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Obituary: The Hope abortion clinic in Louisiana, 1980-2022

A for-sale sign outside of Hope Medical Group for women went up this month. The clinic stopped providing abortions on Aug. 1 in the wake of a Louisiana law banning nearly all abortions.
Courtesy of Kathaleen Pittman, Hope Medical Group for Women administrator
A for-sale sign outside of Hope Medical Group for women went up this month. The clinic stopped providing abortions on Aug. 1 in the wake of a Louisiana law banning nearly all abortions.

On a recent sweltering afternoon, Kathaleen Pittman stood outside the front door of Hope Medical Group for Women in Shreveport, the abortion clinic where Pittman, 65, is the administrator. The clinic’s sign, which has hung by the door since it opened in 1980, looked faded and scratched, more than a little worse for the wear.

Stephanie Chaffee, 69, the clinic’s second-in-command, pointed to the heavy green door.

“And then the other day we came out and noticed that that sign with the hours of operation had just kind of, like, fallen off the door,” she said.

“The back on it has pretty much melted,” Pittman added, standing under the broiling summer sun. “We haven’t bothered putting it back yet.”

Yet, or more likely, ever. On Aug. 1, Hope Medical Group for Women stopped providing abortions for good. The parking lot is empty. The protestors are gone, and inside, the clinic — usually bustling with some of the 3,000 patients it sees a year — is quiet.

Hope lost a legal battle to stay open after Louisiana’s near-total abortion ban took effect, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade. After 42 years of providing abortions to women in this rural corner of the Deep South — and surviving clinic closures over the last three decades that left the state with just three abortion clinics for over 900,000 women of reproductive age in Louisiana — Hope has essentially closed.

But the phones haven’t stopped ringing. Over the last few weeks, Pittman and Chaffee have been coming in every weekday to pack up boxes, tidy up, cancel magazine subscriptions and other business accounts, and answer the calls, mostly from Louisiana women still hoping to get an abortion.

“Where can I go?” one caller asked on a recent Friday.

“Unfortunately, you know, since they've been banned since Aug. 1 in the entire state, there's not a lot of options for you. You are going to have to travel,” Chaffee told the caller, adding that the closest clinics are in Kansas, Illinois, or Florida.

Pittman wandered through the rooms, stripped mostly to the walls. She has worked here since 1992, and even though she has plans to provide abortions where it remains legal, the loss of this clinic is almost too much to contemplate.

“To have the rooms just emptied out like this, it's really depressing,” Pittman said. “Very sad.”

The origins of Hope

Hope Medical Group opened in June of 1980, under the helm of administrator Robin Rothrock, who was then 29. Rothrock had been living in a Florida beachside town when she was asked to open a clinic in landlocked Shreveport, near the border with Arkansas and Texas. Pittman knows the story so well, she jokes that it’s become a “legend.”

“She had a small child — it was going to be such a huge undertaking for her, such a big move,” Pittman said.

So while sitting at a beachfront bar one day, Rothrock asked God for a sign.

“She went to the ladies room,” Pittman said. “And on the inside of the stall door it said, ‘If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.’ That was her sign.”

But it wouldn’t be easy running an abortion clinic, which has long been the target for anti-abortion protests and violence, in Louisiana. Early on, the clinic windows were shot out, Pittman said, so there aren’t any windows in the building anymore. Someone once threatened the clinic with a sledgehammer.

Like every Louisiana abortion clinic since 1973, Hope has always been independently owned. No Planned Parenthood clinics have ever provided abortions in Louisiana.

“What people do not realize is it is the independent clinics that provide the majority vast majority of abortion care in the United States,” Pittman said.

Pittman joined Hope in 1992, after she saw a job ad in the Shreveport Times. She started as a part-time counselor, and eventually became the administrator after Robin Rothrock became sick with cancer and then passed away in 2010.

Over those years, the majority of Hope’s clients have been Black women from some of the state’s poorest parishes. One 2015 study found half of abortion patients in Louisiana had no education beyond high school, 62% were Black and 73% already had children. The New Orleans Abortion Fund, which provides funding for people seeking abortions, found that in 2021, more than 70% of its clients were Black and more than half were on Medicaid.

Pittman said Hope has seen patients from across the religious and political spectrum.

“We have seen patients here from all walks of life, from the evangelical churches, from the more liberal churches, we've seen relatives of politicians come through,” Pittman said.

One of those women in 2020 was Miranda Slavoff, a 38-year-old mother of five from a conservative Christian family. She’d had complicated deliveries with previous pregnancies and was worried that this one could kill her.

“When I found out I was pregnant, and the only thing that I had that I knew I could turn to was this clinic,” Slavoff told the reporter in 2020, as she waited for an appointment. “So without this clinic being here, then where would that leave a woman that is going through this emotional struggle with a house full of kids?”

Leading the legal battles

Over the years, Hope has been the lead plaintiff is dozens of lawsuits against Louisiana anti-abortion laws under successive Republican and Democratic administrations — so many lawsuits that Pittman has lost count.

“The most overwhelming part comes from the realization that you have the entire state government, with all its resources, having only one objective, and that is to shut you down,” Rothrock told Mother Jones in 2001.

In the late 1990s, former Gov. Mike Foster signed a new law forcing patients to wait 24 hours between state-mandated counseling and actually getting an abortion.

Pittman remembers having to tell women who’d been scheduled for abortions that day that they had to go home. She told Rothrock that if that was the worst anti-abortion politicians could do, the clinic would manage.

“And she had this really sad look on her face,” Pittman said. “And she said, ‘Oh no. This is just the beginning. It's going to get much, much worse.’”

Looking back, Pittman now considers Rothrock's words prophetic.

Hope’s biggest legal victory against a Louisiana anti-abortion law came in 2020. The clinic won a U.S. Supreme Court case over a law requiring abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, a law that legislators claimed — without evidence — would improve women’s health, and that could have closed two or all three remaining abortion clinics in Louisiana (the other two, Women’s Health Care Center in New Orleans and Delta Clinic of Baton Rouge, have generally not been plaintiffs in lawsuits against Louisiana abortion laws).

“For just a few moments, I felt so celebratory … the world seemed brighter, things seemed somehow better,” Pittman said. “But it didn't take long for me to realize, OK, we've not gained anything. We maintained the status quo as far as abortion goes in Louisiana.”

Within a few months of that SCOTUS decision, Texas passed a six-week abortion ban that would send a huge spike in patients over the border to Louisiana clinics, forcing women to wait weeks to get an appointment and creating a wait list at Hope that grew to about 500 people earlier this year.

And then, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority voted to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Chaffee remembers a wave of emotions, despite the fact that a draft of the Supreme Court opinion had been leaked just weeks before.

“I mean, one second, anger. One second, shock. One second, I just couldn't quit crying,” Chaffee said. “It just wasn't real.”

The next Hope clinic

Inside the clinic, the reception area is in disarray as the staff that’s left pack up the room.

The waiting room chairs are stacked, and boxes line one wall nearly to the ceiling. The exam rooms are emptied of everything except the big, expensive exam chairs and ultrasound machines. Those will be packed up last and sent to Hope’s next home.

In the wake of the decision, Hope is relocating to a state where abortion remains legal.

“We're so willing and anxious to try to relocate because I don't particularly want it to end on their terms,” Chaffee said. “I want to go out of this career on my terms.”

“We’re telling ourselves we are entering a new chapter,” Pittman added. “And our surroundings may look a bit different. But a core group of people will be going with us.”

Seven staff members are relocating with the clinic, she said.

Last week, a for-sale sign went up in front of the clinic. But Pittman and Chaffee plan to keep coming to work at the squat, beige brick building for as long as they can.

“I am going to come and park myself in my chair every day,” Pittman said.

She had been thinking of retiring, before the Supreme Court case, but she doesn’t want to be “the person that got shut down.”

Pittman hasn’t publicly said where the clinic will move, but the plan is for Hope to relocate to a state where abortion is legal. When they do finally close the doors in Shreveport, Pittman hopes to open a clinic as close to Louisiana as she can get.

“Particularly women from Louisiana, we want them to know, we're going to be there for you,” Pittman said. “You might have to travel a little further. But we're not giving up on you.”

Rosemary Westwood is the public and reproductive health reporter for WWNO/WRKF. She was previously a freelance writer specializing in gender and reproductive rights, a radio producer, columnist, magazine writer and podcast host.

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