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America at the crossroads: abortion in South Bend

America at the crossroads: abortion in South Bend

The fallout from the Supreme Court’s decision to reverse abortion rights is reverberating across America. Arguably nowhere more so than in South Bend, Indiana, a small city in the heart of the Midwest

Why this story?

The overturn of Roe vs. Wade is arguably one of the most significant moments in modern American history. It will have huge societal implications across America as many Republican states will undoubtedly look to restrict or ban abortion access, while ahead of the mid-terms, the political and judicial reverberations could be enormous. 

The small city of South Bend is particularly significant in this as it is where Amy Coney Barrett first started her meteoric rise to the Supreme Court, and where her foundational legal and theological principles evolved. To understand the story of South Bend and Amy Coney Barrett, is to understand the story of modern America and – more importantly – where this story likely goes next. Matt Russell, Producer

Transcript

April: They’ve just dropped the opinion. 

Other woman: No, shit… is it exactly? Oh holy shit. Try not to cry, as we turn back women’s rights 50 years…

Brenna Daldorph, narrating: On Friday, June 24, the Supreme Court made a historic ruling. 

“We have just received word of a decision in one of the most consequential cases before the Supreme Court in decades.

NBC News

“The Supreme Court has now overturned Roe V. Wade. Overturned Roe V. Wade and the follow-on case called Casey, in which the abortion right was made nationwide.

ABC News

Brenna, narrating: I found out the news when my plane landed in Chicago. 

We taxied and my phone buzzed, notifications pouring in. For years, I had known that the religious right in my country were waging a war. And now? They’d just won it. The first battle at least.

They actually did it. 

I was back in the Midwest, my home turf, but realizing that this place had fundamentally changed. What it felt like was going home, and seeing the main street in your hometown had been bulldozed, and you’re just standing there trying to make sense of the new surreal landscape.

But to be honest, I really didn’t have much time to let it sink in. I had to run for my connecting flight, the flight that would take me to South Bend, Indiana. 

It might seem like an unlikely destination to cover this event… but this small Midwestern city is, in many ways, ground zero for America’s debate on abortion. 

Seth: It’s like a city of contradictions. It’s the division that defines South Bend. It’s the contradiction that defines South Bend. 

Brenna, narrating: This is a tale of two South Bends. A city of contradictions. 

Because South Bend is a progressive town, a city where you’re not gonna become mayor unless you’re a Democrat. A city that’s known for electing the first openly gay mayor of a major American city.

But this town also has another side… it’s also home to Notre Dame, the most prestigious Catholic university in the country. A center of learning steeped in Catholic values. 

Notre Dame law school is an epicentre of the conservative legal movement, hell-bent on swinging American courts to the right. And taking on perhaps the biggest issue for the American religious right: abortion. 

Amy Coney Barrett, the newest Supreme Court Justice, is a product of Notre Dame. When she voted to overturn Roe vs Wade, ending the right to abortion in America, it was what her mentors had been working for, for decades. 

Coney Barrett’s story is woven into the story of South Bend, and shows how the United States ended up winding back the clock on abortion rights.

When the Supreme Court ruled to overturn Roe, one half of South Bend was rejoicing. 

Joe Higginbotham: When I heard about it, I ran over and gave my wife a big hug. I was very joyful, very glad. 

Brenna, narrating: The other half mourning. 

Karen: It was devastating, it was absolutely devastating. I just remember this feeling of shock and dismay and surprise and just disbelief that this was real. 

Brenna, narrating: This week on the Slow Newscast from Tortoise: the story of a small city in the Midwest and how it shaped one of the most controversial Supreme Court decisions in American history.

I’m Brenna Daldorph and you are listening to ‘America at the crossroads: abortion in South Bend.’ 

***

Brenna, narrating: South Bend is a small city built on the banks of the winding St. Joseph river. 

Most mornings, you can see a few fishermen dotting its banks, mist curls off the water and a heron or two skim the surface before flapping off into the sunrise. 

Like many Midwestern towns, South Bend is wide and sprawling.

Even on weekdays, the downtown can feel empty… it’s made up of a few public buildings, a tall hotel, a hospital, a good Pho restaurant, and not much foot traffic. 

April: When we moved here in ‘94, it took me a while to really get a sense of the lay of the land.

Brenna, narrating: That’s April Lidinsky. 

April: I’m a professor of women’s and gender studies at the Indiana University South Bend campus in South Bend, Indiana.

Brenna, narrating: She says Indiana is a complicated place. 

April: Indiana is the crossroads of America. I think that’s actually the slogan.

Brenna, narrating: And South Bend is a type of crossroads, too. 

April: I think it’s sort of a classic rust belt town. So we made the cover of Newsweek as one of the dying cities when Pete Buttigieg was, I think just got elected as mayor.

Here, it was the Oliver Chilled Plow Factory, Singer sewing machine, then Studabaker in the 20th Century. So there was a lot of money. And then it all collapsed. There are still people who are wounded from that. 

Brenna, narrating: South Bend also always votes Democrat, unlike the rest of Indiana. In that way, South Bend is a lot like the town I grew up in: Lawrence, Kansas. We’re also a Democratic bubble in a conservative state. 

People in my town like to talk about seceding from Kansas – half jokingly, but also, you know, half seriously. 

From growing up in Lawrence, I know that defining yourself AGAINST the rest of the state can really shape a community’s identity. 

But South Bend, well, it’s different from Lawrence. And there’s one road in the city that really sums it up, a place called Lincoln Way.

A long road full of strip malls and billboards that run through the heart of South Bend. 

April: If somebody’s going to the clinic for the very first time… you’re driving along, probably one of the ugliest streets in South Bend. I mean, there’s several dollar stores, CVSs, Taco Bells, there’s a gas station and Arby’s on one side.

Brenna, narrating: April’s a regular volunteer at Whole Women’s Health, South Bend’s only abortion clinic, which is located on Lincoln Way. It’s in a discrete brick building that used to be a chiropractor’s office. You might miss it… except for the masses of protesters out front. 

Protester: That’s right, here. This should not be legal in America. This is not a choice. This is just death.

You are not my authority. Well, we’re dealing with babies dying, so I guess I’m going to have the police come. That’s not a small matter.

April: Protestors do have a right to be where the sidewalk would be. So there’s a strip of grass, right alongside the busy street.

And they have the, you know, mangled fetus signs. The so-called body count signs. They read fire-and-brimstone stuff. 

Brenna, narrating: The fire-and-brimstone people are evangelical Christians who go by the name the Abolitionists. But even when you turn into the clinic’s driveway, you still haven’t escaped the onslaught. 

There’s a whole different group of protesters lined up along the drive. These guys are Catholics from an organization called Right to Life. It’s a group that includes nearby Catholic university Notre Dame as one of its sponsors. 

And it’s a group that Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett participated in during her time in South Bend. 

And when the abortion clinic opened, Right to Life bought the house next door, giving them prime access to patients entering the clinic. 

April: Often when patients are walking from their car to the back door, you know, the protestors call out to them, don’t kill your baby. God loves you. We’re here to help. 

We’ll adopt your baby. It’s a softer approach than the so-called abolitionists.

Brenna, narrating: As if the map wasn’t complicated enough, the two groups of protesters might agree that abortion is a sin.. but they actually hate each other’s methods. The Catholics think the Evangelicals are too intense, and too negative. 

Monica Higginbotham: We’ve asked them not to come over here. They pretty much stay out in front there cause we don’t want people to think that they’re a part of us because they don’t do things the way we do it. 

Brenna, narrating: That’s a Right to Life protester named Monica Higginbotham, who comes out regularly to try and convince women heading into the clinic to make another choice. 

Brenna: I’m interested in knowing about what the interactions are like that you have with women who are coming into this center. Can you kind of describe how you approach them and, and how the interaction goes?

Monica Higginbotham: Well, it’s very difficult to have any interaction with them because the escorts hold up their umbrellas and try to keep us from talking to them.

Brenna, narrating: And then there are the escorts. To help patients navigate the chaos, to shield them from the shouts and the screams of protesters, there is a group of volunteer escorts who wait in the parking lot.

And all of these people – the escorts, the Catholic pro-lifers, the Evangelicals – all co-exist together in this complex, conflictual ecosystem. It’s an ecosystem that also includes clinic staff and patients. Patients who may be making one of the biggest decisions of their lives. 

It’s a real crossroads, a place where all of the forces around abortion in America meet. 

And while I was in South Bend, I met one woman who spent a lifetime on those crossroads. Who understands the contradiction at the heart of South Bend.

Karen: As a kid, I was against abortion because it just seemed wrong to kill a baby. 

And it was very much couched in those terms, even looking at pictures of fetal development, even the tiniest, littlest fetus drawing looked like a baby. 

Brenna, narrating: That’s Karen Nemes.

Karen: N-E-M-E-S.

Well, I was born in Colorado. My parents are from this area, so they brought me back here when I was about two and I’ve never really forgiven them for that. 

Brenna, narrating: Karen helps out at the clinic as an escort. She’s also the acting director of Pro-Choice South Bend, and her story weaves through the city and the debate like no other.

Karen: I do remember my mom being involved with something when I was little, it might have been the March of Dimes, but I remember she had these pamphlets and one of them said things like “oh, today, you know, I came into the world, I’m living, you know, inside my mommy and I can’t wait to meet her” and all of this.

And it went through like this whole diary, you know, day after day of this fetus developing. And then the last entry was “today, my mommy killed me”. And I remember reading that as a child and just being so upset.

I went to Catholic school through 12th grade, which probably explains a lot. I remember making posters about don’t kill your baby, you know, that kind of stuff. I remember one time we walked up and down, like one of the main streets here in South Bend with signs and balloons for life, for proclaiming support for life.

The older I got, the more non-conformist I became. I don’t remember when it actually changed, but I just knew at some point that that was wrong. And that I did support people’s rights to make their own decisions about what was right for them. 

Very quickly after graduating high school, within a year, I started college at the local Indiana university branch. And then within that first year, I got pregnant and looked into the possibility of an abortion.

And I went to a crisis pregnancy center and they told me that I was four months along, which was too late to have an abortion. 

Brenna, narrating: Karen was 19 and pregnant and felt like she didn’t have any options. She dropped out of school. 

Karen: So my then-boyfriend and I were trying to think of things that we could do and ended up really in the end, just having the baby, getting married, starting a life.

Brenna, narrating: But her family weren’t happy with her choice.

Karen: When I finally told my family, they were extremely upset, not at all accepting. My mom sent me a letter because I was staying with my then-boyfriend, soon to be husband’s parents at the time. And in that letter, she disclosed that she had been pregnant prior to having me, prior to being married to my dad, and that she had made the decision to go to Kalamazoo, which is about an hour, hour and a half away, and stay in a convent where there were nuns who took care of unwed pregnant teens and young women.

And she went there, finished out her pregnancy there. Had the baby, gave it up for adoption. My grandmother said that she offered to my mom that she could keep the baby, stay home, raise it. They would help her take care of it.

But she was determined that she was gonna go give it up for adoption and that no one could know. And in her letter, she said basically that if I chose to do the right thing, like she did, and would consider adoption, that I could come home and that my parents would support me and help me through the pregnancy and into the adoption process.

But if I was determined to keep the baby, then basically I was on my own. I’d made my bed. I could go lie in it now. There would be no support. 

So part of my dedication to keeping the family together was, I think, to help prove her wrong. And to prove to the other family members who, you know, I’m sure had opinions about me, that I was gonna do it. I was gonna make it, I was gonna finish college. I was gonna make something of myself. My kids were gonna be happy and healthy and well-adjusted and all of that.

Brenna, narrating: She stuck with a relationship that wasn’t working, partly in order to prove her mom wrong. She had a second baby, a year-and-a-half after the first. And then, she found out she was pregnant again. 

Karen: My husband was an addict. There were times when our electricity was shut off, or we were low on food, or gas, or other necessities. 

Brenna, narrating: And so, she got her first abortion. 

Karen: We were living hand-to-mouth. I think a third child at that time would’ve just been bad for my mental health, certainly. And it really would’ve strained the family even more. 

Brenna, narrating: Karen has since left her husband. And she spent 23 years in Al-Anon, a support group for friends and families of addicts and alcoholics.

When Karen looks back at her own story, she sees the impact that religion has had on both her and her family. And she says that religion – Catholicism in particular – is a large part of what divides South Bend.

This is a story with many threads. Sometimes a tangle of threads. But to understand Karen’s story, to understand the scenes outside the clinic, and to understand how South Bend came to be at this crossroads of abortion, I realised we needed to go just three miles up the road. To a place that looms larger than all others when it comes to this city….and to its impact on the abortion debate.

Karen: Here in South Bend, we live in the shadow of the golden dome of Notre Dame University. It’s everywhere.

You can’t escape Notre Dame and its influence here. To have an abortion clinic right in their backyard, I’m sure is something that they’re not at all happy about. 

Brenna, narrating: Notre Dame. The Harvard of Catholic education in the United States. An extremely wealthy and influential religious institution and center of learning based on Catholic values. 

While evangelical Christians are widely seen as the driving forces behind the movement to end abortion in America, conservative Catholics have always played a part in it. Indeed, they used to lead the movement. 

It wasn’t until later, in the 70s and 80s, that Southern evangelicals latched on to abortion as an issue, believing it was connected to liberal social changes they opposed. Politically, they weren’t interested in reducing poverty as a way to reduce abortions. They were laser-focused on one aim: to overturn Roe and to make abortion illegal in America. 

And Catholic university Notre Dame has played a pivotal role in this journey. It’s a place that has shaped not just the dynamics of South Bend, but the national debate on abortion. 

And it’s a place that was influential in the rise of the person who sealed the deal for overturning Roe… Amy Coney Barrett. 

***

Jane Roe: So what we’re looking at is this really tall building. It’s the tallest, I think, building on campus, maybe except for the Basilica. 

Brenna, narrating: My fellow reporter Ella and I are with a pro-choice protester who wants to be known as Jane Roe to protect her identity. She’s also a PhD student at Notre Dame… well she was, until a few weeks ago, when she finished her dissertation.

We’re standing with her in front of the Hessburg Library, a main building on campus. 

Jane Roe: And it’s a mosaic-type mural of Jesus, and I think the apostles are around him. And he’s in a position where he’s got his arms to the side of his head and raised up, which is the motion that referees do whenever there’s a touchdown in football. And so that is why they call him touchdown Jesus. 

Brenna, narrating: Notre Dame may be an American university – because what says American university like American football, right? But it’s also a religious institution. 

Just like the Catholic schools Karen grew up going to, religion is everywhere in Notre Dame. It’s a place where a nun might be in charge of your university halls of residence, and where crucifixes hang in each classroom. 

And it’s a location that is key to understanding the sharp turn to the right in the American judiciary. 

Key to understanding how we got a Supreme Court with a conservative majority, appointed by politicians hell-bent on overturning the right to an abortion.

Coney Barrett started law school at Notre Dame in the mid 1990s. It was an obvious choice for her. “I’m a Catholic, and I always grew up loving Notre Dame. What Catholic doesn’t?” she once said. 

But Amy has even closer religious ties to South Bend. She was born in Louisiana but her parents were part of an insular Christian community called People of Praise.

It’s a group founded by Notre Dame academics. And a group that has its headquarters in South Bend.

When Coney Barrett was a student at Notre Dame, she actually lived in the home of one of the founders of the movement. And she went on to marry a man also raised in the group. 

People of Praise has an anti-abortion stance. It also advocates for traditionally conservative gender roles. Coney Barrett served as a woman leader in the group… a role formerly known as a handmaid. 

For Karen, this is something that plays heavily on her mind.

Karen: Amy Coney Barrett being involved with Notre Dame and People of Praise, is really our backyard Supreme Court justice. And seeing that and knowing that she’s from here, and knowing the community that she’s involved with, I can’t think of a more Handmaid’s Tale sort of nominee really than her.

Just the fact that she’s part of such a conservative Catholic movement organization, is gonna be even more opposed to any kind of birth control or abortion care or family planning or anything outside of absolute Catholic doctrine. 

Brenna, narrating: But for a group of conservative legalists at Notre Dame, Coney Barrett was exactly what they were hoping for.

Josh Wilson: How do we understand Notre Dame here? Well, there was an explicit effort to kind of recreate or reform Notre Dame’s law school to fit within the conservative legal movement. To become a prestigious law school that can fill this niche. 

Brenna, narrating: That’s Joshua Wilson. 

Josh Wilson: I’m a professor of political science at the University of Denver. My research focuses on the conservative legal movement, specifically on how Christian conservatives use the law to pursue political ends. 

Brenna, narrating: In the 1960s and 70s, there were a series of liberal victories in the Supreme Court. Conservatives were angered by these decisions, perhaps most by Roe v. Wade. 

They realized that if they wanted to shape the United States in their vision, it would be about more than just getting conservative politicians elected. They also needed to get conservative judges on the bench. 

Josh Wilson: They needed to come up with a legal strategy to do that because you can’t just exercise naked power in the judiciary. You have to justify what you’re doing and defend it. 

Brenna, narrating: So they developed legal strategies that supported these aims. One was called originalism. Originalism is the idea of interpreting the Constitution according to what it meant when it was adopted. 

Josh Wilson: The idea, again, being you can defend undoing precedent, or rolling back various changes in law and federal government, by saying that it’s out of step with what was originally intended by the founders or, or something along those lines.

So all of this gets now back to how places like Notre Dame matter in this larger story. Is that, in order to make decisions that are gonna be accepted as legitimate, those ideas have to be circulating in law schools that are prestigious, amongst law faculty who are recognized as prestigious actors. 

So these ideas, if they can start circulating in the institutions that can help them, help them on their way up, right? You’re training the next generation of prestigious lawyers, you’re training the next generation of prestigious judges and justices. More immediately, you’re training the next generation of law clerks who are gonna go serve those judges and justices, and that provides or helps create this pipeline of ideas into the court.

Brenna, narrating: And Notre Dame is front and centre of this movement. It was the perfect hub, as a Christian school… but one that was nationally respected. 

Josh Wilson: That’s part of the larger tradition of Notre Dame, of wanting to be this elite Catholic institution that’s engaging with the rest of the world. 

Brenna, narrating: So this is the backdrop. And when devout young Amy Coney Barrett – fresh out of a Christian college in the South, a lifelong member of a conservative religious group – came to Notre Dame, she was a perfect fit. 

Her strong Catholic views reassured the movement that on their touchstone issue – Roe v. Wade – they had someone who would fight in their corner.

A stellar student, Amy quickly latched on to the idea of originalism. 

Amy Coney Barrett: You know, when I entered law school, I didn’t have a firm sense of what I was.

But as I read cases and as I took constitutional law, I came to believe that that was clearly the right way to approach it. It struck me as the most democratically legitimate, even as a law student. 

Brenna, narrating: The line of sight from coming top of her class at Notre Dame to being a conservative Supreme Court justice was, by all accounts, pretty straightforward.

Her professors helped her get a clerkship at the US Court of Appeals. Being a clerk is a big deal – they provide direct assistance and counsel to judges by researching and even writing draft opinions. And working at an Appeals court is one of the most prestigious clerkships, because you are working on issues that haven’t been resolved in lower courts. 

After that, Coney Barrett got a life-changing call – she was asked to clerk for conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in 1998. 

As a recommendation, one of her professors wrote the Supreme Court Justice one line: “Amy Coney is the best student I’ve ever had”. 

Like Coney Barrett, Scalia was an originalist and, under him, her ideas continued to develop. Even today, she cites him as an influence. 

Amy Coney Barrett: I clerked for Justice Scalia more than 20 years ago, but the lessons I learned still resonate. His judicial philosophy is mine too. 

Brenna, narrating: In 2002, Coney Barrett returned to Notre Dame as an assistant professor. She strengthened her membership in the Federalist Society, a powerful conservative legal group that has become THE entry point for any conservative lawyer seeking a government job or a judgeship. 

Amy also joined University Faculty for Life, an anti-abortion faculty group, and in 2006, signed her name to an anti-abortion newspaper ad. She signed another such ad in 2013. 

Josh Wilson: And so, cause you can think about her position on the faculty at Notre Dame’s law school, as part of what was created. Right? So she was there in kind of the early days, and then she becomes part of what really solidifies it as this conservative legal powerhouse. 

Brenna, narrating: By 2016, South Bend was being run by the first openly gay mayor of a major American city, Pete Buttegieg – who, a few years down the line, would run for president. 

And in the meantime, the eyes of the Trump White House were turning toward Notre Dame… and Amy Coney Barrett. She was nominated to the US Court of Appeals early in the Trump presidency – part of a push to move the courts to the right.

It would only be a few years before she was nominated to the Supreme Court. 

Notre Dame has solidified its role in shifting the United States court system to the right. And while Notre Dame was being used as a breeding ground for a new generation of conservative legal minds, Indiana and South Bend had become testing grounds for the radical anti-abortion policies that these movements hoped to roll out nationally. 

Karen: So, one of Indiana’s slogans is the crossroads of America, and we’ve always joked that South Bend is sort of the crossroads of abortion care in America, because we’ve had all of these factors that play into our story and our particular area that probably aren’t the same anywhere else.

***

Sharon: Everybody kind of knows where the clinic is and that the clinic is there. 

Brenna, narrating: That’s Sharon Lau. 

Sharon: So I work for Whole Women’s Health Alliance. I’m the Midwest advocacy director. And Whole Women’s Health Alliance is a nonprofit that uses advocacy and purposeful litigation to address the stigma around abortion. And then we also provide abortion care.

Brenna, narrating: Whole Women’s Health is the only abortion provider in South Bend – in the whole region, actually. 

Sharon: So we have had a great deal of community support from the very beginning. It was actually a community group in South Bend who reached out to Whole Women’s Health and asked us if we would consider coming there to open a clinic, which is a pretty unique situation.

Brenna, narrating: But even with a group of dedicated citizens working to bring Whole Women’s Health to town, it was a long and difficult process. 

South Bend outside of Notre Dame may be liberal, but Indiana is a deeply Republican state. 

It’s also a state with a long history of anti-abortion legislation – most of that led by Mike Pence, Indiana’s governor who famously got a promotion. 

Trump: I would like to introduce a man who I truly believe will be outstanding in every way and will be the next vice president of the United States. Governor Mike Pence. 

Pence is known as one of the most anti-abortion politicians in America. And as governor of Indiana, he signed eight different anti-abortion bills. 

A law passed in 2018 required doctors to report any patient who had complications as a result of an abortion, essentially making it possible for the government to track women who had had abortions. 

Another law, passed in 2016, banned women from getting an abortion if the fetus had an abnormality, like a severe disability. 

But it wasn’t just Pence… there was a large anti-abortion movement in Indiana in general, and more particularly, in South Bend. 

In 2013, a South Bend woman named Purvi Patel became the first woman to be convicted of feticide. It’s a law that is usually used to convict men who are violent towards pregnant women. 

Patel’s crime, however, was different – she had carried out a late-term abortion at home. And she spent a year in jail before the conviction was overturned. 

Though this story was, in many ways, especially horrifying and desperate, many people saw it as an example of what was to come if abortions were banned. 

And, as if there wasn’t enough going on in South Bend, we then come to perhaps the weirdest and most grisly abortion chapter in the city’s history. 

Dr Ulrich Klopfer was, for decades, the only doctor who provided abortions in South Bend. He eventually gave up his practice and passed away not too long after in 2020. 

Karen: And I got a phone call from somebody in Pro-Choice South Bend saying, “you are never gonna believe what just happened. They found fetal remains on Klopfer’s property.”

Brenna, narrating: That’s pro-choice activist Karen again. 

Karen: It was a big deal. Anyone who was against abortion immediately seized on that case as evidence of how barbaric abortion is and heartless the people are who advocate for abortions. Here’s the real face of abortion in America, you know, blah, blah, blah, blah.

It just made everything 10 times harder.

Brenna, narrating: A group of Indiana officials actually got together and held a burial for the fetal remains.

ABC: A solemn ceremony today as officials buried more than 2400 fetuses found in an Indiana abortion doctor’s Will County home. Indiana attorney general Curtis Hill joined in the memorial in South Bend… 

In short, Indiana is very publicly anti-abortion. And like Texas, it’s been like a testing ground for restrictive legislation. We’ve just looked at the tip of the iceberg. 

So what I’m saying is, it’s a tough place to open a clinic.

Sharon: No other clinic had successfully opened a new clinic and gotten a license from the state of Indiana in several years. 

Brenna, narrating: But that made it more appealing to Whole Women’s Health. They focus on opening facilities in states where they want to challenge restrictive laws. This also means providing access in places that don’t usually have a lot of other options. 

The state originally denied Whole Women’s Health a license. 

Sharon: And so we ended up having to sue the state of Indiana. 

Brenna, narrating: A complex legal battle followed, with back-and-forth appeals rising through multiple levels of courts. 

Sharon: It’s complicated. But basically, yeah, we ultimately were able to open, not because the state gave us a license, but because a judge ordered the state to allow us to open. 

Brenna, narrating: The battle in the courts dragged on for several years.

As well as making it difficult for clinics to open in the first place, anti-abortion campaigners have other tactics up their sleeves. 

One of the more notorious is to open up a crisis pregnancy center nearby. These organisations seek to persuade women with unintended pregnancies to keep their baby or put them up for adoption.

Sharon: It’s a tactic that these type of organisations use where they use names that are similar to clinics, colors that are similar. So they make it really easy for patients to get confused about which place they’re going to.

Brenna, narrating: So once the abortion clinic found a location, the local anti-abortion group, Right to Life, bought the house next door from the family who lived there. 

April: … offered them three times what it was worth.

And then they made a pitch to have it rezoned as a commercial site so that they could open a women’s care center there, as is their strategy everywhere, where they try to confuse patients going, you know, going to seek abortions.

Brenna, narrating: Another battle ensued before the Democratic mayor, Pete Buttigieg, stepped in to block it. Even so, the anti-abortion group were able to open up their crisis pregnancy centre on the opposite side of the street. 

As for the next-door property, they kept it…because it meant that protesters could literally line up right by the clinic driveway. 

And that’s how we ended up with the madness on either side of Lincoln Way – a microcosm of the madness of America.

***

Brenna: Who is this sheep guy? He’s really impressive. 

Karen: Oh, he still has his Christmas hat on. This is Totes. This is Totes my goat.

Brenna, narrating: I’m back with Karen, the woman we spoke to earlier. We’re in her living room, surrounded by some pretty weird and wonderful art, like Totes the goat. Turns out, Karen is a taxidermist. 

Karen: What appeals to me is sort of, cause I pick up a lot of roadkill, nothing is ever killed to make the art that I make. So I like to find the beauty in the broken things, and it’s kind of a redemptive process.

So, in finding these broken creatures and doing something with them, it’s like I’m transforming the broken and ugly parts of myself that I don’t think anybody’s gonna love.

Brenna, narrating: Her life has been full of conflict and contradictions, just like South Bend. Her family is as divided as the city she lives in. 

But she’s found a place in the pro-choice community.

Karen: The fact that I’d had abortions, and knew what an unplanned pregnancy was like, what it could do. The hardships that a family could face, in this society, which doesn’t do anything to support families, really. I didn’t want anybody else to be in the situation that I was in, and I just believe that people should have the right to self-determination and bodily autonomy.

And at the time, I didn’t wanna be a parent. I didn’t wanna be a mom. I didn’t wanna be a wife. I knew that my own mental health issues needed attention. I had no idea how to even address that. 

Brenna, narrating: Karen is deeply committed to the work as an escort at the clinic.

Karen: One in four women we know will have an abortion in their lifetime. The number’s probably higher than that, and we really want them to have a compassionate, welcoming, safe experience, that they can feel – maybe not feel good about necessarily, depending on how they came in or how they feel about having their abortion – but that they don’t feel bad or guilty or shameful about coming here. I want people to feel good about their decision.

Brenna, narrating: Karen was eating oatmeal, sitting at her computer when the Supreme Court decision to overrule Roe was announced. 

Karen: I had this feeling in the pit of my stomach, like, oh God, you know, what about the people that are gonna need abortions? Just remembering how it felt for myself. 

When I knew I was pregnant for the first time and looking at that little stick and just, all I could think of was no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, this can’t be happening.

No, no, no, no, no. I don’t want this. This can’t be real. 

And putting myself back in that mindset, and looking at what came out of the Supreme Court, and imagining just how much more awful that person would feel, you know, when you’re in a crisis pregnancy situation.

So to be in that position and be feeling like, oh God, and now abortion’s not even an option to me – I just can’t imagine the despair, the panic, the fear that somebody would be experiencing and will experience now.

Brenna, narrating: It’s hard for Karen when she hears people like Amy Coney Barrett talk about adoption as an easy alternative to abortion. 

This is a big theme for Coney Barrett, who has adopted two children from Haiti herself. While weighing the Roe overturn, Coney Barrett talked extensively about safe haven laws – where someone can drop off a baby at a fire station without being prosecuted. 

But Karen says adoption is not that simple – she just has to look at her own family. Remember, when Karen found out she was pregnant at 19, her mom told her for the first time that she had also had a baby out of wedlock and had given the child up for adoption. 

Karen: I was absolutely stunned when she revealed that to me. It also made a lot of sense looking back, because she was really controlling, very overprotective, and also abusive.

And so, I really think that me being the next baby born after she had gone through that experience – which had to have been traumatic for her – I’m sure that then, having a pregnancy and then raising a baby, I can’t imagine that that would not have been on her mind. Like, where would my little boy be now? When did he take his first steps? You know, when did he first say mama, to somebody? I’m sure that that was part of her, you know, mental state, having me. 

So, we clashed a lot. But I often wonder, how much of our relationship – the issues that we had in our relationship – could go back to that first pregnancy, and the loss of that baby – and the shame, the amount of shame that she carried.

To this day, she doesn’t want us to look for him. And she has said, if they, you know, if that baby wanted to find me, if he wanted to find me, he would’ve looked for me by now. 

So when people say adoption is an option, adoption is there, you could do adoption. It’s not as cut and dried as people think. A pregnancy itself comes with risk – certainly physical risk, mental, emotional health is all tied into that experience. 

***

Brenna, narrating: In the wake of the Supreme Court’s overturn of Roe vs Wade, nothing has changed initially on Lincoln Way. The protesters continue to gather and to yell, and the escorts shield patients making their way into the clinic. 

But things will change in the near future. 

Indiana’s governor has called a special session to discuss abortion in the state. The expectation is there will be a ban – the only question is whether there will be exceptions for rape or other extreme situations.

In South Bend, the joy and pride of the anti-abortion groups are especially tangible. The person they invested so heavily in, Amy Coney Barrett, delivered. At a pro-life rally held days after the Supreme Court’s ruling, local representative Jackie Walorski sang Coney Barrett’s praises. 

Walorski: Let’s give up a cheer for Amy Coney Barrett. She’s taking a leadership position at the US Supreme Court and she’s instructing those other justices what it means to be a constitutionalist. Our constitution won on Friday…

Brenna, narrating: And with a seat on the most powerful court in the land, Coney Barrett will keep dragging the nation – and South Bend – towards that reality for decades to come. 

Thinking about what women might face in the future keeps Karen up at night. 

Karen: Losing Roe almost codifies our status as second class citizens. And there are some who think that that’s extreme and that that’s hysteria again, and that won’t come to pass, but those are the same people who said that Roe wasn’t going to be overturned in the first place.

So there are some real legal minefields out there potentially, for women in particular, and non-binary and trans folks in this country, in a way that will not apply to cis men, because of this decision. And that scares me a lot. 

I have nieces who are 13 and 10, and they’re smart and funny and talented and worth everything in the world and deserve every opportunity and every chance to make every choice that’s right for them in their lives, and I worry that they won’t have that. 

And as their Aunt Karen, and being who I am, I’m gonna do everything in my power to make sure that they get as much subversive content [laughing] as I can get them, and as much support for whatever it is they wanna do. Even if that means we have to break the law somewhere.

Brenna, narrating: For decades now, members of the religious right have been playing the long game, working to shift American courts to the right, to end the right to abortion. All those years of planning under Notre Dame’s golden dome have paid off.

Since that Supreme Court ruling, the religious right have gained the upper hand in America. And now, activists like Karen will have to buckle in for their own long fight. 

That Monday after the ruling came down, when anti-abortion activists gathered in downtown South Bend, singing the praises of Amy Coney Barrett, there was another group of counter-protesters just a block down.

Protesters, chanting: My body, my choice.

Brenna, narrating: South Bend, and America, are still divided – desperately seeking two versions of America. The balance, however, has shifted. And what’s ahead is unclear. 

This episode was reported and produced by me (Brenna Daldorph), Ella Hill and Phoebe Davis. The producer was Matt Russell with sound design by Mau Loseto. The Executive Producer was Jasper Corbett.

How we got here

When the Supreme Court ruled to overturn Roe vs. Wade, I was in an aeroplane over the Atlantic.

Luckily, my colleague Ella Hill was already in South Bend – standing outside of the only abortion provider in the region and had to break the news to the pro-choice activists there. It was a devastating moment for these women. They knew the Republican politicians governing the state would jump at the opportunity to ban abortion.

Many aspects of the abortion issue converge in South Bend and it was sometimes hard to untangle the threads. We wanted to tell the story of how America got to this point – the decades-long operation waged by the conservative legal movement to swing the nation’s judiciary to the right. Indeed, we chose South Bend because Amy Coney Barrett, the newest Supreme Court justice, was a product of the conservative movement at nearby Notre Dame University. 

When we met Karen Nemes, her story highlighted both the unique dynamics of this abortions crossroads and the devastating impact that a lack of abortion access can have on a woman’s life. And with Indiana Republicans likely to ban abortion on 25 July, there will soon be many women in this situation. Brenna Daldorph, Reporter


Further reading

  • The week after the US Supreme Court ruled to overturn Roe vs. Wade, the Atlantic published a discussion between two of its writers – Mary Ziegler (also a former Tortoise contributor) and Adrienne LaFrance – on what the future holds for abortion access in the United States.
  • Emily Tamkin has written in the New Statesman explaining how US president Joe Biden’s recent executive order aims to protect women’s access to abortion rights – and why it’s inadequate.

Past reporting

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