The challenge of finding abortion care when laws can change day to day
At the Kentucky Health Justice Network, calls have doubled over the past several months – up to 50 a week. The organization advocates for abortion access and provides financial support and guidance to people seeking care.
Director Erin Smith said lately, the organization has been focused on connecting people with clinics in surrounding states. That’s because after weeks of legal back and forth, Kentucky reinstated its abortion ban in August.
“Each call is a new assessment,” they said. “Sometimes it’s like, ‘I need money for day care or for child care services so I can go to my appointment in [whichever] state.’”
Kentucky is now one of more than a dozen states that have abortion bans in place. Another eight states are going through what Kentucky did over the summer, including the Midwest states of Iowa, Michigan, Indiana and Ohio. Abortion bans in those states are on hold due to legal challenges.
“We are losing our entire region. And for Kentucky, that is terrifying,” Smith said.
States with abortion bans on hold are starting up services again
It’s been several months since Roe v. Wade was overturned, setting off a cascade of abortion restrictions across conservative states. With so many states’ abortion laws in legal limbo, the abortion landscape changes day to day, causing confusion for providers and patients while demand for services remains high.
“I think women are very confused by the ‘on again off again’ situation where states are opening and then closing and then opening again. It's very hard to keep track,” said a spokesperson for Women’s Med, which operates clinics in both Indiana and Ohio. The spokesperson asked Side Effects Public Media not to use her name because she fears threats to her personal safety.
The clinics will continue offering both medication and surgical abortions, she said, as long as it’s allowed.
While it’s taken some time for people to realize the services are available again, Women’s Med has already seen a steady uptick in patients coming in from other states. Not surprisingly, this includes Kentucky and Tennessee, where abortion is almost entirely banned.
Women’s Med’s Indianapolis location has even had some patients recently come from Illinois, where abortion rights are protected, but high demand due to an influx of patients from other states has led to longer wait times.
All eyes are on Illinois as neighboring states ‘go dark’ on abortion
Even before Roe was overturned, Illinois was a destination people for thousands of people seeking abortion services from other states. About 20 percent of the more than 46,000 abortions in Illinois in 2020 were provided to people from outside of the state, with Missouri and Indiana at the top of the list, according to data from the state’s department of health.
While in prior years Illinois provided abortions to people from 10 to 15 states, now people are coming in from at least 28 other states, said Dr. Amy Whitaker, chief medical officer at Planned Parenthood of Illinois.
“We expect to see thousands upon thousands more patients as more neighboring states and states who relied on those neighboring states go dark,” Whitaker said.
Planned Parenthood of Illinois runs 17 health centers across the state. The group has been increasing staff and resources to meet the need. All of its health centers provide medication abortion, and seven provide abortion procedures. The organization’s Champaign Health Center added abortion procedures in August, Whitaker said.
“They are having to travel tens of hours sometimes to have a procedure that often lasts about five minutes,” Whitaker said. “And it's especially upsetting of a burden when we know that in their very states just a few months ago, they were able to get it. Nothing has changed about the medical aspects of abortion. It’s just about where you live.”
The clinics offer telehealth to prescribe abortion medication to eligible patients, who must physically be in Illinois for the appointment and have the medication shipped to an Illinois address.
Planned Parenthood also has plans to set up a mobile abortion clinic in Southern Illinois, according to reporting by NPR.
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Donations and demand increasing for abortion funds
Back when abortion was still legal in Kentucky, Smith of the Kentucky Health Justice Network said their group was getting lots of calls from people trying to get to one of the two Kentucky clinics offering abortion services at the time, both in Louisville.
More recently, the group is fielding more calls from people in other states, including Texas and Oklahoma, hoping to get to Illinois.
The need to travel both increases costs and creates logistical challenges.
Since Roe fell, both donations and demand have increased for abortion funds across the U.S.
That’s also been the case for the Kentucky Health Justice Network. Smith said people have cashed in part of their retirement accounts and donated stocks and bonds to support the group’s work.
While Smith said they’re grateful, they’re likely to need even more funding going forward to meet the increased demand.
Side Effects Public Media’s Darian Benson contributed reporting.
This story comes from a reporting collaboration that includes WFPL and Side Effects Public Media — a public health news initiative based at WFYI. Follow Aprile on Twitter: @Aperoll27.