Clinics scramble to divert patients as states ban abortion

  • Diane Derzis, owner of the Jackson Women's Health Organization clinic in Jackson, Miss., pauses as she gathers her thoughts at a news conference on her reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade Friday. The clinic is the only facility that performs abortions in the state. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)

They call her, desperate, scared and often broke. Some are rape and domestic violence victims. Others are new mothers, still breastfeeding infants. Another pregnancy so soon, they say, is something they just can’t handle.

“Heart wrenching,” said Angela Huntington, an abortion navigator for Planned Parenthood in Missouri, who is helping callers reschedule canceled abortion appointments — sometimes hundreds of miles away from their homes — after the fall of Roe v. Wade.

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The ruling has set off a travel scramble across the country, with a growing number of states mostly banning the procedure. Clinics operators are moving, doctors are counseling crying patients, donations are pouring into nonprofits and one group is dispatching vans to administer abortion pills. Some cities — including Kansas City and St. Louis — also are drafting plans to help with the travel logistics.

Huntington has been preparing for this moment for months. Even before the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last week to end constitutional protection for abortion, the procedure had become difficult to nearly impossible to obtain in states such as Texas, Oklahoma and Missouri.

“Basically,” she said, they were “living in a post Roe era.”

Now a fresh round of laws are taking effect. Staff at a clinic in Nashville were flooded with calls from patients trying to understand the new legal landscape, after a federal court on Tuesday allowed the state’s ban on abortion as early as six weeks into pregnancy to take effect.

In Arkansas, some patients already were headed to a Planned Parenthood clinic in Little Rock to obtain medication-induced abortions when the decision came down last week. Upon arriving, they were sent home.

“I cannot believe this is happening today,” they told Huntington.

Huntington and others try to help move their appointments to clinics in Kansas, Illinois and even Colorado. If a patient is broke but has access to a reliable car, Huntington can offer gas cards. She works with nonprofits to arrange commercial flights and lodging. In recent weeks, she said, a group called Elevated Access has enlisted volunteer light aircraft pilots to transport patients to abortion appointments, sometimes departing from small rural airstrips.

“It’s been hell,” said Dr. Jeanne Corwin, a gynecologist who works at a clinic in Dayton, Ohio, where most patients are being turned away after new state rules took effect banning abortions when a heartbeat can be detected. Many are being sent over the border to Indiana and the clinic’s sister site in Indianapolis, where Corwin also works.

She said they are desperate, including a patient in her 30s, recently diagnosed with advanced melanoma and in her first trimester.

“She has to end her pregnancy” so she can begin chemotherapy, and is going to Indiana, Corwin said, adding that patients who are beyond Indiana’s 14-week cutoff are being sent to Illinois or Michigan.

Time also may be short for women diverted to Indiana because lawmakers there are expected to re-consider the state’s abortion laws at a special session starting July 6.

The situation is particularly difficult for immigrants, some of whom lack the documentation to take a commercial flights, said Lupe Rodríguez, executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice.

“They’re simply not able to go anywhere to get this care,” she said, adding that the ruling has also created widespread confusion, with pregnant women fearful they could face criminal prosecution. “There’s a lot of misinformation.”

In Missouri, where abortions were already severely restricted, a new ban took effect Friday that only allows the procedure in “cases of medical emergency.” Kansas City leaders are weighing a $300 stipend to help employees travel for an abortion. And across the state, in St. Louis, elected officials are considering another measure that would use $1 million in federal coronavirus relief funds to pay for transportation, lodging and other logistical support for abortion seekers.

“It’s kind of an American nightmare that we’re scrambling to find health care like this,” said St. Louis Alderwoman Annie Rice, adding that she anticipated the measure would pass by mid-July. If that happens, abortion opponents have vowed to ask the state’s attorney general to sue.

Just the Pill, a nonprofit health organization that helps patients obtain abortion pills, is hitting the road. It has purchased two vans — one medication van and another where surgical abortions will be done — with plans to begin operating those vans by mid- to-late-July in Colorado. The idea is to be close to the borders of states that have restricted or outlawed abortion.

Mississippi’s only abortion clinic, which is nicknamed the Pink House because of its bright pink paint job, is facing closure if it loses its lawsuit that seeks to block a state law that makes most abortions illegal as of July 7.

“We’re not giving up,” said the clinic’s owner, Diane Derzis, who plans to open a new abortion clinic called the Pink House West early next month in Las Cruces, New Mexico. “Women have always had abortions, no matter what it took.”

Following the ruling, donations have been pouring in to abortion funds like South Dakota Access for Every Woman. Normally the group would get seven to 10 donations per month. Now they are getting 10 to 20 a day, said Evelyn Griesse, a co-founder of the group. The money goes straight to the abortion providers.

“If the woman says she’s using some of her own personal money to pay for the abortion, we say use that money to do your travel expenses,” Griesse said.

Some states are rolling out the welcome mat. Connecticut’s governor has a new campaign ad that touts the state’s laws protecting abortion rights for women. They include a soon-to-take-effect law that protects medical providers and patients from out-of-state legal actions.

“Women deserve the right to make their own decisions about their health care,” Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat running for reelection in November, said in the 30-second commercial released over the weekend.

In Pennsylvania, where state law still allows abortions in the first 24 weeks of pregnancy, call volume has increased by tenfold and the number of patients has tripled at Allegheny Reproductive Health Center in Pittsburgh.

“Patients are desperate and scared,” said the clinic’s CEO, Dr. Sheila Ramgopal, adding that it is plunging money into travel costs to help out-of-state patients — most of whom come from Ohio — afford the trip.

Pennsylvania abortion seekers also could be forced to travel, said Susan Frietsche, a staff attorney for the Women’s Law Project, which represents abortion clinics in the state.

“Not because the law here has changed, but you won’t be able to find an appointment soon,” she said. “This is such a time-sensitive service.”

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