Clinics struggle to divert patients as states ban abortion

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

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

The ruling has sparked a nationwide journey, with a growing number of states largely banning the procedure. Clinic operators move, doctors attend to crying patients, donations pour into nonprofits, and a group sends vans to deliver abortion pills. Some cities, such as Kansas City and St. Louis, are also making plans to help with 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 protections for abortion, the process had become difficult to nearly impossible in states like Texas, Oklahoma and Missouri.

“Actually,” she said, “they lived in a post-roe era.”

Now a new round of laws is coming into effect. Staff at a clinic in Nashville were inundated with calls from patients trying to understand the new legal landscape after a federal court on Tuesday put the state’s ban on abortions as early as six weeks pregnant.

In Arkansas, some patients were already on their way to a Planned Parenthood clinic in Little Rock to undergo drug-induced abortions when the decision was made last week. On arrival they were sent home.

“I can’t believe this is happening today,” they told Huntington. Or, alternatively, they muttered, their voices seeping with sarcasm: “Of course it happens today.”

Huntington and others are trying to 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 non-profit organizations to arrange commercial flights and accommodation. In recent weeks, she said, a group called Elevated Access has engaged volunteer pilots of light aircraft 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 turned away after new state rules went into effect banning abortions after a heartbeat can be detected. Many are sent across the border to Indiana and the clinic’s sister location in Indianapolis, where Corwin also works.

She said they were desperate, including a patient in her thirties, recently diagnosed with advanced melanoma and in her first trimester.

“She needs to end her pregnancy” so she can start chemotherapy, and she’s going to Indiana, Corwin said, adding that patients who cross the Indiana 14-week limit are sent to Illinois or Michigan.

Time may also be short for women being diverted to Indiana, as lawmakers there are expected to reconsider the state’s abortion laws during a special session beginning July 6.

The situation is particularly difficult for immigrants who are illegally in the country, said Lupe Rodríguez, executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice.

Many of them don’t have the documentation to take a commercial flight, and occasionally border agents search buses for immigrants illegally in the country, she said.

“They just have nowhere to go to get this care,” she said, adding that the ruling has also caused widespread confusion, with pregnant women fearing they could face criminal charges. “There is a lot of misinformation.”

In Missouri, where abortion has already been severely restricted, a new ban went into effect Friday that allows the procedure only in “cases of medical emergency.” Kansas City leaders weigh in on a $300 stipend to help workers travel for an abortion. And statewide, in St. Louis, elected officials are considering another measure that would use $1 million in federal coronavirus relief funds to pay for transportation, shelter and other logistical support for abortion seekers.

“It’s kind of an American nightmare that we’re looking for health care like this,” said St. Louis councilor Annie Rice, adding that she expected the measure to be passed in mid-July. If that happens, abortion opponents have vowed to ask the state’s attorney general to file a lawsuit.

Just the Pill, a non-profit health organization that helps patients get abortion pills, is on the road. It has bought two vans — a medication truck and another where surgical abortions will be performed — with plans to begin operating those vans in Colorado in mid- to late July. The idea is to be close to the borders of states that have restricted or banned abortion.

Mississippi’s only abortion clinic, nicknamed the Pink House for its bright pink paint job, is in danger of closing if it loses its lawsuit seeking to block a state law that would make most abortions illegal as of July 7.

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

Following the ruling, donations are pouring in to abortion funds such as South Dakota Access for Every Woman. Normally, the group would receive seven to ten donations per month. Now they get 10 to 20 a day, says Evelyn Griesse, co-founder of the group. The money goes directly to the abortion providers.

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

Some states roll out the welcome mat. The governor of Connecticut releases a new campaign ad touting state laws protecting women’s abortion rights. They include a soon-to-be-enacted law protecting medical providers and patients from out-of-state legal action.

“Women deserve the right to make their own decisions about their health care,” said government leader Ned Lamont, a Democrat who is running for re-election in November, in the 30-second commercial released this weekend.

In Pennsylvania, where state law still allows abortions in the first 24 weeks, clinics are bracing for an influx of out-of-state patients.

Susan Frietsche, a staff attorney for the Women’s Law Project, which represents abortion clinics in Pennsylvania, warned that state residents seeking abortions may also find it more difficult to find an appointment.

“It affects everyone in the country,” Frietsche said. “While yesterday providers in Pennsylvania could basically find appointment times for people who need to be seen, that won’t be the case anytime soon, and Pennsylvanians will have to travel to other states and not because the law has changed here, but you won’t be getting an appointment anytime soon.” this is such a time sensitive service.”

For AP’s full coverage of the Supreme Court’s ruling on abortion, visit https://apnews.com/hub/abortion.

Hollingsworth reported from Kansas City, Missouri, and Tanner from Chicago. Emily Wagster Pettus contributed from Jackson, Mississippi, Colleen Slevin from Denver, and Marc Levy from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

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