Awaiting court action on 6-week ban, Georgia abortion clinics turn patients away

Feminist Women’s Health Center Operations Manager and security head Tracii Wesley prepares to greet patients outside the clinic. Jess Mador/WABE
Feminist Women’s Health Center Operations Manager and security head Tracii Wesley prepares to greet patients outside the clinic. (Jess Mador/WABE)

The Georgia Supreme Court is preparing to take up a lawsuit challenging the state’s six-week abortion ban in March. After the law known as House Bill 481 took effect last fall, clinics that provide abortion have had to adjust to the restrictions. 

In this story, we spend time with some Atlanta abortion providers and patients caught at the center of Georgia’s battle over abortion access.

In her tiny office at Feminist Women’s Health Center in DeKalb County, Tracii Wesley sits at a computer.

“Today is a clinic day, a surgical abortion, medical, pill abortion day,” she said.  

She pulls up the day’s patient schedule. 

The sun isn’t even up yet. 

“I’m printing the list for today of how many patients we have. I bet they got at least 40 folks on here, if not more,” said Wesley. 

This clinic provides abortion three days per week. Fridays and Saturdays are the busiest. 

“Be advised. We have three on standby.”  

The radio clipped to Wesley’s yellow safety vest crackles with the voice of a security guard stationed outside the brick building in the parking lot. 

“Security has advised me we’ve got three patients already waiting in the parking lot. So, I’m going to head upstairs and start getting them up and getting them in,” Wesley said.

Security is Wesley’s number-one concern. 

She’s a retired Gwinnett County police officer who served 24 years in the department. Before that, she served in the military for a decade.

Her experience comes in handy working at the clinic because abortion days always attract a handful of anti-abortion protesters. It’s always the same few people.

The staff at the clinic are on a first-name basis with the protesters. 

They stand on the curb with a speaker as patient cars enter and leave the lot. 

“We’ve got to take the power of God into our own hands. And he has worked throughout the course of human history,” a protester said. “It never ends well for people that do this, and it won’t end well for you if you continue where you’re going. Trust Christ, ma’am.”

Wesley trains her security team to be vigilant, to watch for suspicious activity and keep protesters off the property and away from patients.

“The biggest thing is do not engage with them because they’re going to say things and are going to poke the bear,” she said. “They’re going to try to get a response out of you.”

She stays mostly at the clinic entrance at the top of a small hill while security guards monitor the parking lot down below. 

A clipboard is always in hand. 

“Good morning. Good morning. How are you all this morning? Do you have an appointment,” she said to patients approaching the clinic. 

“Can I see your ID, too?”

After Wesley’s inital check-in outside, the patients go inside to fully register at the front desk.  

 “They do bloodwork. They do an ultrasound,” she said. “And it’s during the ultrasound, they find out how far along they actually are.”

How far along in their pregnancies. Georgia’s cutoff is about six weeks.

Since the law has been in effect, front office supervisor Antoinette, who doesn’t want to give her last name out of concern for her safety, said they turn away an average of five to seven patients every day. 

“We can’t care for people who are over six weeks. Most women don’t know that they’re six weeks and or pregnant in the first place,” she said. “And sometimes patients aren’t aware of the law.”

Those who are too far along get counseling and information about abortion access in nearby states.  

The closest option is in Greenville, South Carolina. Others are in North Carolina, and Florida. 

A patient checks in for an abortion appointment at Feminist Women’s Health Center in Atlanta. Jess Mador/WABE
A patient checks in for an abortion appointment at Feminist Women’s Health Center in Atlanta. (Jess Mador/WABE)

“There’s a lot of Kleenex that we go through every week,” said Wesley. “Usually by the time they come outside, if I see them with their white paper, I know they were turned away.”  

“Go ahead,” the security guard said.  

“Alright, I got room for two cars, four people,” Wesley said.  

Every surgical abortion patient is required to come with a driver, who also picks them up after the procedure.

“What type of vehicle did you drive today? What color?”  

This continues all day. 

Wesley checks in patients and their drivers one by one. 

The cars mostly have Georgia plates, but other states, too — Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana, Ohio. 

And Mississippi. That’s where the next patient is from. 

To get to the clinic, she said she and her friend drove overnight to Georgia.   

“So we had to leave like around 12, 12:30, no later than 1 a.m.”

Mississippi enacted a so-called trigger law after the U.S. Supreme Court decision last summer overturning Roe v. Wade. Now, abortion is allowed only when a woman’s life is in danger or in cases of rape reported to law enforcement.

The Mississippi patient said she’s relieved she was able to travel to Atlanta for an abortion, but wishes she didn’t have to.

She said she worries for patients who are unable to make the trip out of state. 

“I feel like it should be offered closer there because some people don’t have a way to drive five hours or eight hours. You know, you just don’t never know what somebody’s situation is.” 

“I’ve got room for two cars, four people,” Wesley said, checking in more patients and drivers.

“Two cars, four people on their way up.” 

“Good copy. I’ll be at the top of the hill.”  

Wesley said she loves what she does at Feminist Women’s Health Center. 

“It’s more than just a job for me. I’m very passionate about what I do here,” she said, “because I’m a woman, and it affects me like it affects everybody else.”   

She said she tries to comfort abortion patients and make their visits a little easier.  

Wesley is quick to offer patients and drivers a kind word. 

“I can see how it hits them in their spirit and I see the tears welling up in their eyes,” Wesley said. “You’re going to be all right. I said God is a forgiving God. Please, know this one incident is not going to determine the trajectory of the rest of your life. Things happen. But from this, take the lesson. And that’s it, and I ask them if I can give them a hug.”  

Since the six-week ban took effect, Wesley said it’s been tough turning so many patients away. 

Now, the Georgia Supreme Court is expected to take up a lawsuit challenging the ban this spring.