Amid a Raging Debate, One Woman Chooses Abortion

UPDATED 07/24/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 07/24/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT

Desirée Barber felt as though she had been struck by a thunderbolt A working mother in Edwardsville, Ill., she had been about to fix breakfast for her daughter, Devon, 2½, when she turned on the television and learned that the United States Supreme Court had made its ruling in the case of Webster v. Reproductive Health Services. Individual states, the judges had ruled by a 5-4 vote, could limit a woman's right to an abortion.

For Barber, 27, the news was over-whelming. She and her husband, Harold, 30, had recently decided to choose an abortion rather than have her give birth to a second child. Moreover, the procedure was scheduled to be carried out in five days at Reproductive Health Services, the St. Louis clinic that had been a plaintiff in the abortion case. As she watched the news with Devon, Barber wondered whether her abortion could be performed as planned. "I was in shock," she says. "I could not believe that the Supreme Court would tamper with Roe v. Wade."

Barber's anxiety and confusion were typical following the court's complicated—and controversial—decision. The judges stopped short of overturning Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 case that established a woman's right to an abortion, but upheld a Missouri law that prohibits state employees or any facility that receives state funds from performing abortions. The Missouri law also requires physicians, in cases where the fetus is at least 20 weeks old, to perform tests to determine whether it could survive outside the womb, even though statistics show that a fetus is not viable until several weeks later. Doctors are prohibited from aborting viable fetuses.

Pro-choice advocates were fearful that the ruling would open the way for states to legislate away the right to abortion ("I assume that we still have a constitutional right to cry in public," B.J. Isaacson-Jones, executive director of Reproductive Health Services, told her staff tearfully after learning of the decision), while antiabortion protesters rejoiced at the prospect. Housewife Carol Armstrong, 48, who has repeatedly been arrested when she blocked access to the St. Louis clinic, learned of the ruling from a court bailiff as she awaited a hearing in one of the dozens of cases pending against her for harassing women seeking abortions. Armstrong responded by calling for a pitched political battle to end abortion once and for all. "We plan to escalate everything," she says. "The people sitting on the fence will have to get off of it."

Despite the emotional outcry over the decision, the Supreme Court ruling has had little impact so far. Even in Missouri, a woman can still get a legal abortion, provided she can afford to pay for it. Under the restrictive Missouri law, the privately funded Reproductive Health Services clinic has remained open and has continued to carry out an average of 175 abortions a week.

Sitting in the clinic with her husband, Desirée Barber showed no outward signs of anxiety as she waited to be called by the doctor who would abort her 6-week-old embryo. "An abortion is not a fun thing," she says. "But I am grateful to have it as an option." High school sweethearts, Desirée and Harold were married on Valentine's Day 1981. Five years later, they decided it was time to have a child. Soon afterward they conceived Devon, a blond-haired, blue-eyed beauty. And one child was all the Barbers wanted. "Devon is so perfect," says Harold. "She is all our dreams."

Shortly after Devon's birth, Desirée asked a physician to tie her fallopian tubes. He refused, arguing that she was young and might change her mind. And she did. Last August Desirée volunteered for a Detroit-based surrogate-mother service because, she explains, "children are so precious." Then, after eight months of artificial insemination failed, she quit the program, which required frequent trips to Detroit, in order to take her current job as a hospital data processor. A month later, she became pregnant. "Harold and I should have used birth control," she says. "It was just passion, though I guess that's not an excuse."

The Barbers did not consider the resulting embryo a person. "That is not life," Harold says. "Life is when it comes out kicking and screaming." Adds Desirée: "This does not make us any less loving or caring as parents or human beings. This is a decision we made for the betterment of our lives."

While the Barbers headed to a surgical room, Isaacson-Jones, 37, chain-smoked nervously and peered out a hall window for signs of protesters gathering outside the clinic. Since she took the reins at Reproductive Health Services three years ago, the mother of four has received numerous threatening phone calls, including one with a recording of machine-gun fire in the background. The clinic's branch office was firebombed in June 1986, and RHS is picketed almost daily. For the moment, though, with the temperature pushing 100 degrees, only four demonstrators have gathered near the entrance. Still, Isaacson-Jones does not let down her guard. "It's terrifying," she says, "to be in an environment where people hate you."

In suburban St. Louis two of her nemeses—antiabortion activist Armstrong and her daughter, Laura Dunn, 26—were cooling their heels after being jailed briefly the day before following a pro-life demonstration at two other abortion facilities. While three protesters set up white crosses next to the driveway, Armstrong had slipped inside to hand out pro-life literature to women awaiting abortions. Promptly arrested for trespassing, she was handcuffed and carried to a squad car outside. Laura, who is six months pregnant, was also arrested, after lying down in front of a van to prevent it from entering the center's parking lot.

Half an hour after the procedure, Desirée prepared to leave Reproductive Health Services offices. Earlier, she had ignored the antiabortion signs carried by a small group of picketers. "This is none of their business," she said. "This is between me and God and my husband." Though counselors at the clinic warned her that within a couple of weeks she might experience a kind of postpartum depression, for the time being Desirée was simply happy that she had been given the right to make her own choice. "Time is running out for abortion," she says. "You can't sit back with the secure knowledge that it will always be legal. And that makes me afraid for women, and for America."

—David Grogan, Giovanna Breu and Civia Tamarkin in St. Louis

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