For many, last Friday’s Supreme Court decision overturning the 50-year-old Roe v. Wade abortion rights decision will be remembered as a significant historical event. That’s certainly true for Poppy Northcutt, a lawyer and activist who was also part of another monumental moment in history – the Apollo 8 mission, which landed an American spacecraft on the moon.
Northcutt was the first female engineer to work in NASA Mission Control. And on Friday she was volunteering at Houston’s Women’s Clinic, helping to escort patients, and coordinating other volunteer escorts for women seeking abortions at the clinic. She talked with Texas Standard about what it was like to be there when news broke that Roe had been overturned. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.
» The Texas Standard wants to hear from you: Share your reaction to the Supreme Court’s abortion decision
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: When you heard the news, what was the first thing that entered your mind?
Poppy Northcutt: Well, I’ve been expecting the news, so I wasn’t really surprised. The only real surprise was that [Texas Attorney General Ken] Paxton wasn’t going to let people have the 30 days that they’re supposed to have in order to shut down.
You’re referring to the Texas trigger law that’s supposed to take effect 30 days after the overturning of Roe versus Wade.
Exactly. And instead, he just immediately said that it would be criminal, instantly.
His theory is that the laws in place in Texas prior to the overturning Roe v. Wade would take effect. Now, on Friday, when you were at the clinic, could you describe what it was like inside the facility when the news came out? Were there people waiting for abortion care? What was the situation like?
Well, I wasn’t actually inside, because the escorts are typically outside. And I had just pulled in. I was just arriving. There were patients inside and they were being turned away. And there were also a lot of patients arriving. It was pandemonium – very distressed people, a lot of tears from the patients and also the staff that work there was having to deal with a very stressful situation, telling people that this life-changing event had just changed again. It’s not an easy decision for people to make, to determine whether you’re going to continue a pregnancy or not. So then, to have that totally disrupted whenever you’re arriving, thinking you’re going to have a procedure and suddenly told ‘no.’
There’s a picture that you shared on Twitter and it has been shared several thousand times. Could you tell us a little bit about that picture, describe it and what sort of reactions you’ve received?
It’s been reposted and shared a thousand times. I mean, it’s very widely distributed. They were putting up the sign outside saying, no more patient services. That clinic has been open and providing services for decades. So it was a very big thing to have the clinic basically being closed down.
I think some people are curious as to why the clinics are going ahead and making this decision to stop providing services, even though the claim that is being made by the attorney general doesn’t have the force of law. This is his opinion. How would you explain that to people who don’t understand why it is that the clinics are deciding at this juncture, we’re going to stop providing procedures at this point?
Well, it’s called criminal exposure. If he prevails, then then you would be exposed to criminal proceedings. And the issue is going to have to be decided by the Texas Supreme Court, which is not exactly a favorable venue for abortion providers. So how many people would be willing to expose themselves to a felony? And also, the medical providers that have licenses could have their license revoked as well.
Let me ask you, as a volunteer escort and coordinator, could you say something about what made you want to be there in that capacity for women seeking an abortion. Because you’re part of the story often doesn’t get a lot of attention in the conversation around abortion.
I do more than that. I mean, you mentioned I’m a lawyer. I’m also a referral lawyer for an organization called Jane’s Due Process, which provides legal services for pregnant teenage girls seeking abortions. And sometimes we have to take them to court. So this started for me at that particular clinic about ten years ago when I was in there to see a girl. And the doc told me that there were protesters now that were swarming women and he was having patients coming in crying because they had been so intimidated by these protesters. And he asked me if I could help. So at that point, I started organizing escorts to help the women.
Well, where do we stand at this point? I know some people may be thinking, what is it that the clinics need at this juncture or are they all closed? If this is something that that you’re passionate about and you want to participate in going forward, what now?
I’m also the head of the local National Organization for Women, which is a long-time activist organization for women. And the ultimate solution to this is political. So for a long time, I’ve been working on voter registration and ‘get out the vote’ efforts. And I think that’s really what people need to focus on. They need to change the people that are in power making these decisions. Otherwise, they’ll just continue making even more and worse decisions than this one. This is just the start of what they want to do.
When you say this is just the start, what are you referring to?
Well, Clarence Thomas, in his concurrence in the opinion, said, ‘oh, doing away with this opens the door. Basically, we should reexamine the decision on gay marriage. We should reexamine access to contraception.’ And they’re not joking when they talk about that.
What advice are you giving people worried about their future in a post row world? What are you what are you telling people who are concerned about health care generally but abortion care more specifically?
I’m telling them they should be worried about it and they should take that concern and move it into action. The old saying, ‘don’t agonize, organize’ is true. Definitely today they need to get involved politically.