SAN ANTONIO – Seven weeks had passed since Texas enacted the most restrictive abortion law in the country. Doctors no longer could legally perform the procedure on patients who had been pregnant more than six weeks, and the Planned Parenthood on Babcock Road had stopped offering abortions entirely. It was the kind of victory that antiabortion activists had long dreamed of, and yet, Cathy Nix was not satisfied.
By late October, the parking lot she spent her days outside was less busy than it used to be, but it wasn’t empty. Nix held a clipboard close to her face and wrote notes about the cars that remained. A silver Hyundai pulled in at noon. A white Subaru arrived 20 minutes later. Nix offered both drivers a gift bag filled with fingernail polish, paraben-free shampoo and brochures referring them to pregnancy centers, antiabortion facilities that try to dissuade women from terminating their pregnancies, but neither driver accepted one.
At 12:24 p.m., a white Toyota SUV slipped into a parking spot near the building. A woman stepped out, and Nix greeted her in a loud but genial tone.
“Hi, can I offer you any help?” she asked. “Free pregnancy tests or ultrasounds? We’re here to help you.”
The woman didn’t turn her head, but Nix appeared unfazed. The work she described as “a calling” wasn’t easy. Nix wasn’t allowed on the Planned Parenthood parking lot, and a stone-and-metal fence divides the public sidewalk from the clinic’s property. The fence is lined with yucca and other spiny plants, and every time Nix approached the barrier, she had to step into a bed of prickly fronds.
“If you need help, let me know, OK?” she called as the woman opened the clinic door. “God bless you, sweetie.”
Historically, the fight over abortion has been waged on sidewalks like this one. That’s still happening in Texas, even after state Senate Bill 8 effectively prohibited most abortions. On Monday, the Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether to leave the law in place. In December, the court will hear a case from Mississippi that could overturn Roe v. Wade entirely. Antiabortion activists are optimistic – the court is the most conservative it has been in generations – but for Nix and her cadre of young interns who spend their weekdays outside this San Antonio Planned Parenthood, no law or court ruling is victory enough.
“We get a lot of people who say, ‘Why are you even here if they’re not doing abortions?'” Nix said. “We want to help the women. That’s our main goal. It’s not only abortion. It’s about trying to change the culture of ‘this is the only place that can help you.’ We want to show them that there’s other resources for them. We’re trying to get them out of the abortion industry and into this culture of life.”
Nix is the director of the San Antonio Coalition for Life, a Catholic organization created 14 years ago. It is one of several groups that stand outside this Planned Parenthood. Members of some groups carry signs and megaphones. Others sit in red camping chairs and pray the rosary silently to themselves. A spokesperson for Planned Parenthood said neither the staffers nor the patients can differentiate one group from another, but Nix and the young people who accompany her as “sidewalk interns” don’t think of themselves as protesters. They’re “referral agents.”
The distinction means Nix’s group doesn’t carry graphic signs or use loudspeakers, even though the traffic on Babcock Road is noisy and persistent. Everything a person says sounds angry when amplified through a megaphone, Nix said, and using one would scare patients away.
Soon after the woman from the white SUV disappeared inside the clinic, Nix spotted a slight, dark-haired man leaving the building.
“That’s the abortionist,” Nix said.
She suspected the clinic might have started offering abortions again but wasn’t sure. People go to Planned Parenthood for a variety of reasons, and a physical therapy center rents the space on the ground floor. She wasn’t certain the man could hear her over the traffic, but Nix teaches voice lessons and knew how to project without sounding as if she were yelling. She stood on her tip toes and kicked her voice up an octave.
“God bless you, sir,” she called as the man turned toward the back of the building. “We’re praying for you!”
Soon after the man left, a teenager named Alejandra Dipp Gonzalez joined Nix. Dipp Gonzalez wore a blue safety vest, four friendship bracelets and a silver piece with cross charms dangling off her wrists.
Dipp Gonzalez is Catholic, and she’d learned at church that abortion was wrong, but she didn’t spend her time protesting it before the coronavirus pandemic. That changed when she stumbled across the San Antonio Coalition for Life’s Instagram page. She thought its rosary events seemed cool, and she liked that they connected women to outside resources. Still, she didn’t think she could join because she was an introvert who grew up speaking Spanish. Sometimes she stuttered when she used English. As the pandemic wore on, though, Dipp Gonzalez started watching YouTube debates between abortion rights and antiabortion activists, and she made up her mind: Abortion is murder. This spring, she called Nix and asked to join her.
The 18-year-old was nervous the first day. What if she stuttered? What if she said something so wrong that it actually encouraged a woman to have an abortion?
But four months in, Dipp Gonzalez had let go of those fears as she realized she had two advantages. Nix and many of the other antiabortion activists were White and middle-aged or older. But most of Planned Parenthood’s patients looked a lot like Dipp Gonzalez – young and Hispanic.
“Most of them are people our age,” she said, nodding to a young woman walking toward her car. “They’re from our schools. Knowing that there’s people on this side helping them makes them kind of open up. And then sometimes they come up to us and they’re like, ‘Oh, do you work for Planned Parenthood?’ And we go, ‘No, we’re a different organization.’ They confuse us because we don’t look like the conventional pro-life person.”
The patient opened her car door, and Dipp Gonzalez stepped between the yuccas to offer a free pregnancy test. The spiny plants scratched at her jeans. The first day Dipp Gonzalez worked, she’d stepped into the plants so often, she’d gone home with a rash across her thigh. She’d mostly learned to avoid the spikes since then, but she hadn’t yet figured out how to dodge the ants. San Antonio’s dirt was full of them, and they often crawled up her leg as she stood near the barrier talking to patients. She used her left foot to scratch at the ring of bites the ants had left along her right ankle earlier in the week.
The patient ducked into her car, then drove off, so Dipp Gonzalez sprinted to meet her at the exit. Nix took over calling out to patients. A young man parked a gray-and-black Mustang next to the fence, and Nix figured he was either there for physical therapy or an STD test, so she grabbed a different gift bag, one for men, and dangled it in the air.
“Excuse me, sir, this is a gift bag with information about getting a free STD test,” she said.
The man headed inside without taking one, but he returned a few minutes later and asked for a bag. Nix’s volunteers had packed trail mix, fingernail clippers and hand sanitizer inside. On the back, they’d listed the phone number for the Kind Clinic, a sexual wellness clinic seven miles east.
“You said free?” the man asked.
“Well, cool, thanks,” he said.
He left without going back into the clinic.
Nix said her group is most successful when patients learn that other places offer free versions of tests they would have to pay for at Planned Parenthood. Mara Posada, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood, declined to specify how much it charges for STD tests, but its clinics accept insurance and offer sliding-scale prices for patients without insurance. Posada said in an email that Nix’s group doesn’t understand how much it costs to run a comprehensive health-care operation without government support. In 2011, the Texas legislature cut the two-year budget for family planning from $111 million to $38 million in an effort to defund Planned Parenthood, and earlier this year, a judge ruled that Texas could bar patients from using Medicaid at Planned Parenthood, even if they are receiving non-abortion care.
As the state has made those cuts, it has invested increasingly larger sums of money in a program it calls Alternatives to Abortion. The Texas legislature created it in 2005 using $5 million pulled from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families fund. Every year, the state has increased its contribution. In 2021, it has budgeted $100 million for the program. The money goes to nonprofit organizations that provide a variety of services, but much of it is set aside for pregnancy centers. (Nix’s group is a go-between, not a service provider, and does not qualify to receive state funding.)
‘This is my job.’
The woman in the car didn’t want a gift bag, but Dipp Gonzalez was still smiling when she returned to the fence. Both the sidewalk and the parking lot went quiet for a while. Around 2 p.m., a driver honked, then rolled down his window and yelled, “Get a job.”
Dipp Gonzalez waved.
“This is my job,” she said.
The San Antonio Coalition for Life pays interns $10 an hour to stand outside Planned Parenthood. Dipp Gonzalez usually works 15 hours a week and spends most of the $150 she earns on classes at the University of Texas at San Antonio, where she’s a freshman majoring in civil engineering.
The car disappeared down the street, and Dipp Gonzalez shrugged, then looked back at the empty lot.
After S.B. 8 took effect, three of the seven Planned Parenthood clinics in Texas stopped offering abortions. Jeffrey Hons, the president and chief executive of Planned Parenthood South Texas, which oversees six centers in San Antonio, said he decided to temporarily stop providing abortions because he wanted to see how the law might play out. Last year, the South Texas clinics saw nearly 25,000 patients, most seeking non-abortion services such as Pap smears or birth control. Hons worried that a lawsuit might jeopardize those other services.
“We have people all around us who would like nothing more than to see us make a mistake,” he said.
So far, the only provider who has been sued is Alan Braid, a physician who provides abortions and practices down the street, and who announced that he had broken the law.
Hons recently decided to resume offering the procedure to women under the legal limit. The caseload has remained light, Hons said, because many women don’t know that they’re pregnant at six weeks.
“Very, very few people are actually going to get abortion care,” Hons said.
On the sidewalk, Nix fanned herself with a brochure as the afternoon heated up to a humid 81 degrees. An hour went by, and only a few cars pulled in. Nix and Dipp Gonzalez had learned to distinguish the regulars from the patients in crisis. When Nix spotted a woman she’d seen leaving around noon every day, Nix moved toward the fence. The woman was probably an employee.
“I hope you had a great lunch,” Nix said. “Abortionworker.com. God bless you today!”
Nix bellowed out that Web address several times a day. It’s a site that encourages people who work at Planned Parenthood or other clinics to leave their jobs “and rediscover the peace and joy they’ve been missing.”
Nix waved at the woman she thought was a clinic employee, but the woman pressed forward.
Eventually, protesters from other groups arrived. A woman driving a car with a “Jesus fish” decal stopped to ask how she could volunteer. Her four children were grown, she explained, and she was ready to “do something good.”
“Not that I haven’t been doing good raising four kids,” she said.
Later, a car slowed, and a woman leaned out the passenger-side window and screamed something unintelligible.
“When they start yelling, 99 percent of the time, they’re going to tell you that they had an abortion,” Nix said. “Because we know there’s hurt, we’re not going to yell back at them. We haven’t walked a mile in their moccasins. We don’t know where she’s coming from or what happened to her, so all we want to do is be peaceful with her.”
As Nix turned back to her clipboard, a young Latin woman edged up to the fence and waved over Dipp Gonzalez.
“Do you have any information about Plan B?” the young woman asked.
“I sure do,” Dipp Gonzalez said. She pulled a brochure out of her left breast pocket, then handed it over the fence. The young woman turned the brochure over in her hands. The front was nondescript – it said “Morning After Pill” – but the back described what it called “the beginning of a human being.”
“Some people think of this small human being as just a lump of cells and not a person,” it read. “We must remember, though, what the baby is, not what he or she looks like. Many people look different than we expect them to, but we still would say they are human beings. This is true with an unborn baby, too. It does not matter what the newly fertilized egg looks like; it matters what it is. What is it? It is a human being waiting to grow up and be born.”
The woman said thank you. She took the brochure, then she drove away. Dipp Gonzalez’s shift was almost over, so she stood quiet for a while, watching as an elderly woman from a nearby Catholic church sprayed holy water on the yucca plants. When she’d finished, the woman looked up at Planned Parenthood, then sprayed one final stream of holy water, just in case.
The Washington Post’s Caroline Kitchener in Washington contributed to this report.