LAKELAND — Some in Polk County gave thanks for what they considered an answer to prayers.
Others cried while expressing anger and disbelief.
Reflecting the national divide over abortion, Polk County residents shared strikingly disparate reactions to Friday’s Supreme Court ruling nullifying the Roe v. Wade ruling from 1973.
“My phone is blowing up constantly and getting a hundred million emails, and all of it is those in the pro-life, movement rejoicing,” said Rebecca Klein, executive director of A Woman’s Choice, a pregnancy care center in Lakeland. “There is an element of just joy and thanksgiving for this decision that in the end protects life. And as those who believe in the value and sanctity of every human life, there's such great joy in that. So I thank God for it.”
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Bonnie Patterson-James, an advocate for abortion rights, alternately cried and raised her voice in anger as she discussed the Supreme Court’s decision.
“I think, even as hard as I've prepared, I just didn't really believe a constitutional right could be taken away,” the Lakeland resident said. “I mean, it's been challenged and reaffirmed and I just feel like the United States Supreme Court just told women we’re second class and we don't have the right over our personhood, our liberty or future pursuit of happiness. … I said it was disgusting and horrific, but the reality is I feel like I've been punched in my American gut.”
The ruling didn’t come as a particular surprise to advocates on either side of the issue. A draft version of the decision was anonymously leaked in early May, leading most observers to expect that the court would act to overturn the Roe precedent while ruling on a challenge to a Mississippi law severely restricting abortions.
As advocates on both sides noted, the ruling will have no immediate effect in Florida. The state does not have a “trigger law,” as some other states do, that would prohibit abortions either immediately or on a specified date.
A privacy clause in the state constitution has been interpreted to inhibit an abortion ban, though there is speculation that the increasingly conservative Florida Supreme Court might reconsider that precedent.
The Florida Legislature passed a law this year blocking abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. That law takes effect July 1.
Jon Friedt, pastor at Believers’ Fellowship Church in North Lakeland, reacted to the court’s decision with muted celebration.
“Well, I'm excited to hear it,” Friedt said Friday morning. “Yet, on the other side, this is not really a legal issue as much as it is a moral issue. So, you know, in my view the pro-life work has really just begun.”
He added: “Until abortion is unthinkable to society, the pro-life work is not done.”
Friedt has urged the Lakeland City Commission to adopt an ordinance barring abortion clinics.
Claudia Slate of Lakeland is a longtime advocate for the right to an abortion and has worked as a volunteer escort for patients at the clinic. She called it “a dark day for the will of the people,” citing a recent Gallup poll showing that 55% of Americans considered themselves “pro-choice,” the highest figure since 1995.
“In the past, the court has expanded citizen rights,” said Slate, a retired college professor. “This is a time when the decision revokes rights. So that's, I think, a huge deal. And I'm afraid is just the first step. That's what’s worrisome, too, that the government could now impede access to contraception and marriage equality and places we've really made great strides.”
Justice Clarence Thomas, in his concurring opinion, suggested that the court could indeed overturn rulings on contraception and same-sex marriage using the arguments put forth in the main opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito.
Slate, 73, recalled living in Memphis, Tennessee, before the 1973 ruling, a period when girls and women sought illegal and often unsafe abortions.
“Because I was alive before Roe vs. Wade, I know abortions will still continue,” she said. “I know women died from botched abortions. Safe abortions will be much more difficult to obtain, particularly for those who don't have the means to travel or to pay for it. So it's going to disproportionately affect people of color.”
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A Woman’s Choice, founded in 1987, is one of several centers in Polk County that offer some free medical services, including pregnancy tests and ultrasounds, but does not perform abortions or refer for them. The center, part of a faith-based network, also provides counseling and “after abortion help.”
Klein said she expects a surge in demand for the services offered by her center and others like it following the Supreme Court ruling. She said Florida could see an influx of pregnant girls and women from nearby states where abortion becomes illegal, and she speculated that some in Florida might misinterpret the decision as outlawing abortion nationwide.
“So it just speaks to me that agencies and organizations like A Woman's Choice, our work is just going to be needed now more than ever,” Klein said. “It’s time to gear up, to be ready, to continue being available for the women who need us in these situations because that's what we're here for. … I guess it (the decision) validates the need for our work more than anything else, and that we're going to still be here doing that work.”
Friedt made a similar point.
“I think it's a very poor mistake for the church or of any pro-life, advocacy group or individual to beat their chest in pride and victory and say, ‘Yay, we've won,’” he said. “No, we haven't. If you related it to like a football game, we've simply moved the ball down the field and we have a first down. The game's not over. So we can celebrate the accomplishment, but it's not complete. And so, we still have to keep moving.”
Patterson-James, 54, has organized and taken part in demonstrations for abortion rights in Lakeland. She was checking her phone soon after the ruling for details about a gathering scheduled for Friday afternoon near Southgate shopping center in Lakeland organized by the national group Bans Off Our Bodies.
Patterson-James, who had an abortion 30 years ago, insisted that the procedure is a personal matter of health care that pregnant people should be free to make without government involvement. Noting that the Supreme Court had affirmed Roe v. Wade in previous rulings, she suggested that the six Supreme Court justices voting in the majority had been motivated by politics rather than a reading of the Constitution.
“The court has changed,” she said. “Nothing else has changed — not the patients, not pregnancy, not conception, not medicine. Nothing changed but the court, and they took away my rights as a woman.”
Patterson-James cried as she said that a woman living in one of the states with immediate trigger laws — including Louisiana and Kentucky — could have had an abortion scheduled for the late morning only to see it canceled by the court’s announcement.
Dr. Katherine Sutherland, a retired specialist in obstetrics and gynecology, issued a statement through the Committee to Protect Health Care, a nonprofit advocacy group.
“We know from places like Texas what extremist abortion bans do — they force women to travel to access abortion if they can afford to, and they force women to carry unexpected pregnancies to term if they cannot,” Sutherland said. “Nobody should have to travel across the country, scramble to take time off work, and pay huge costs just to get the care they need. Forcing pregnancy is dangerous and can be detrimental to a person’s mental health and overall safety. That’s why, as physicians, we’re speaking out against this ruling and calling on Florida’s lawmakers to act to protect our patients.”
Two Polk County legislators, Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, and Rep. Colleen Burton, R-Lakeland, have sponsored multiple bills seeking to restrict abortions or add requirements for clinics. Stargel, who is running for the U.S. House, sponsored a version of the 15-week limit that passed this year and was signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
“Protecting the innocent children whose lives are ended through abortion was a defining issue for me as I made the decision to run for elected office,” Stargel said in a news release. “Today is a wonderful affirmation of the pro-life efforts of so many over the last 50 years, and I am incredibly grateful to the justices for their courage in speaking the truth in the face of tremendous adversity.”
Stargel referred to abortion as “barbaric” and “the taking of an innocent life.”
“The damage Roe has caused this country is profound,” Stargel said. “Unfortunately, laws and legal opinions cannot change hearts and minds influenced by decades of an anti-life culture. While we recognize the loss of 63 million innocent and irreplaceable children, we must also accept that the permissible killing of unborn children over three generations has caused serious damage to the social fabric of this country.”
Burton, who is running for the Florida Senate, also released a statement.
“For years we have fought hard in the Florida House to protect and honor life – before and after birth – and empower Florida families and children to thrive,” Burton said. “We celebrate the High Court’s ruling today and the rightful return of power to protect preborn life to the states.”
Both Friedt and Klein said they worried about the possibility of violence committed against pregnancy centers by some abortion-rights activists. A recently formed group, Jane’s Revenge, had vowed to hold a “night of rage” in Washington, D.C., if the court negated the Roe v. Wade decision.
Klein said she didn’t expect any violence in the area but said local pregnancy centers had bolstered security as a precaution.
Patterson-James dismissed such speculation and said anti-abortion advocates are the ones who have engaged in violence over the years since the 1973 court ruling. She criticized pregnancy care centers for giving out what she called false information about abortion.
“We're all about choice, but don't lie to the women that come in there,” she said. “I've heard nothing like that. I would like them to stop lying to patients; that would be a good start. But I don't think violence solves anything.”
Gary White can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 863-802-7518. Follow on Twitter @garywhite13.
This article originally appeared on The Ledger: Polk County residents respond to abortion ruling with thanks, dismay