The Right to Choose: Interview with Sarah Haeder, Patient Advocate for North Dakota

North Dakota has unexpectedly become the focus of the battle over abortion rights in the U.S. following the passage of three state laws last month that would be the most restrictive anti-choice measures in the country if allowed to go into effect. The state’s sole abortion clinic has publicly said it will be filing a lawsuit against what is known as the “heartbeat” measure, a law aimed at criminalizing abortions as early as six weeks after pregnancy, the earliest a “fetal heartbeat” could possibly be detected. The other laws are also expected to face legal challenges.

Although all three of the anti-choice measures are set to go into effect August 1, legal experts are saying the laws are unconstitutional, and if North Dakota loses any legal challenges, the state will have to pay the legal fees of those bringing the challenge, adding to the millions of dollars they will be paying to defend these laws in court.

The other two abortion-related laws signed by Gov. Jack Dalrymple involve a requirement that only doctors with admitting privileges at a local hospital be allowed to perform abortions in the state (similar to a Mississippi law tied up in the courts) and denial of abortions for reasons having to do with gender preferences and genetic defects.

The Red River Women’s Clinic in Fargo is the state’s only abortion provider. Earlier this week, Sarah Haeder, a patient advocate at the clinic, took the time to answer some questions for Humanist Network News.

HNN: Do you expect these new state laws to be overturned as unconstitutional?

Haeder: Yes. Roe [v. Wade] established a woman’s right to choose. States have only been given authority to regulate trimester limits for abortion in that state.

HNN: Do you ever directly answer those who challenge the clinic’s existence? If so, does it help?

Haeder: Yes. I think it’s vital that people know the men who create this legislation have never stepped foot in Red River Women’s Clinic, nor have they ever contacted the clinic for information on services offered at the clinic. They base their understanding of the pro-choice movement on notions fabricated by radical people like [Rep.] Bette Grande and other religious zealots who have no realistic idea of what receiving an abortion entails for a woman. This type of interaction helps inform others who actually want to learn and understand, medically and emotionally, what abortion is.

HNN: When a pregnant woman comes to your clinic, how is she treated?

Haeder: She is treated with respect and kindness, no judging allowed! We walk her through a gamete of emotions, and help her realize her true feelings about her pregnancy and that no matter what decision she makes we will be with her holding her hand and helping her be the strong woman she is.

HNN: How do you approach the unique mix of politics and medical services you are forced to deal with?

Haeder: By approaching the subject as we would other medical procedures; after all, it is just that. We also help reduce stigma around this issue by discussing guilt and biological realities. No birth control is 100% effective, which means you can do everything right and still have a birth control failure. This is why choice is always going to be necessary. Doctors reduce a woman ability to control her birth patterns by denying effective forms of birth control like IUDs and tubal ligations which increases a woman’s chance of unexpected pregnancies. We need to help women make good choices and give them the information they need to make them.

HNN: How would you describe the stress, assuming that word is appropriate, of being the only provider of abortion services in North Dakota?

Haeder: It can be overwhelming but I choose to look at it positively—look at how many women need our help! Especially those women who call and ask questions and make a decision to continue a pregnancy once they have all the info or the woman who comes in and is refused abortion services because she just doesn’t seem confident in her decision to be there.

HNN: What will happen to the clinic if any of these laws become enforceable?

Haeder: The clinic may have to shut its doors.

HNN: In a purely medical context, what is a woman defending herself against when she chooses to have an abortion?

Haeder: Medically, abortion is one of the safest medical procedures a woman can receive. There are less complications with abortion than with full term pregnancies.

HNN: Who are your allies?

Haeder: Any person who believes women’s biological function to society does not seem society the decision maker of that function.

HNN: Have people who work at the clinic been threatened?

Haeder: No, fortunately the only threats are vague ‘you will go to hell’ threats in the mail.

HNN: What misconceptions about the clinic are the most difficult to correct?

Haeder: That women don’t understand the implications of their decisions. Few lawmakers take the time to investigate the issue and get facts based on research and science, not on moral arguments. This disconnect leaves us where we are at politically: one side who refuses to educate based on moral grounds and as a result the other side has to provide multiple services in a stressful and impossible set of circumstances. It’s not fair to anyone involved and ironically, the least inconvenienced are the representatives that pass the laws we all must to follow. Women should be given the ability to manage their bodies however they see fit, from plastic surgery to sexual partner to when she has children; human decency demands it, and the law of the United States of America requires it.