Fight Club 

How Shelley Abrams and a band of activists are reframing Virginia's debate over abortion.

click to enlarge Abortion rights advocate Shelley Abrams. - SCOTT ELMQUIST

When she was 13, the fight had already started.

Shelley Abrams, the daughter of a steelworker and a women's rights activist, often got yanked out of her classes at Central Park Christian School in Birmingham, Ala. The teachers needed her for debate exercises.

"I was the only one in the school who was pro-choice. They'd be like, 'Get Shelley out of blah, blah, blah's English class, we want to debate abortion,'" Abrams recalls. "It kind of mirrors my life now. I don't know. I could handle it. I was tough. And I felt so strongly about it after what happened."

Two years earlier, when Abrams was 11, her sister was born severely handicapped, the result of a genetic disorder that the doctors couldn't identify. Abrams already had a disabled younger brother who was in a wheelchair and needed help to use the bathroom or take a bath. His needs had already caused severe stress on the family, which was struggling financially. Abrams' father, a welder, was a union worker and frequently on strike. While her mother was pregnant with her sister, Abrams recalls accompanying her on trips to the doctor's office for prenatal visits. Doctors said there was only a minuscule chance that her sister would be born with the defect that caused her brother's disability. They were wrong.

"In the back of my mind, I knew that if a test came up that said she wasn't going to be fine that abortion would be an option," Abrams says. "I just knew that my mother and my father having the option to decide whether or not to have another severely retarded child was extremely important."

It led to a lifelong commitment to abortion rights. After the highly publicized death of Dr. David Gunn, who was shot by a pro-life advocate outside a Pensacola, Fla., abortion clinic in 1993, Abrams joined other pro-choice advocates in her hometown, escorting women to the clinics through throngs of pro-life protesters. She started working part-time at an abortion clinic in Birmingham while in college at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. And after her disabled brother died in 2001, she moved to Henrico County to run her own clinic off Quioccasin Road.

Abrams, 39, has come to represent a new breed of pro-choice advocates — tough, aggressive and sharp-tongued, unabashedly unafraid to use inflammatory language to challenge the powerful pro-life political establishment.

"I just realized that all you have is your brain, your mouth and your body," she says, "and that playing nice girl wasn't working for the women's rights movement."

click to enlarge Shelley Abrams, executive director of A Capital Women's Health Clinic in Henrico County, was taken into custody during a protest at the Capitol on March 3. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Shelley Abrams, executive director of A Capital Women's Health Clinic in Henrico County, was taken into custody during a protest at the Capitol on March 3.

In a recent Gallup poll, 41 percent of Americans identified themselves as pro-choice, a record low. Emboldened by the national spike in pro-life supporters and a newly elected Republican majority in both houses of Virginia's General Assembly, the floodgates opened in January. Anti-abortion legislation poured out of the statehouse, including bills that gave unborn fetuses personhood status, forced women to undergo invasive ultrasounds prior to abortion procedures, and eliminated state funding for all abortions involving fetuses with severe disfigurements.

The pro-choice lobby wasn't getting it done, Abrams says. Groups such as Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice America and the Virginia chapter of the National Organization for Women were unable to keep the anti-abortion bills locked down in committee, as they had when the Democrats controlled the state Senate. Abrams recalls pro-choice lobbyists telling her that the abortion clinic regulations — which required clinics to meet expensive building code standards and be regulated essentially as hospitals — weren't a serious threat.

"Our people were stacked on it," she was told in early 2011, when the bill died in committee. But the regulations were written into another bill at the end of the 2011 session, and suddenly everything changed. "I realized that, OK ... What happens when their bullies get in power?" Abrams says.

In the fall 2011 elections, Republicans gained two seats in the state Senate, creating a 20-20 split. But with Lt. Gov. William T. Bolling casting the tie-breaking vote, the GOP had a majority in both houses.

"I had this political life when I was a kid. And then I became an abortion provider. Most abortion providers think, 'I'm in the thick of it, I don't have to do anything.' Then I realized this year that that wasn't cutting it," Abrams says. "I realized that people needed to be made aware of when they should be outraged."

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click to enlarge Perhaps the seminal moment in this year's abortion debates came on Feb. 20 when 1,000 pro-choice supporters lined the sidewalks at the state Capitol for a silent protest. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Perhaps the seminal moment in this year's abortion debates came on Feb. 20 when 1,000 pro-choice supporters lined the sidewalks at the state Capitol for a silent protest.

The political carnage that resulted from this year's clash over abortion and women's rights is difficult to measure. Some pundits say it may have cost Gov. Bob McDonnell the Republican vice-presidential nomination, and it could well be a decisive issue that tips Virginia toward Barack Obama in the presidential election.

One thing is certain: When Abrams and the grass-roots protesters marched into Capitol Square in February and March, denouncing the abortion bills as attacks on women's rights, their actions reverberated across the country. They took to calling the consent bill requiring a transvaginal ultrasound as state-mandated rape, compared the GOP to the Taliban and carried protest signs — "Don't plunder my privates!" and "Keep your politics out of my vagina!" — that went beyond the typical pro-choice slogans. The controversy over the ultrasound bill caught fire, and was ridiculed on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," Rachel Maddow's program on MSNBC and even "Saturday Night Live."

Pro-choice advocates such as Abrams were able to frame the debate in a way that resonated with younger women in particular. Their aggressive sloganeering broke with the more staid, pro-choice advocacy groups and exposed a growing gap in political activism, says Quentin Kidd, a professor of political science and director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University.

"We got a peek at what we are likely to see more of in the future," Kidd says. "It really embarrassed the political ruling class because they want things buttoned up pretty tight, and controlled. The Gen Xers and the millennials just don't interact that way. ... It essentially looked like a lot of old, white men battling a group of Gen X, dot-net women. Everything about that spoke about these two different eras in our politics."

The culture gap couldn't have been more apparent when an estimated 1,000, mostly young, women lined the snow-kissed sidewalks at the Capitol on Feb. 20 for a silent protest. Their numbers surprised even established pro-choice lobbyists. Then in early March, a protest march that ended on the Capitol steps led to more than 30 arrests. Women and men, including Abrams, were met by law enforcement officials wearing riot gear and hauled off, which seemed to vividly reaffirm the protesters' argument that GOP lawmakers were trampling on women's rights.

Abrams, who gave a "fire and brimstone" speech prior to her arrest, was told she couldn't finish because police were ordering them to disband. She continued anyway, and ultimately was arrested for refusing to leave the Capitol steps.

"All the money that NARAL spends, and Planned Parenthood spends, and look where we are now — having our rights stripped from us brutally on a state level," she says. "Well, I was like, 'I'm going to finish my speech.'"

The aggressive style of the organizers, and their refusal to tone down the message, was extraordinarily effective.

"They argued that this was assault, this was an attempt to control women by the state legislature," longtime political observer and consultant Bob Holsworth says. "That was, I think, the decisive moment where all of a sudden people recognized that something different is happening here."

click to enlarge The silence was broken on March 3, when hundreds of women took their protest to the steps of the Capitol, in a showdown with Capitol police and state troopers. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • The silence was broken on March 3, when hundreds of women took their protest to the steps of the Capitol, in a showdown with Capitol police and state troopers.

Indeed, what the grass-roots organizers did was "make a liberal argument using conservative concepts, the concept of big government invading your privacy," Holsworth says. The protest organizers took a page from the GOP playbook at a time when Republicans nationally were making a similar argument against Obamacare.

It was a melding of incendiary language with a theme of government intrusion that took the debate to a different level. And almost everyone agrees this wouldn't have happened had the larger institutions been driving the debate. Groups such as NARAL and Planned Parenthood, established nonprofits that have worked the General Assembly halls for years, don't condone using inflammatory words such as rape.

"The longer you are around as an institution, the more institutionalized you become," professor Kidd says. "You develop relationships, funding, contacts with the media. All of these things ultimately cause you to become conservative in the way you act. You are more leery of pushing buttons too much."

Tarina Keene, executive director of NARAL Pro Choice Virginia, recalls stepping outside the General Assembly building the morning of Feb. 20 and being completely caught off guard by the protesters. On the front lines of the General Assembly battles, she was the one who a week earlier had distributed diagrams showing how transvaginal ultrasounds work. This shocked lawmakers who hadn't realized that the bill required an intrusive wand.

"People just showed up in droves. I literally had no idea what these people were out there for," Keene says of the protesters. "That was stunning to me."

That the established lobbyists such as Keene were in the dark about the protest suggests the debate largely was out of their control. The activists lining the sidewalks didn't adhere to established political protocols.

"A lot of organizations, they do the polling, they do the method work, they try to appeal to as many people as possible," Keene says. "You don't want to be too divisive. You don't want to alienate people. You don't want to turn people off."

The speed in which the protests at the Capitol were organized, and the lack of institutional control, made it difficult to know when and where they'd show up next. Some of the organizers behind the Feb. 20 protest, dubbed Speak Loudly with Silence, also were members of Occupy Richmond, which had experience moving people at a moment's notice. It also made things difficult for the pro-life lobby, which struggled to keep up with the debate while the protest made national headlines.

"It was a good wake-up call to our base," says Victoria Cobb, president of the conservative Family Foundation. "It was a good reminder that the pro-life community better not take for granted their effectiveness simply because we have pro-life elected officials in office."

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click to enlarge Shelley Abrams led the resistance to new building code regulations for abortion clinics, but the Virginia Board of Health rejected a critical grandfather clause exempting existing clinics at its Sept. 14 meeting. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Shelley Abrams led the resistance to new building code regulations for abortion clinics, but the Virginia Board of Health rejected a critical grandfather clause exempting existing clinics at its Sept. 14 meeting.

How the recharged abortion debate plays into the presidential election could be critical, Holsworth says. Typically, presidential elections are decided on things like the economy — not social issues such as abortion — but this year may be different. In recent polls, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney is trailing Obama in Virginia, and a critical reason is Obama's 14-point edge with women voters.

While a majority of Americans identify themselves as pro-life, that doesn't mean a majority supports outlawing abortion. In a May Gallup poll, 77 percent said they believed that women should be able to "legally obtain an abortion under at least some circumstances." And it's important to note that the debate in Virginia was as much about women's rights, says Holsworth, as it was about abortion.

"If Romney cannot reduce Obama's numbers with women, he will not win Virginia," Holsworth says, crediting the abortion debate's resonance with so many women, particularly younger women. "It could be the decisive difference."

As for Abrams, and the future of abortion clinics such as hers, the future is less certain. Abrams and the pro-choice organizers lost a key battle over abortion clinic regulations earlier this month when the Virginia Board of Health took another step toward adopting new building regulations, despite rejecting them in June. In a packed meeting room in Henrico on Sept. 14, Abrams and dozens of pro-choice advocates gave impassioned pleas to uphold an earlier decision that grandfathers existing abortion clinics under the old guidelines, and generally overshadowed the pro-life supporters in the room.

It's clear that the pro-lifers are still adjusting to this new, aggressive combat. Melissa Robinson, a 40-year-old pro-life supporter from Highland Springs, sits in the back row with a cardboard sign — "children die in abortion clinics" — but, she says, she's a bit taken aback by the colorful, more aggressive pro-choice advocates.

"It's a little bit overwhelming," she says sheepishly, before retreating to her seat.

Abrams, too, is learning firsthand that the ultrasound debate that caught so much national attention doesn't spill over to things such as abortion clinic regulations, an issue that's a bit more nuanced. And despite keeping the pressure on — she's part of a group of organizers behind the witty and cutthroat blog Cooch Watch, which chronicles the pro-life movements of Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli — next year's General Assembly session promises to be just as challenging. With McDonnell in his last year in office, essentially a lame duck, and Cuccinelli as the potential Republican gubernatorial candidate, Abrams expects another onslaught of anti-abortion bills. And this time, a more prepared pro-life lobby.

Abrams says it will cost between $100,000 and $200,000 to upgrade her clinic to meet the new regulations, which are expected to be approved permanently next spring. She'll have just two years to bring the building into compliance.

"Nobody knows what's going to happen in the next two years," she says. "Really, everything got turned upside down here, and I think in January you are going to see abortion bills like you wouldn't believe."

But she'll keep fighting. When she was a teenager in the Christian school in Birmingham, her teachers would tell her that having two severely disabled siblings was God's way of pushing her family to be stronger, that there was nothing she couldn't handle. Then, Abrams says, she realized "that was all bullshit." At age 13, she became disillusioned by Christianity — she later converted to Judaism — after coming to the realization "that human tragedy does not make you stronger necessarily, and that's OK.

"I felt like an old, jaded soul in a sea of idiots, really," she says. But the Christian school did give her something — it taught her to fight.

"As an abortion provider you are constantly fighting. You are fighting the police, you are fighting your own government, you're fighting the anti-abortionists," she says. "You fight whether or not to tell the person at the grocery store what you do."

Abrams, however, sees it as her calling.

"We all look for something we're good at. I can't do art. I'm not good at math or science," she says. "I just feel like I'm a fighter, and this is what I was meant to do." S

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