Ms. Tina Welsh has been an activist in the reproductive rights movement since 1970. In the early 1970s, Ms. Welsh took part in the underground transportation of women to states where abortion was legal and set up abortion referral clinics in northeastern Minnesota. Along with Dr. Jane Hodgson, Ms. Welsh was responsible for founding the Women’s Health Center in 1981 and currently serves as its executive director. Ms. Welsh has been involved in class-action lawsuits related to reproductive health, and has testified locally and federally on issues of abortion law and access.
My clinic serves 24 counties in Northern Minnesota, 14 in Wisconsin, and four in Michigan. In 21 years, I’ve never had a local physician at this clinic. I’ve always had to have my physicians fly in. It’s been very, very difficult for us.
Physicians are frightened from the small towns. One of my physicians from a small town, he was totally surrounded. His wife couldn’t get out of the house for four or five days. I can remember having escorts for one of our female physicians to get her on and off planes because the antis had people on the planes and they would try to block her from getting on the plane.
I know for myself, of just being a director and not a physician, that it’s been very, very difficult. I’ve had to have a restraining order for my home. Usually all you do is go down and sign a few papers. Mine went all the way to district court and the reason it did is because they really felt the more expense that I would have to incur, the more likely I was to drop it. And the reason I had to get a restraining order is there was no place I could go. I could not go to the grocery store without people calling me names. There were dead animals on my porch. I would get calls to say if I believed in murdering children, that maybe my children wouldn’t come home from school.
So access to abortion in rural areas is very difficult because the fear method does work. It’s very difficult to get support. I would say about 89% of our referrals come from private physicians and yet the private physicians never stand up publicly to support this agency to say that we’re needed or that their patients use the clinic. They just don’t want to get involved.
I have had some of our physicians come in behind a snowplow and it’s amazing to me. I mean, we can have a blizzard and there can be snow up to our waist and our clients show up, so that means that the staff has to show up. We have never closed the clinic on account of the weather because the patients are always here. We had one woman drive 2,000 miles to receive a medical abortion. She was from Moorhead, 500 miles over, 500 miles back. Five-hundred miles for a checkup, 500 miles back, and there was no place else for her to go.
These women are traveling these distances because there are no other providers. There’s no one else that they can go to. They can’t have it done at the hospitals. They can’t have it done by private physicians. We’re the only choice they have. Money is a real issue for some of these women. Some of our clients don’t even have phones. Some of them don’t have running water.
If we have a bomb threat and clean out the clinic, the staff might not want to come back in, but the women want to stay. One day we had a flood. All of our power went and our patients said, “Would you please try to get a generator so we can stay? We don’t want to go back.” And that’s what we did. We got a generator to set up the power because these women had no intention of leaving. And so the women who come have really already made up their minds. I’ve seen women come in and change their mind about having an abortion, but usually it’s for their own personal reasons, and not something that someone else has told them.
I can remember when the doctor was shot, when we went down to David’s funeral. We all went. It’s a small community. We all know each other. We had to have police protection to go to a funeral. We got on this bus and there were patrolmen on motorcycles on each side of the bus, in front of the bus, behind the bus. When we got to where the funeral was going to be, there were snipers on all the buildings because it was outside. This man had been murdered and we were going to his funeral and you would have thought we were going into battle. We had U.S. Marshals. We had the Highway Patrol, the FBI, you name it, everybody was there.
The physicians in Minnesota who have provided these services are at retirement age. I do not see younger physicians wanting to take over that responsibility. It’s going to go back to what happened before abortion was legal. Women are going to have to travel out of state, out of country. They’re going to have to do their own abortions. There is no help out there to let the general population of medical students or young physicians to know that this really is a crisis. Pretty soon they’re going to have to be dealing with it in the emergency rooms just like the doctors had to before Roe v. Wade. They are going to have women in there who have tried to self-abort and they’re going to have hemorrhaging. They’re going to have dying. It’s going to be no different.
If I had a wish, I would wish that abortion services would be mainstreamed into the hospitals. That every ob/gyn, every family practice resident, would have this in rotation. That women’s health would be respected for all facets of women’s health and that would include reproductive health and abortions. I think that when Roe was won, people thought the battle was over, and I think that we haven’t put enough energy to ensure that it will continue. And that’s very frightening to me.
—Edited transcript from Voices of Choice