'I cannot have this baby': A Memphis abortion clinic scrambles to serve desperate patients ahead of 6-week ban

Joy Evans, a patient educator at Choices, was on the phone Friday morning with a patient who wanted to reschedule a June appointment for early July when her daughter sent a text.

“Did you hear the news?” it read. 

Shortly afterward, the staff gathered in the clinic’s call center. Evans stood with her arm wrapped around a co-worker, she later recalled. Some people were crying. Others were angry. 

“We knew it was coming, but the reality of it did not set in until we actually heard it and saw it from the directors,” Evans said. 

When Evans, 44, returned to her desk, she took a moment to meditate. She didn’t want to become emotional as she spoke to patients. 

She called back the patient who wanted to come in on July 1.

She began each call the same way: “This is Joy with Choices.” She asked the woman on the other end to verify her date of birth. 

Then she recalled saying gently: “I’m sorry to be able to tell you, but unfortunately, we won’t be able to provide your services.”  

“No, why?” the voice on the other end cried.

Evans asked if she had watched the news.

“We didn’t have a timeframe,” Evans recalled telling her. “We were hoping and holding on to July 11th.” 

“I cannot have this baby. I already have four,” the patient said.

Before each call, Evans took a moment to steady herself. 

She dialed a woman who had previously tried to get an appointment at a clinic in Missouri, but had ultimately scheduled with Choices hoping to be seen earlier. At one point, the caller’s partner got on the phone. “Ma’am, I don’t know what to do. I can’t have no babies,” he pleaded, Evans recalled. 

“It broke my heart,” Evans said. “This was a young couple. This was her first pregnancy.”

She gave the caller the number to Hope Clinic for Women, an abortion provider in Granite City, Illinois, nearly 300 miles away. 

“As the day went on, it didn’t get easier,” she said.  

Eventually, the phone lines became so overloaded that the building’s system crashed. The clinic received over 5,000 calls, as many as they usually receive in a week. 

Evans is having trouble sleeping, as are other clinic staff members. 

“We try our best not to take work home with us, but things like this — it’s just,” she paused,  searching for the right words.

Memphis abortion clinic
A list of clinics to refer patients to sits in one of the call centers at Choices.Andrea Morales for NBC News
Memphis abortion clinic
The chair a patient used during recovery at Choices. Andrea Morales for NBC News

Late Saturday morning, the 31-year-old patient sat upright with a blood pressure monitor wrapped around her right arm and a blanket draped across her waist. Her recliner in the recovery room at Choices was equipped with a button that she could push to heat up the seat, to help with the discomfort. 

She was one of 16 women who received abortion care there on Saturday. 

A medical assistant took her temperature and watched her vitals, vigilant for rare complications. The patient planned to go home soon to her five children and try to rest. 

A 25-year-old patient and law student stands in the lobby of Choices following her procedure on Sunday afternoon.
A 25-year-old patient and law student stands in the lobby of Choices following her procedure on Sunday afternoon. Andrea Morales for NBC News

Choices is usually closed on Sundays, but the staff opened the doors at 8:30 a.m. Twenty-three abortions were scheduled, the final ones the clinic plans to offer to pregnant patients after cardiac activity is detected, at about six weeks.

Among the patients who arrived Sunday morning was a 25-year-old studying law at the University of Memphis. Like most of the patients waiting in the lobby, she was Black. She was an undergraduate when she learned that she was pregnant with her now 5-year-old daughter. She did not feel financially ready to have another child.

“I want to have myself set by the time I’m in my mid-30s,” she said.

Her procedure was initially scheduled for early July, but the clinic moved the appointment up after the Supreme Court decision.  

“They shouldn’t take that right away,” she said. “A lot of women are in situations where some might not be financially capable of keeping a child.” 

Memphis abortion clinic
Staff members at Choices are waiting to see how much longer Tennessee will let them continue offering abortion care following the Supreme Court decision.Andrea Morales for NBC News

On Monday, rather than the 20 patients the clinic sees on a typical day, just a handful of appointments are scheduled. Three patients are early enough in their pregnancies that the staff believe they could still receive medication abortions even if the six-week ban goes into effect. 

It’s also unclear when the clock starts on the 30-day window before Tennessee’s trigger ban can be enforced, Pepper said. 

For now, with so much uncertainty, the clinic will schedule only a week in advance. 

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