If you cut off my reproductive rights, can I cut off yours?” and “Keep your laws off my drawers,” which does actually rhyme if you say it correctly.)

The speakers, a lineup of activists, political candidates and health care professionals, urged the crowd of about 400 people to vote, and to bring their friends along when they do. Notably, the crowd included plenty of young and older people but seemed light on people in their 30s and 40s. Perhaps that’s because the older generation remembers what’s at stake, and the younger one can envision miscalculations, crimes or fetal anomalies that might leave them in need of abortion care.

“Two whole generations of women have lived having the right to choose what to do with their own bodies,” voting rights advocate Josh Price told the crowd. “Just because it doesn’t affect us personally doesn’t mean we can’t stand up for the rights of others.”

Arkansas is dead-last in getting eligible voters registered and out to the polls, and Price said he suspects an entirely different squad of people would be calling the shots at the Capitol if that weren’t the case. But hypotheticals won’t matter a bit when the Supreme Court releases its official decision this summer and the locks clink on abortion rights in Arkansas and most other states in the South and Midwest.

And so, even as they continue their political push for abortion rights, advocates consider other options. Stop talking about coat hangers and start talking about misoprostol, obstetrician Chad Taylor told the crowd. He referred them to plancpills.org to find reliable information on self-managed abortions, should it come to that.

Watching a doctor in his lab coat standing on the steps of the Arkansas Capitol to offer up tips on securing soon-to-be-outlawed abortion care? Well, it’s a new frontier. Things are about to get mighty uncivil around here.

“I can give you a million reasons why a woman might need to have an abortion, but it’s none of your business,” Taylor said. “And it’s none of their fucking business, either.”  

Brian Chilson
BAE: Dr. Chad Taylor turns it up for reproductive rights.

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