Anti-Abortion Activists Demand Answers After Woman’s Death
Local and national anti-abortion activist groups are calling for an investigation into the West Alabama Women's Center following the death of a woman who visited the clinic earlier this year.
Because of privacy laws surrounding medical patients and procedures, publicly released information on the death is extremely scarce.
Capt. Jack Kennedy, the commander of the multi-agency Violent Crimes Unit, said he could confirm that in May of this year, a woman died shortly after receiving care at the WAWC.
He did not release the victim's identity or details of her death.
"The Tuscaloosa Violent Crimes Unit investigation to date has not found any evidence of a criminal act associated with this death," Kennedy said. "The incident has been reported to the Alabama Board of Medical Examiners who currently have this matter under investigation."
Cheryl Sullenger wrote about the case on Aug. 7. Her article was published online for Operation Rescue, a national anti-abortion nonprofit of which she is senior vice president.
The story was picked up by another anti-abortion news site called LifeNews.com, though Sullenger's headline was changed to accuse the clinic of botching an abortion and causing the woman's death.
"She seemed to be not doing too well when she left that clinic, according to the people that took photos and that I interviewed," Sullenger told the Tuscaloosa Thread.
The woman left the WAWC and was reportedly hospitalized shortly thereafter.
"The information that we had was that when she got to the hospital, she didn't have a pulse," Sullenger said.
The Operation Rescue team has filed a general autopsy request using the details they had about the date of the woman's death, though they did not have any identifying information other than that a woman died on May 7 after receiving care at the clinic.
"We're waiting for the autopsy report to find out more about what happened there, but it does raise a lot of questions about what's going on out there, at the abortion clinic," Sullenger said. "It is possible that she did have a botched abortion or that she had some complications from an abortion there."
Robin Marty, a spokesperson for West Alabama Women's Center, was unable to comment about the specific case, citing privacy protections provided by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). She instead affirmed that the clinic is committed to upholding its mission to provide the "highest standard of care" for its patients and will continue working to keep their services accessible and private for their patients' sake.
However, according to Sullenger, her sources were able to communicate with members of the clinic's staff.
"There were actually several of the clinic workers that came out and told one of the pro-life activists about that incident and how bad they felt for the family," Sullenger said.
Sullenger said relationships between anti-abortion activists and clinic staff members are possible but can be abnormal. She mentioned that the source for her story said he spoke to "three different people who work at the clinic" whose stories about the incident all matched.
"There's guardedness in them. Sometimes they'll give us information and then sometimes they'll regret that later," Sullenger said. "Because they're not really supposed to talk to us most of the time."
Relationships such as these are often discouraged, and the barrier that stands between protestors and patients nationwide is a network of volunteers called Clinic Defenders. Defenders escort people from their vehicles to facility doors and keep protestors at bay when in the presence of patients.
On Facebook, The West Alabama Clinic Defenders' mission statement reads that they are "a group of community members based in Tuscaloosa, Alabama working to ensure all people in West Alabama have safe access to comprehensive reproductive healthcare options."
JJ Johnson is a former Clinic Defender who volunteered at the WAWC until the Yellowhammer Fund took over operations in May.
After the first statewide Shelter in Place order was implemented in April, Johnson was the only Defender to continue working at the WAWC but took on more administrative tasks including taking patients' temperatures and handling initial paperwork to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. She was dismissed from her duties after the ownership exchange was finalized but still stops by a few times a week to check on the environment outside the facility.
While Defender groups in other states have resumed operations at their respective clinics, Johnson is unsure of why the WAWC has not asked for the Defenders to return.
"I've been trying to bridge ever since they told me not to come back," Johnson said. "I do go and try to find cleaning supplies that the clinic is finding hard to get. So I'll go and when I have what I can get, I'll take it there and they reimburse me for it. I'm trying to keep a bridge between us and them because I just hope that -- anyway, it's exhausting and exasperating."
Several anti-abortion groups are planning to come to Tuscaloosa Saturday to demand an investigation into the clinic and the woman's death. Speakers at the press conference they plan tentatively include State Sen. Gerald Allen, Ashley Wright of Students for Life of America, Sarah Howell of the Birmingham-based CEC For Life, local activist Ellen Hermann and more.
Johnson plans to be at the WAWC during the press conference on Saturday with a fellow former Defender who is a law student at the University of Alabama. They will attempt to attend the press conference as "legal observers," but worry about the logistics of how the conference can legally take place within the limitations set for protestors. She mentioned that protestors have strict rules regarding how many people are allowed in their "free speech zone," which is a segment of the WAWC parking lot where non-patients are allowed to gather.
Marty commented that there will not be any increase in communication from the clinic at Saturday's press conference. She said the planned press conference "isn't different than most days" at the clinic, and said the WAWC will ensure that its staff operates as it normally does when protestors are present.