Alaska activist describes decades dedicated to anti-abortion work

Her experience having an abortion led her to devote much of her life to preventing them

By: - December 2, 2022 7:00 pm
Groups supporting abortion rights, on the left with pink signs and clothes, and opposing abortion, on the right with blue signs and clothes, mark the closure of the Planned Parenthood clinic in Soldotna. The last day of operation was May 31, 2022. (Photo provided by Bob Bird)

Groups supporting abortion rights, on the left with pink signs and clothes, and opposing abortion, on the right with blue signs and clothes, mark the closure of the Planned Parenthood clinic in Soldotna. The last day of operation was May 31, 2022. (Photo provided by Bob Bird)

Rebecca Hinsberger was raised thinking the right to abortion was a good thing.

“My mother was a very outspoken supporter of abortion,” she said. “So I grew up in that atmosphere: that abortion was perfectly OK and shouldn’t be stigmatized.”

This story is the companion to Private Right Episode 3: The Alaska Rescue Project. Listen here. In Private Right, a podcast from the Alaska Beacon, Alaskans talk about abortion, and its impact on the state and their lives. The stories and voices throughout the series represent different, nuanced perspectives on both sides of the issue. Listen to Episode 1: The ConCon question and Episode 2: Dr. Brown and read their companion stories.
Hinsberger started adulthood this way. She lived in a yoga ashram for six months. She called herself a feminist. When she moved to Alaska by herself, she built a cabin and led meditation sessions.

But, at some point, her views on abortion changed dramatically. And Hinsberger ended up devoting a lot of her life in Alaska to the anti-abortion rights cause. She spent years standing outside a health clinic in the Kenai Peninsula, singing hymns and waving signs that say, “Pray to end abortion.”

“I consider it the murder of a human being, in every circumstance. No exceptions,” she said. “I believe that, biologically, life begins at conception.”

Hinsberger described when she came to have this view: “probably during the abortion that I had, while it was happening.”

‘It was too late’

It was March 1978 at Alaska Regional Hospital.

“As soon as I entered the room and they put me on the table, put my feet in the stirrups, etc., I began to shake,” Hinsberger said.

She said the cause of the shaking was spiritual: “It was like I suddenly became aware that this was a very traumatic thing, that a life was being removed from my body. And I didn’t really consider it a human life before that point. But it was like all of a sudden I instinctively knew that it was a human life.”

Hinsberger called the abortion a tragedy and wished she could’ve reversed it “but it was too late.”

Afterward, she said she was taken into a recovery room with other women who’d just had abortions.

“All the women were sitting on big Kotex pads on an inclined bed and were all facing each other, and I was the only one that wasn’t crying. Everybody in that room was crying. I tried to be brave, you know, and encourage the other women and console them,” Hinsberger said.

She said she never would have agreed to having an abortion if her husband hadn’t insisted on it. When he picked her up, she was upset with him.

“I just rode home in silence kind of fuming that he was the reason I had just gone through that experience,” she said.

Her husband had insisted she get one, though he eventually came to agree with her. And she said the other people she encountered beforehand – the staff at the health clinic and the hospital – supported her getting an abortion.

No one, she said, had talked to her about the other choice. Hinsberger had a lot of guilt, shame and regret about the abortion. And so she’s done everything in her power to make sure no one else has the same regret she does.

Family and upbringing

After her abortion, Hinsberger told her mom about the procedure, “and she told me the story of how I was a very unwelcome pregnancy and had abortion been legal, I probably would have been aborted. So I found out that I barely made it under the wire into this world,” she said.

Though it was a bit shocking for Hinsberger to hear this, she said her mom wasn’t being mean.

“She was just being frank. You know, it was not a time in life that they were ready to have another child and I slipped through the cracks and she became pregnant. My dad was furious and finally he piped down and by the time I was born, they were reconciled that they were having a daughter,” she said.

Hinsberger grew up in Northern California in the mid-1950s and 1960s in what she calls a fairly liberal family. Her parents had artists and politicians over at the house for dinners and parties. She lived in Paris for a year with her mom when she was in high school.

But Hinsberger’s liberal family was not a warm and loving one. She was born about 10 years after her siblings.

“So I was almost like an only child in some ways. And my parents were very busy with business and travel and so I was with a nanny a lot growing up. I traveled sometimes with them, but I wouldn’t say we were a really close family,” she said.

Her mom was an outspoken supporter of abortion rights, Hinsberger said. She donated money to Planned Parenthood and women’s shelters, and even helped build a shelter.

“My mother was kind of a rescuer, you know. Somebody needed help and she considered that kind of help could be getting an abortion, or a woman that was being battered that needed a refuge,” Hinsberger said.

And there were known stories of abortion within her own family.

“My grandfather was married to a woman before he married my grandmother. And his first wife died from a self-inflicted abortion at his insistence. He was the one that said you must abort this child, and she died trying to do it,” Hinsberger said.

When Hinsberger was 13, her dad died in a plane crash. He was flying his own plane. And Hinsberger was sent to boarding school near San Francisco.

She said she was determined not to be the kind of parents she had. She lived with an innate sense of unworthiness into adulthood.

“I did deal with feelings of rejection and devaluation growing up but it started in the womb, and I believe children in the womb can experience the emotions and the feelings … of their parents,” Hinsberger said.

She found healing for that in Alaska – in church – after becoming a Christian.

Going north and finding God

Hinsberger first came to Alaska in 1973 when she was 19. She had gone through one year of college at University of California Santa Cruz and wanted to go north. Before her dad died, he had come to the state for a hunting trip and returned home with pictures. And that planted the seed.

“I had an International Scout and I loaded it up with health foods, enough to last a summer, and drove up here. I got on the ferry at Prince Rupert and went through Southeast Alaska and got off at every town and camped. I came to Haines and I thought, well, I want to go to Kantishna. So I drove from Haines to Kantishna, which is through … the other side of Denali Park. And I was painting. The whole idea was I wanted to paint Alaska and have an art show when I got back to California,” Hinsberger said.

But she broke down in Valdez “and ended up staying in a cabin in Kenny Lake out by Chitina that first winter,” she said. “And my mother was not happy that I had not come back to resume college. But, that’s how I ended up here.”

A couple years later, she bought 2 1/2 acres on the Kenai Peninsula from people she met when she followed a sign for goat milk. And she built a cabin.

At the time Hinsberger was not a religious person.

“Everything about Christianity looked like it was full of death and darkness and devils and blood and misery. So I didn’t want anything to do with Christianity,” she said.

I knew I had left my old life behind and I had started a new life.

– Rebecca Hinsberger

But she ended up befriending a couple and the husband was a Baptist pastor. She started reading the Bible, and eventually realized that, as she said, God is real.

“I knew I had left my old life behind and I had started a new life,” Hinsberger said.

That happened in 1977. She got married in January 1978 and had her abortion that March.

As the years passed, Hinsberger’s family grew – she would eventually have five children. The anti-abortion rights movement was also growing. And Hinsberger became involved in anti-abortion rights work.

She tried to convince her mom that abortion was wrong, and sent her a video called Eclipse of Reason that had an introduction by Charlton Heston. But Hinsberger said her mom called the video fake and contrived.

“And so that was the best I could do to communicate to her that, you know, children exist in the womb. They’re not just non-beings. I mean, she went through four pregnancies; she should know,” Hinsberger said.

They also fought over evolution.

“I said, ‘Nope, I don’t believe that anymore. I believe the evidence is in favor of creation.’ That was about it for her. She just threw her hands in the air and said, ‘Well, you’re really not my daughter anymore.’ So that was kind of the last straw for her. That’s how angry and resistant she was to everything I had come to believe,” Hinsberger said.

Her mom may have not agreed with her, but Hinsberger had a community of people in Alaska who did.

Alaska Rescue Project

Few in the anti-abortion movement Hinsberger was joining would become as well-known in Alaska as Bob Bird of Nikiski, who Hinsberger met in the early 1980s.

Bird was inspired to become active in the movement by Ronald Reagan, “and we thought, naively of course, that the election of Ronald Reagan would end Roe vs. Wade in less than 10 years after it was instituted,” he said.

That didn’t happen, of course. It took close to 50 years before Roe was overturned. Still, Reagan was the push that Bird needed to carry an anti-abortion rights sign in the local Fourth of July parade for the first time. Bird was living in Kenai then and was a hockey coach. He said he was pretty nervous about it.

“I was well known as a hockey coach and to do something like that on my off time, well, not everyone was gonna like it. But I went ahead anyway. And as time went by, I became more and more involved with the pro-life movement,” Bird said.

And he became more confident. He wrote letters to the editor and began picketing regularly outside clinics that provided abortions. He and others would be on the sidewalk holding signs, letting traffic and the public know abortions were being done there. They had leaflets handy, hoping people would take them.

“I did this work also in Anchorage and, at one point, just trying out what we call sidewalk counseling. We would stay on the sidewalk and people would park and we’d say, ‘If you’d like some information on abortion, we’ve got it,’” he said.

The picketing and other anti-abortion activities going on were happening at clinics around the country by people who, like Bird, were inspired by Reagan’s election.

Bird has always been anti-abortion, he said. He grew up Catholic.

“There’s no question; the unborn child is human from the moment of conception,” Bird said.

The year 1989 was particularly intense for anti-abortion activities in Alaska. Bird was part of organizing a series of sit-ins meant to prevent people from entering clinics that, among other services, provided abortions. He had gone to these types of events in the Lower 48 to see how they were done.

“We were blocking abortion clinic doors. We’re having a sit-in. And that way anybody coming in to look for an abortion can’t do it. We had every door blocked,” he said.

“We called it the Alaska Rescue Project.”

Every person they convinced or prevented from getting an abortion he described as a rescue.

“The goal is to save a baby. That’s the goal,” he said.

Bird said people brought guitars and there was a lot of singing – including Catholic and evangelical hymns.

“If somebody tries to get into the clinic by walking through a large phalanx of people, the idea was to simply put your head down and bring up your knees and be totally submissive. Don’t grapple with anybody. If they step on you, they step on you. And in almost all cases though – in fact I’m sure in every case – after taking a step or two to try to unlock the doors, the first person on hand, who was an employee, would retreat and wait for the police to open things up,” he said.

You might be manhandled. You’re certainly going to be misrepresented by the media. And you're going to be fingerprinted. You will be arrested. You’ll probably go to trial. But you've got to be absolutely convinced that A) that this can save somebody's life and B) that you're going to remain in self control and be prayerful and submissive.

– Bob Bird

Bird said they communicated with the police ahead of time.

“They understood what we were doing. And when they said, ‘Look, you have to leave right now. We’ll start making arrests,’ they started making arrests,” he said.

Bird had warned people participating in the sit-in of this.

“You might be manhandled. You’re certainly going to be misrepresented by the media. And you’re going to be fingerprinted. You will be arrested. You’ll probably go to trial. But you’ve got to be absolutely convinced that A) that this can save somebody’s life and B) that you’re going to remain in self control and be prayerful and submissive,” Bird said.

During the first sit-in at Alaska Women’s Health on Feb. 13, 1989, the police arrested about 90 people for trespassing on clinic property, a misdemeanor that carried a maximum one-year jail term. A newspaper article at the time reported that the “police agreed to cite and release trespassers as long as the protestors gave their names, promised to appear in court, and agreed not to return to the clinic when they were released.”

Bird said he was arrested five times total – three times in the Lower 48 and twice in Alaska. In one arrest, he was sentenced to 30 days with 29 suspended, and spent one day in jail at Wildwood Correctional Complex.

To Bird, getting arrested was worth it.

“What’s one human life worth? Let alone, you know, who knows what benefits would follow as a result of this if there were more than one human life? And so, pro-lifers understand there’s more than this life on Earth,” he said.

There were five Alaska Rescue Project events that winter and spring. Bird said the sit-ins worked. Bird said five rescues came from the Alaska Rescue Project.

Hinsberger was there as well. She recalled one of the events.

“After about three or four hours, the bus shows up,” she said. “We were arrested and taken down to the police station, and then let go but we all had court dates. Well, we did it again, pretty much a repeat of the same thing.”

In total, Hinsberger said she was arrested three times. One time, when she had a small baby, she “didn’t want to get arrested because I didn’t want to be put in jail or something where I couldn’t nurse her.”

She stayed on the sidewalk instead of in front of the clinic door. The group gathered at the door had been cordoned off with security tape. But Bird asked Hinsberger to distract a police officer while another woman joined the group blocking the entrance.

So Hinsberger walked over to the police officer and asked him questions about saving lives and his conscience.

“While I had him engaged in that he saw this 70-year-old woman run across the parking lot, duck under the orange tape and joined the group. And he looked at me and he looked at her and he looked back at me and said, ‘Ah ha, I see what you were doing.’ And he got angry and he grabbed me by the wrist and swung me around and slapped the handcuffs on,” she said.

The police put Hinsberger on the bus with the others who had been arrested, “and then we got whisked and processed again at the police station and got our court dates. Well, finally when we went to court, most of us were acquitted or got community service.”

Hinsberger did her community service at a crisis pregnancy center aimed at preventing abortions, which suited her just fine.

The Alaska Rescue Project – the organized sit-ins, the blockades of clinics – were part of Operation Rescue, an anti-abortion movement that started in the mid-1980s and was going on around the country.

In 1994, the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act changed everything for abortion protesters. It made physically obstructing the entrance to a clinic a federal crime. The same applies with a sit-in that would interfere with clinic workers or women seeking abortions or other reproductive health services.

Her work continues

Rebecca Hinsberger, right, stands outside of the Planned Parenthood clinic in Soldotna at the time of its closure earlier this year. (Photo provided by Bob Bird)
Rebecca Hinsberger, right, stands outside of the Planned Parenthood clinic in Soldotna at the time of its closure earlier this year. (Photo provided by Bob Bird)

Hinsberger never stopped protesting in the part of the state near Kasilof, where she lives and runs a bed and breakfast. For years, on and off, she stood – oftentimes alone – on the sidewalk outside of Dr. Michael Merrick’s practice in Kenai. Merrick died Nov. 2 and his obituary said he was “the sole abortion provider on the Kenai Peninsula” for more than 30 years. It also said he “proudly helped start Planned Parenthood” in the area.

Hinsberger remembers what she and Bird did before the Planned Parenthood opened in Soldotna.

“When they held the fundraising dinners at a local restaurant to start the Planned Parenthood here, we’d be out there with a group with (a) little baby casket out there – red roses on it, white satin and a baby doll inside the casket kind of propped up so that anybody driving into the parking lot for the fundraising dinners would see it,” she said.

Hinsberger also led 40 Days for Life on the sidewalk outside the Planned Parenthood. 40 Days for Life was a coordinated 40-day campaign to end abortion locally, but Hinsberger said she was out there all the time. She didn’t limit it to 40 days. She would stand holding pre-printed signs that say, “Pray to end abortion,” singing but not interfering, she said.

Hinseberger also handed out gift bags to anybody who might be “feeling alone and approaching Planned Parenthood for answers,” she said.

Inside these bags were anti-abortion information, a list of various community agencies and resources, like shelters, clothing, food and teen mother counseling. It also had things like hand sanitizer, candy bars and flashlights.

“I wrapped it up with bows and I offered it to anybody going in. I turned around and said, ‘I have a gift for you,’ and more often than not they’d walk over to me and collect it. And what happened after that is anybody’s guess,” she said.

The Planned Parenthood in Soldotna, which didn’t provide abortions, closed this past May.

Hinsberger continues to be active in the anti-abortion movement and is on the Alaska Right to Life board.

This winter, she plans to go door-to-door to educate neighborhoods and communities about a clinic in Kenai called ABC Life Choices.

The faith-based nonprofit offers free pregnancy tests, some ultrasounds, STI testing and treatment, and information about pregnancy. The clinic will not provide abortion referrals. It offers classes and education focusing on prenatal, childbirth, parenting, life skills and sexual health.

There’s a care closet with items like diapers, wipes, baby clothes, and winter gear. For things that ABC can’t provide, like housing, staff will connect clients to other resources and services in the community. ABC is funded through private donations.

“I have found that probably less than half of the people I talked to even know it exists. They’re right on Frontage Road with a big lighted sign and everything, but most people don’t even know they’re there,” she said.

Some of the same services are provided at about nine pregnancy resource centers around Alaska.

Hinsberger plans to knock on doors and talk to people. If no one answers, she’ll leave a door hanger. She wants to start with the neighborhood in Soldotna near the hospital and library, where a lot of families live. She thinks she’ll visit about 500 houses by spring.

Wishing someone had told her

For Hinsberger, it’s about education: hearing the things no one told her before she got an abortion.

“So I try to communicate, ‘Hey, you don’t have to choose this. This is your other opportunity here. And here’s why it’s a better choice.’ Then say, ‘You will never outlive the regret of your abortion.’”

Hinsberger believes people who’ve had abortions but don’t have regret are in denial.

“I’ve seen, you know, on the television– I’ve seen people that stand up and say, ‘I’m proud of my abortion. Yay, yay, yay. Nobody’s going to talk me out of it.’ But I really truly believe those women are coming from a place of denial, covering up their true emotions by trying to justify it. Like you know, ‘I have support. I believe in myself and my own destiny and I did the right thing for myself and nobody is going to put guilt on me.’ But it’s defense and denial that– there really is a lot of pain behind that,” she said.

All those years of standing outside clinics that provide abortions, waving signs, handing out gift bags – Hinsberger is wanting to prevent a younger version of herself from making the mistake she made. Hinsberger wants to ensure they know about the other choice.

“So I’m trying to put the truth out there. They may still decide to get an abortion but I want the woman going in there to know what she’s doing and not be blindsided.”

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Lisa Phu
Lisa Phu

Lisa Phu covers justice, education, and culture for the Alaska Beacon. Previously, she spent eight years as an award-winning journalist, reporting for the Juneau Empire, KTOO Public Media, KSTK, and Wrangell Sentinel. She's also been Public Information Officer for the City and Borough of Juneau, lead facilitator for StoryCorps Alaska based in Utqiagvik, and a teacher in Tanzania and Bhutan. Originally from New York, Lisa is a first generation Chinese American and a mom of two young daughters. She can be contacted at [email protected]

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