Drew Hawkins is a writer and journalist covering health equity in the Gulf South. He’s a father of two and the producer and host of Micro, a LitHub podcast for short but powerful writing. Rosemary Westwood is a mother of two and an award-winning writer, broadcaster, and podcast host.
It’s a scary time to be a parent. Point-blank, period. Why wax poetic about it? When I look at my 5 and 11-year-olds, I see the children of Gaza in their sweet faces. On their skin, I feel the fever of wildfires and rising global temperatures. Hurricanes, tornadoes carried in breathless whispers. Polluted, toxic air expelled as laughter. Sometimes it feels hard to be fully present.
We do our best. You take stock of the world around you and try to shepherd them through it. God forbid you have a kid who may be different. What if they’re neurodivergent? Will there be resources for them? Will you have some support? What if they’re queer? Will they be able to talk about it with their teachers and friends at school? What if they’re trans? Is it even ethical to stay here, in Louisiana? And what if right now isn’t the best time to have a child—for whatever reason?
Since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down abortion as a constitutionally protected right in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, abortion access isn’t just difficult—it could send you to prison. Louisiana has one of the strictest laws on the books: a mandatory one to 10 years of prison time and a fine of $10,000 up to $100,000 for anyone who has an abortion. This, in the state with one of the highest rates of maternal mortality.
As a journalist and as a person in general, my natural inclination is to talk to someone whenever I want to try to figure something out. Rosemary Westwood has been covering reproductive health care for a New Orleans minute. She wrote The Roe Report newsletter, which followed challenges to abortion protections. And she’s the host of Banned, the podcast that tells the story about the Mississippi case that overturned Roe v. Wade.
What was supposed to be a coffee meeting, then a playground meeting, turned into an early morning phone call—derailed by children, like so many other plans in the lives of working parents. When I called Rosemary, my five-year-old was home sick from school, interrupting our conversation with requests for snacks. He was also kind enough to share his stomach bug with me. On the other line, Rosemary’s three-month-old, asleep in the beginning, woke to nurse, chiming in with the squeaks and grunts of a hungry, happy baby.
I thought it would be interesting, with it being the end of the year and looking at a new administration, to talk to someone who knows, intimately, on multiple levels, reproductive health care. What do things look like from your perspective?
I spent time after the [abortion] law took effect talking to women who’d had miscarriages and situations in hospitals that felt like they weren’t given the care they could have had because of the law. And they were afraid. Even just getting pregnant scares some people. Even people who want pregnancies. Even people who are doing IVF that I’ve spoken to, who are spending tens of thousands of dollars to try and conceive. Even those people are afraid to be pregnant in the state because of the way that an abortion ban like the one we have written just spirals into all other kinds of care, other kinds of pregnancy complications. Someone who has a cancer diagnosis and is pregnant isn’t automatically eligible for an abortion under our law. I don’t think we should underestimate how viscerally women and people who are getting pregnant are feeling this. A lot of us are doing it anyway. You know, I just had a kid. But I was very aware of what could come. The entire pregnancy, I was just going through the milestones with the abortion ban in mind, thinking like, if X, Y, Z comes up on a test, what is that going to mean for me? What would I do? A lot of fear. I think there’s a lot of fear and apprehension that is reasonable from people getting pregnant right now who don’t know what it would mean for the care they would get, even if they wanted to keep the baby right now.
You’ve done arguably some of the most comprehensive reporting on the overturning of Roe v. Wade and recent changes to reproductive rights. And then you have your newsletter going way back. I’m curious, sitting here now, it’s November 2023: What would you say to someone who may become pregnant in Louisiana, and maybe they’re worried and unsure of what their options are?
If you want to keep the pregnancy, that opens up a whole host of things that that person needs to think about. We do have year-long coverage for low-income people through Medicaid expansion in Louisiana after you give birth. So it’s a little bit better here than it’s been in some other states, depending on what your income is or your insurance situation is. And we have some organizations dedicated to trying to improve maternal health, especially Black maternal health, like Birthmark Doulas and other groups. But if you don’t want to keep the pregnancy, then obviously that’s where it gets really complicated. And in the past, it wasn’t easy. There were only three clinics. You had to wait 24 hours between your first appointment and your second appointment. In order to get the procedure, you had to pay hundreds of dollars, possibly more, depending on how late you were in your gestational period. You had to go past protesters on your way into the clinic. But now, of course, you’re looking at traveling really far. I think people are often going to Virginia, some people are going to New Mexico. And then you could think about handling it yourself. People who have access to information online will be able to find providers of abortion pills that are willing to ship regardless of the law here. And there are also underground networks providing abortion pills—despite the law.
Do you consider yourself an activist?
No, but I do think that when you’re reporting, your job is to present the facts in the appropriate ratio—not just what is real, but what is real in context. And so it’s pretty clear that abortion bans have negative effects on maternal health and mental health and socioeconomic outcomes and many other things. So I’m not an activist or an advocate, but I do think people should know what’s real. And what’s real is that these bans can be very harmful for women’s health and for their long-term trajectory, their lives going forward.
I want to ask you a question that I recognize is very stereotypical for any person, any woman who is also a working mother. But I want to ask because I think the answer can really illuminate a lot. You have children yourself, you’re a mother, you’re a journalist, you’re a journalist who covers reproductive health, and you’re a woman. All of these things in the Deep South, a place that is often hostile individually to each of them. So I’m curious how you balance that, how that interplay works for you in your life, or if it’s something you think about?
I’m the kind of reporter who talks to someone and imagines that I could have that life. You know, I think we’re all here by accident in a way. So the life you lead is the way you were born. You were lucky or whatever, to be born in a certain situation or not. I used to spend a lot of time in clinics talking to women having abortions—and it just always felt to me like that could be my life. I could be in that position; I could be facing those choices. And I think the other thing about it is that you’re not a woman in theory, you’re a woman in your body. It’s an issue that your whole body endures, it’s not just something in your mind. It’s like your whole body experiences it. And so as someone who’s been pregnant and had really difficult pregnancies and had really difficult times with newborns, I think I feel physically connected to the issue. I’m not talking to people about something that I don’t have a connection to. I’m talking to people about something that I really feel could be happening to me. And I also think that the number one thing I’ve seen from women in clinics is that they make the choices that they think are best for them. But they have absorbed a lot of the anti-abortion rhetoric. And so things that they feel are right for them are made more difficult, is how they’ve kind of expressed it to me, talking about it in a way as if they need to engage with that whole dialogue around abortion being bad. And many of them can’t talk to family members about what they’re doing and things like that. It’s very difficult to listen to, that someone is not only in a position of making a choice for themselves, but also extremely isolated or even tormented a bit in that decision because of a culture that surrounds them and not because of anything that’s innate to their own feelings about what they’re doing.
This interview is for the December issue, so it comes out at a time when people may be getting together with family. A lot of times, their family may be directly hostile to reproductive rights, to their decisions. I’m curious if you have any advice from what you see on how to engage with people and communities that may hold different views on reproductive health care. Is it worth it? And if so, in good faith, how do you do that?
I think one thing I’ve seen is that definitely people’s views and feelings are a lot more complicated than the activist rhetoric on both sides. Abortion rights groups often have a very specific way of talking about this. And there’s language they like to use and there’s language they don’t like to use. And anti-abortion groups also. It’s like everything has been put through the wringer so many times and it’s all been distilled to this very narrow way that people aren’t allowed to talk about it if you’re on the extreme end of the debate on either side. But people in the middle have all kinds of feelings and have very contradictory feelings inside. And that’s apparent, again, from the women I would meet in clinics getting abortions. And a lot of the surveys we’ve seen nationally, but especially in Louisiana, show that there is a huge amount of ambivalence around the details of it—if someone would consider themselves anti-abortion, they often have a whole lot of caveats that they don’t think about when they say they’re “pro-life.” But I can’t say I have specific advice for someone whose aunt or uncle is anti-abortion. I do think, though, as a reporter, one thing I do is I always come ready to listen. I never start interviews or pieces without that openness.
You’re originally from Canada, a country that has universal health care and stronger reproductive health protection laws. As I’m sure you’ve gathered, New Orleans can be really insular. I’m not going to ask you what high school you went to, but, with reproductive rights diminishing and other discriminatory policies, like anti-trans laws driving people out, why stay?
I’ve definitely seen a trend among some people I know with kids who want to move away. I don’t know how much anti-abortion policies are really driving that right now for a lot of people. I think it’s part of a tapestry of hyper-conservative politics that if someone doesn’t agree with, they might want to seek a community they feel more connected to. I think the transplant culture is real, and people come and people go. But I also think that it’s really hard raising a family in an environment where the policies kind of underline that your society isn’t there to support you. A state without strong family leave, a state without strong maternal health support, a state where daycare can be difficult for people. I’ve also lived in the U.K. where access to health care, access to daycare, access to leave, all of the policies that make having a family easier are there or are more robust. And it is pretty stark to live in a state where the landscape is just not very supportive. It’s supportive as a culture and the idea of family. I know Louisianans care a lot about family as part of their communities, but we don’t really put our money where our mouth is in terms of the politics and the policies that we have in place. And research supports leave policies, supports access to child care. It supports public education for the health of the family. And other things like access to good, nutritional food, living in a place where you feel safe. Sometimes it does feel like there’s a big gap between how people talk about families and what our politics and policies actually support.
You touched on this a little bit with things like the research supporting maternal care and public education. And this is a little bit of a two-parter here: What should the future of reproductive health care look like and what do you think it’ll look like in Louisiana, especially if we’re looking at a new administration that’s openly hostile towards it?
It’s difficult for a journalist to be in a position of saying what things should be. We tend to leave that to others. I do think as a human being and as a mother, I want families and women to be respected and supported and given agency. And I do think that people’s own beliefs should be what drives their choices, ideally. That just feels like what democratic society is about. But in terms of where we’re going, I mean we’re definitely headed into a much stronger anti-abortion climate. John Bel Edwards did very few favors to abortion rights groups while in office. He signed every anti-abortion law that crossed his desk. And while he had caveats like he didn’t think rape survivors should be forced to carry pregnancies, he still signed the law that made it so… We know that [Governor Elect Jeff] Landry is keen to prosecute people who perform abortions. I think you could see him being much more aggressive on the enforcement side of the law than we have seen. We haven’t had anyone arrested under the law thus far. No one’s been charged. And could that be a priority for his administration? I think that’s possible. And then I think the thing to remember is that people with low incomes, people in the poorest parishes, Black women, mothers, people who were already mothers—these are the groups who were accessing abortions before the law. So I think one thing that advocates have said, and the data supports this, is that those with the least means and the least access are going to have the worst impacts from this. And the more frightening it becomes to even talk about abortion, the more true that is. So I do think it makes a difference who’s in the governor’s seat, but at the end of the day, we’re looking at a decades-long effort to change any of this. We haven’t seen real question marks over anti-abortion laws for years and years and years. They’ve just flown through the legislature. The other thing that I am seeing is that people who have been fighting for reproductive rights for a long time in the state have not packed up and left. Maybe people are leaving, you know, because of this issue. Maybe I think we might see physician shortages and we already have that. And it’s possible that families are leaving because people either don’t want to have families or raise them in a state where their kids won’t have access to abortion and complete reproductive care around pregnancy. But I think at the same time, there are activists that I met years ago who are still doing the same work, and there are people who are working underground to provide abortion access and they’re not leaving. And the other thing is that anti-abortion groups aren’t going anywhere either. It’s not like they have this abortion ban and now they’re done. And we’re seeing those organizations continue to try and work. For example, Louisiana Right to Life would definitely like a stricter abortion law than we have. They want people carrying pregnancies where the fetus has genetic abnormalities; they don’t want those people eligible for abortions, for example. So it’s not like we reach some kind of endgame. There’s still a lot of work that both sides are doing. And so it’s by no means a done deal, the state that we’re in at this moment.
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illustrations by Victoria Allen