The front lines: With Roe gone, Arizonans mobilize to reclaim their rights
Kim Zacsek walked quickly across a hot parking lot in Phoenix, accompanied by an “angel,” whose massive rainbow-colored umbrella shielded them from both the sun and the protesters that surrounded them. They called out to Kim as she passed, asking her not to abort her baby as they waved signs covered in images of disfigured tiny bodies and biblical quotes.
It was a relief for her to enter the air-conditioned waiting room of Planned Parenthood. She was accompanied by her “angel” — a volunteer whose sole duty was to shepherd people across the parking lot and shield them from the barrage of hostility aimed at them.
Just weeks earlier, she sat in the same waiting room before her appointment to get birth control. After a routine test, the doctor walked in and told her news she was unprepared to hear.
“She just sat down and said, ‘So, you’re pregnant,’” Zacsek said, remembering the words spoken to her in October 2018. “I don’t remember what she said after that, but I know very specifically, I said, ‘How do I get rid of it?’ It sounds very callous now, but I didn’t have to think about whether I wanted to be pregnant or not.”
She had just graduated from Arizona State University. The 23-year-old was paying off student loans, living with her mom and starting her career with a part-time internship at a nonprofit organization. She was in no position to care for a baby and, moreover, she didn’t want to.
Her doctor offered her the choice of receiving an abortion, and Zacsek had soon scheduled her next appointments. At that time in Arizona, it was legally required that women undergo an ultrasound and a mandatory 24-hour waiting period before an abortion.
Zacsek said she was devastated that this unplanned pregnancy would be the first time she received an ultrasound and heard the heartbeat of a human growing inside of her.
“I (imagined) before that happened, the process was going to be: find someone, fall in love, get married, get pregnant and have it be this super joyful moment you shared together,” she said.
“And I was alone, and sad, and angry.”
While Planned Parenthood was mandated to perform an ultrasound, the doctor asked Zacsek if she wanted to receive the kind of ultrasound that would emit a heartbeat. She declined.
“The intention behind that is, at least from the legal perspective in Arizona, it’s meant to convince you not to go forward with the abortion — it’s meant to convince you to keep your child,” she said.
Planned Parenthood followed the law, while still allowing their patients like Zacsek a choice in their most private moments.
A right to privacy is exactly what Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that protected women’s constitutional right to an abortion, stood upon for nearly 50 years. On June 24, it was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, giving power to each state to decide whether to allow abortions and how to regulate them. That effectively ended legal abortions in several states and left many others in legal limbo.
States now need to defer to their previously enacted laws. For 13 states that had “trigger” laws that were designed to take effect the moment Roe v. Wade was overturned, the criminalization of abortion immediately occurred — in some states, without exceptions for maternal health, rape or incest.
In Arizona, there is now a debate whether officials will enforce a 158-year-old law that bans abortion except in cases where the pregnant person’s life is at risk, or if a recently passed law that criminalizes abortion after 15 weeks will supersede it.
And it’s unclear how either of those laws will interact with a 2021 law awarding “personhood” to fetuses and fertilized embryos. A federal judge this month blocked that law from going into effect, ruling that it is too vague and conflicts with other state laws.
“It’s draconian,” said Kris Mayes, a Democrat running for attorney general. “None of these laws have any exceptions for a woman who is raped or the victim of incest, which is inhumane and has no place in modern society.”
Jared Keenan, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, pointed to the vagueness of these laws as the reason the ACLU filed an emergency motion to challenge the personhood requirement.
But even as the courts determine which laws can be enforced, the practical effect is what abortion foes want: Abortions have ceased entirely in Arizona following the Supreme Court decision. Julie Gunnigle, a Democrat running for Maricopa County attorney, says the elected prosecutors are purposefully failing to provide certainty to pregnant people and health care providers.
“The people who could provide clarity, which would be your Maricopa County attorney and your attorney general here in our state, are utterly failing — and it’s intentional — to provide that sort of guidance,” she said. “For them, the chaos and the cruelty is the point.”
Gunnigle said a person accused of having an abortion could face first-degree murder charges by an over-zealous prosecutor if the personhood law goes into effect. And that’s why she and Mayes have echoed what 80 or so elected prosecutors nationwide have committed to: refusing to prosecute those who have illegal abortions and the doctors who perform them.
Mayes, who is also a law professor at ASU, said the Arizona Constitution has explicit privacy protections that don’t exist in the U.S. Constitution — protections that she said guarantee the right to abortions.
“Firstly, I don’t believe that I would have the authority to prosecute women and doctors because of our [state] Constitution,” Mayes said. “And secondly, the very notion of prosecuting women and doctors for what is needed health care for many women is outrageous.”
Gunnigle has pledged to prioritize the health of those who can become pregnant and said she will use her discretion as a prosecutor to do so.
Gunnigle said, in the face of her fight to win office this November, there is one thing that makes her hopeful for the future.
“The amount of young people — high school and college students, in particular — who have come up and told me that they weren’t paying attention, and that they are now, has been absolutely overwhelming,” she said. “It’s beautiful to be part of their story.”
In Maricopa County, 29-year-old Catherine Rabon is one of those people.
Rabon arrived at the Arizona State Capitol mere hours after Roe v. Wade was overturned and joined the thousands of people who congregated there to protest. She picked up an ACLU sign, and joined the chants of “my body, my rights, my body, my choice” as temperatures peaked at 104 degrees.
This was the first protest she had attended in over half a decade. She said she felt emboldened to act after this court ruling.
“It’s important to make your voice heard,” Rabon said. “It’s important not just to sit at home.”
As the night wore on, protesters were met with tear gas fired by state troopers in an attempt to disperse the crowd. Dozens of protests took place across the country that night, but the Arizona Department of Public Safety was the only law enforcement agency in the country reported to use tear gas on protesters.
Just over 100 miles away in Tucson, 25-year-old Theo Grovich was also protesting. Grovich, who uses they/them pronouns, attended the Tucson protest with their partner. Their sign, held high above their head for most of the protest, said “my uterus has more regulations than your guns.”
Grovich said they felt compelled to participate in protesting after the overturning of Roe v. Wade because they feel silenced by the Supreme Court’s ruling. At the same time, they have also felt their place in this movement has been overlooked.
“I haven’t found the reproductive rights, pro-choice campaign to be very inclusive,” Grovich said. “I don’t identify as a woman — I am non-binary — but I have a uterus, I menstruate and I could get pregnant. Even though I don’t identify as a woman, I am still affected by these issues.”
Like other non-binary and transgender people who have uteruses, Grovich is often misgendered in relation to reproductive rights. Though they are in no way offended by calling reproductive rights a women’s issue, they would also like to see more representation in this movement.
In a statement released in 2021, Planned Parenthood acknowledged this issue.
“Pregnancy can be an incredibly triggering experience for trans and non-binary people because of its highly gendered status in society. It is our duty to ensure their experience in our health centers is as positive, affirming, and supportive as possible.”
The path forward
Just a few short hours after entering the Planned Parenthood on that October morning, Kim Zacsek was ushered out the back door of the building by angels and into her mom’s car. She was feeling tired, but relieved. For weeks, she had felt stuck, “waiting to not be pregnant,” she said.
She still goes back and forth about whether or not she’d like to be a parent one day, but is grateful to have the choice. Her 66-year-old mom, who drove her to and from her appointment that day, was grateful too. When her mom was 16 in 1969, she fell pregnant by a much older man. As a member of a religious family and in a time when abortion was illegal in the U.S., she felt she had no option but to give birth. She did, and gave that child up for adoption.
“She didn’t have options, she was told what she was going to do,” Zacsek said. “She just didn’t want that for me.”
She is hopeful for a better future, and is encouraged by the people across the country who are taking a stand against the Supreme Court decision.
Phoenix protester Rabon agrees.
“I think what’s made me hopeful is seeing the amount of people that were willing to show up on such short notice to defend rights,” she said, regarding the June 24 protest. “Hearing politicians that know this is a step back for the women’s rights movement devote themselves and recommit themselves to getting those rights back for us, and seeing so many younger people out taking a stand and speaking up for what they believe is right, is what’s making me hopeful.”
Rabon remembers a moment that night where, as counter-protestors made their presence known, individuals in the crowd came forward and opened their radiant rainbow umbrellas — blocking out their signs.
This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.