Despite her gold statement necklace, cat-eye glasses, corner office, and date with the Supreme Court, Northrup says she is “fundamentally a shy person.” The fact that there is a direct line between her and millions of women’s abilities to control their own bodies is stressful, she acknowledges: “100%.” How does she handle it? “It’s actually a churchy concept, which is that we are stewards for an institution,” she says. “I take very seriously, and with great gratitude, the fact that I am able to be in this role as a steward for this institution at this time, and someday it will be someone else who will take the mantle from there.”
But for now, the mantle is heavy around her shoulders—and Tu’s and Rikelman’s. Two weeks before their Supreme Court date, the three of them sat in a conference room at the center for a press conference. An all-women camera crew collected footage for a documentary on the center. Northup introduces everyone, and then invites the Hope Medical Group administrator, Kathaleen Pittman, to speak from Shreveport via conference call. “With the increase in the anti-abortion rhetoric, we’ve seen an increase in protest activity,” she says in a buttery Louisiana accent. “Our concern for our patients, our staff, our physicians, it’s very real…. There is very little we can do to protect ourselves.”
For women in Louisiana, access is nearly impossible. And for physicians, providing abortion access is dangerous. “I get to go to work every day in the relative comfort of an office here in New York,” Tu says. “I know they have to go into a building where they’ve had to brick up all the windows because they’ve been the subject of Molotov cocktails, bomb threats, acid attacks. A man wielding a sledgehammer once came into the clinic.” Rikelman isn’t afraid for her own or her family’s lives, she says, but she’s afraid for the Louisiana workers. “People are protesting at their children’s school or outside their house,” she says. “They really have to feel for their children’s safety.” But providers continue on out of concern for their patients—Pittman told journalists gathered for the press briefing that once, the clinic suffered an acid attack and tried to close for the day because of acid fumes. Even though poison hung in the air, “not a single woman wanted to reschedule,” she says.
The Hope doctors, who serve as plaintiffs in the case, are labeled in the court filings as John Does for their protection. If the Supreme Court rules against the center, all but one of the providers will be out of work. The Hope clinic will likely close, and abortion will be out of reach for over one million women. “Roe becomes meaningless if there is no access to abortion,” Pittman said at the briefing. “These women that we work with now do not have the means to travel, to fly out of state…they have every right to receive their care here in Louisiana.”
Rikelman and Tu have Supreme Court precedent on their side. They have put years of work into this case. They have given their lives to it. They are ready. But the thing is, even an abortion-rights win in the Supreme Court this spring doesn’t assure a happy ending. Even though the Texas admitting-privileges law was struck down by the Supreme Court in Whole Woman’s Health, by that time half the clinics in the state had already closed. Years after that victory, the majority of the Texas clinics that closed haven’t reopened. Even when abortion rights win, anti-abortion lawmakers get consolation prizes. “We believe that we should win this case,” Northup says. “But we’re not folks that say, ‘Well if we lose the case, it’s game over.’”
“We are not going back,” Northup frequently says when she discusses abortion law. She means that no matter what happens with Hope, or with the Women’s Health Protection Act, or even with Roe, “We’re not going to go back to women not being able to control their own reproductive health care.”
But it’s hard not to feel—with the waiting periods, the threat of the shifting Supreme Court, and the seeming infinity of new TRAP laws—that we haven’t lost ground already. Women around the country will have to put their hopes on Julie Rikelman, on T.J. Tu, on Nancy Northup, and on the anonymous, endangered physicians testifying in their case. “I care,” they will remind themselves, as arguments begin. “I have expertise,” they will think, as they set the course for the health and well-being of millions of women.
And as Northrup says, they will remind themselves, “Women are not going back.”
Jenny Singer is a staff writer for Glamour.