Sarah Haeder

Photo: Ackerman + Gruber

4 of 9
Being There: Sarah Haeder

Red River Women's Clinic is North Dakota's only abortion facility. Every Wednesday—the day the procedure is performed—a dozen or so demonstrators are already huddled around the building when it opens; by early afternoon, up to 100 people might be brandishing signs: Pray to end abortion. Adoption: the gift of life and love. Women do regret abortion.

By the time a patient makes it past the protesters, she's already endured what's likely been a long drive (North Dakota covers more than 69,000 square miles); a state-required counseling session telling her that abortion will "terminate the life of a whole, separate, unique, living human being"; and a mandatory 24-hour waiting period before going ahead with the procedure. But there's an antidote to her mounting anxiety: kind, steadfast Sarah Haeder, a nurse whose gentle voice some patients recognize from the phone (when she explained the state's rules and reassured them that yes, the clinic would still be open when they arrived, and yes, abortion would still be legal in North Dakota). A hug, a smile, the absence of judgment—Haeder offers exactly what's needed.

The demonstrators tell her, "I know your mother didn't raise you to do this work." And they're right. Growing up, Haeder's parents, both devout Christians, planned family vacations around protesting abortion clinics. When she started college, one of the posters on her wall said every third baby dies from choice.

But after Haeder took a women's studies class, her beliefs began to shift. "I wondered if we were really doing the right thing, " she says. In her early 20s, she supported a close friend through an abortion. When she was 26 and in a new relationship, she became pregnant herself and, after intense soul-searching, decided an abortion was best.

She made an appointment at Red River, which she remembered marching in front of as a girl. The care she received was so compassionate that six months later, she quit her marketing and web design job and applied to join the staff as a patient educator. She counseled women about contraception, female anatomy, what happens during an abortion—and listened to them talk about their decision. And when even becoming clinic manager still didn't seem like contribution enough, she enrolled in nursing school.

Haeder's parents were surprisingly supportive when she told them about her career switch—but they never want to hear about it again. An aunt and two uncles found out the day they were protesting outside the clinic and she squeezed past them. Her extended family no longer shows up at Red River, but neither do they speak to her anymore.

The estrangement hurts. And yet it also fuels Haeder's commitment to reproductive rights. "I need to be there to help other women—especially those who had an upbringing like mine," she says. "If I don't, who will?"

—Amanda Arnold