Ocala’s only abortion clinic  has shut down. Now, Marion County’s women and protesters are coming to Gainesville.

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Illustration by Shannon Nehiley.

In June 2016, the Ocala Women’s Center, an abortion clinic, closed its doors after 18 years of service. Now, if women in Marion County would want an abortion, they must travel miles away across county lines to what is now their closest clinic: The Bread and Roses Women’s Health Center in Gainesville.

The Ocala Women’s Clinic was founded in 1998 by Dr. James Pendergraft with the intent to provide abortions in a “supportive, comfortable environment.” But throughout its life the clinic was besought by troubles: It was a frequent target for anti-abortion activists and when Pendergraft sued the city in an attempt to obtain extra security, his lawsuit was met with an indictment for extortion.

More recently, Pendergraft was arrested in South Carolina for “drug-related offenses,” resulting in him being unable to pass a Level 2 background check, which is required to operate an abortion clinic. The Agency for Healthcare Administration, the state agency that oversees Medicaid in Florida, told Pendergraft that he no longer qualified for his “ownership interest” in the clinic, and he was forced to put the building up for sale. Interfaith Emergency Services bought the building, and Marion County is now without a reproductive health care center.

Abortion is, of course, legal due to the 1973 Supreme Court decision, Roe v Wade. Despite this, the state legislators have frequently, and in recent years more fervently, tried to enact laws that make it harder for women to actually receive an abortion. These laws are known as targeted regulation of abortion providers, or TRAP, laws.

TRAP laws can take different forms. Some abortion restrictions are hard-wired into American federal legislation, like the Hyde Amendment. Passed by Congress in 1976, it forbids the use of Medicaid funds for abortion.

“[The Hyde Amendment] has really meant that low income women don’t have the same access to safe and legal abortion as other women,” Cecile Richards, a women’s health advocate, said. “It’s been a completely unfair law that penalizes poor women.”

Other TRAP laws are newer and not yet well established. Recently, Gov. Rick Scott signed HB 1411 into law. The bill would have prevented state funds from going to organizations that also provide abortion, but that provision was struck down after the law was challenged by Planned Parenthood.

The law does, however, require that doctors who perform abortions also have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. This portion of the law was not challenged by Planned Parenthood.

Hospital admitting privileges may seem simple, but according to Whitney Mutch, president of Gainesville area National Organization for Women (NOW), they regulate insignificant details like the width of hallways and a building’s size. When TRAP laws are enforced, they can cost existing clinics hundreds of thousands of dollars or cause them to close their doors permanently.

Additionally, Mutch says the requirements take away the comfort of the clinic and turn it into something colder and crueler.

“Bedside manner, in some ways, is what leads to quality care and personal care [for] a patient receiving an abortion and recovering [as] someone can be right by them rubbing their head or holding their hand.”

With the new requirements, that wouldn’t be permitted.

“It would be more cold and sterilized,” Mutch said. “And I don’t mean medically sterilized – like an office.”

If not the TRAP laws themselves, legal battles can take down a clinic. In states with more conservative elected officials, like Florida, clinics are constantly under scrutiny. Gov. Rick Scott is responsible for appointing the officials in charge of the AHCA, and according to the Tampa Bay Times, in recent years, the agency has come under fire for its treatment of abortion providers. The agency shows a “puzzling persistence” in its efforts to fine clinics wrote the judge presiding over a dispute between the AHCA and Bread and Roses regarding the legal definition of a woman’s first trimester.

In Florida, the governor also oversees appointments of federally qualified clinics. These clinics, however, seem to be lacking in services and supplies.

Over the summer, Gainesville’s chapter of the National Women’s League (NWL) organized a protest called ‘Not My Clinic.’ During the rally, protesters called the federally qualified clinics to request services like abortions, plan-B pills and full gynecological exams and were repeatedly told they could not be provided. When asked to be referred to other clinics, the operators said they could not.

“[The appointments are] not really about giving women access and options,” said Erica Rodriguez Merrell, owner of the Wild Iris Bookstore. “It’s the exact opposite: It’s about limiting our access and options and providing us this list that really has no health care options at all for reproductive justice.”

With the ocean in the distance, Mutch looked ut over the sixth story balcony of a condo.

She was scared. Looking down, she thought about jumping.

She was pregnant.

“I wanted to jump,” Mutch said. “I knew I wouldn’t survive, and I didn’t fucking care.”

Today, as president of Gainesville area NOW, Mutch devotes her time to defending women’s reproductive rights as an abortion escort at Bread and Roses. She and the other volunteers wear lime green T-shirts and hold clipboards with stickers that state “#shoutyourabortion” on the back.

The escorts are trained not to speak to the anti-abortion protestors or give their name, though they are regularly joined by them.

One woman, Jazmin Cuesta, brings her own cushion and kneels to pray for nearly 45 minutes after splashing holy water around the area. Cuesta has been protesting the clinic for almost 5 years and has opened up a nearby prayer and counselling space, the Fiat Center, just a few doors down from the clinic. She describes it as “a place of prayer, so close to a place of darkness.”

“Women deserve better than that,” Cuesta said.  “When I first started I got frustrated. I wanted to help the girls, it made me want to cry. I want them to know I’m not judging [them], I want to help [them].”

While some like Cuesta prefer to pray, others outside the clinic choose bolder statements. She’s joined by another man wearing a “Choose Life” shirt and holding two signs. One is more than half his size and depicts an unborn baby, labelled “preborn human.” Another, smaller sign, shouts in bold block letters: “ABORTION IS MURDER.” Cartoon blood drips from the lettering.

“That baby has committed no crime against anyone,” he said to the escorts. “Please have mercy on your innocent child.”

The women walk past. Sometimes they lower their heads, Mutch said, and sometimes they shout back at the protestors or stick their middle fingers up in defiance.

“People seem more open in speaking out and removing this stigma about abortion,” Mutch said. “Because at this point, 35 percent of all American women will have had at least one by age 45. When you tell people that, they’re like, what? There’s that language, safe, legal, and rare. We need to just get rid of the ‘rare.’”

To those against abortion, closing the clinics is seen as a success. But to women seeking an abortion, this narrows their options and can prevent the procedure entirely.

“Not all women can afford to take off work 2 days in a row, or pay for a bus to get to the clinic and back two days in a row, which means abortion services are essentially blocked from women experiencing poverty,” said Emily Calvin, a member of the Gainesville National Women’s Liberation.

“[Activism],” Merrell said, “reminds women who are facing challenges that they are not alone. It helps remove the stigma and the judgment. It’s letting people know that bodily autonomy is something they should have and something we should all fight for.”

Activism surrounding reproductive rights continues to be strong in Gainesville and other parts of the nation. The fight for reproductive freedom is a cornerstone of feminist thought and an entry point for many women joining the movement, Merrell said. The groups fighting for change are often the same ones that have been fighting since the 60s and ’70s, like NOW and the NWL. Merrell mentions that you can even sponsor a protester, where people give a donation to the women’s clinics for each protester that stands outside, using the large crowds of dissenters to support the clinics.

“Until we’re all free, none of us are truly free,” Calvin said.

The escort program shows no sign of stopping. Laws, lawsuits and protests show no signs of stopping. And neither will the number of women who are in need of an abortion.

Though she only had to wait a few days, Mutch did receive the abortion she wanted. But she still remembers the fear she felt upon learning that she was pregnant and has turned that fear into action.

“[Activism],” Merrell said, “reminds women who are facing challenges that they are not alone. It helps remove the stigma and the judgment. It’s letting people know that bodily autonomy is something they should have and something we should all fight for.”

This article, which first appeared in print, has been modified to protect the privacy of our sources.