Illinois clinics ramp up aid for women seeking abortions across state lines

In the days since the Supreme Court’s ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, one state after another has outlawed abortion. Illinois is one of the few states in the middle of the country where people can legally access abortion care. In a report co-produced with the PBS NewsHour, Kaiser Health News correspondent Sarah Varney went to Illinois to see what's happening there.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    In the days since the Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade, one state after another has outlawed abortion.

    Illinois is one of the few states in the middle of the country where people can still legally access abortion care.

    In this report co-produced with the "NewsHour," Kaiser Health News correspondent Sarah Varney traveled to Illinois to see what's happening there.

  • Sarah Varney:

    Along the highway from St. Louis, a billboard reads: "Welcome to Illinois, where you can get a safe legal abortion."

    Hope Clinic stands out like a beacon.

  • Woman:

    Hope Clinic. This is Kate (ph). How may I help you?

  • Sarah Varney:

    Amy Redd-Greiner supervises the front desk.

    Today, the clinic is closed, but, on a normal day, what would this waiting room look like?

  • Amy Redd-Greiner, Hope Clinic:

    The waiting room would be full.

  • Sarah Varney:

    Patients travel here to Granite City from at least 19 states, including Texas, Florida and Kentucky.

    I'm standing here in Illinois. And just behind me is Missouri across the river. Normally, you wouldn't think twice about crossing state lines, but now these borders matter in terms of where women can access abortion care.

    So how busy have the phones been lately?

  • Dr. Erin King, Hope Clinic:

    They have been ringing off the hook, especially on Mondays.

  • Sarah Varney:

    Dr. Erin King is an OB-GYN and executive director of Hope Clinic.

  • Dr. Erin King:

    People are coming to us much more in — almost in states of crisis. They are — there's much deeper levels of stress and anxiety both around living somewhere that is telling you that what you're doing is wrong, and then having to come so far, as the distance has increased and people's resources have decreased.

    It's really scary to see. People will drive 200, 300 miles, have multiple organizations help them and still arrive and say, OK, don't tell anyone because I know this is illegal.

    Well, it's not illegal here.

  • Sarah Varney:

    Just 10 minutes away in Missouri, abortion is now illegal, with no exceptions for rape or incest. This clinic and others around Illinois have been preparing for this moment for months, years even.

    They're staying open later, adding weekends, beefing up staff. And they have even built new facilities.

  • Dr. Erin King:

    We are seeing other colleagues start to come into the state where they may have been practicing in other states. They are moving their facilities or their practices into our state, which is going to increase access significantly.

    Do I think Illinois will be able to give all the access that is needed? No.

  • Sarah Varney:

    But one way women can access abortion as a growing number of states outlaw it is through medication abortion. It's been around since the early 1990s, but it wasn't approved by the FDA until 2000 for up to 10 weeks of pregnancy.

    Now more than half of abortions are carried out using the two-pill regimen that stops the pregnancy and causes a miscarriage.

  • Dr. Sadia Haider, Rush University Medical Center:

    Figure out how far along she is. If she's under 10 weeks, we will go ahead and offer her the option for medical abortion.

  • Sarah Varney:

    It's been safely used for decades in countries around the world and is 99.6 percent effective.

  • Dr. Sadia Haider:

    There's data to show that it's safer for them to getting a penicillin shot, for example.

  • Sarah Varney:

    Dr. Sadia Haider is the division director of family planning at Rush University in Chicago. In many states, abortion pills can be prescribed via telehealth or obtained online.

    When we think of self-managed abortion, pre-Roe, we think of coat hangers and botched abortions in alleyways. Is this the same moment?

  • Dr. Sadia Haider:

    We didn't have these medications back in those days. So we actually have very good medications now that safely can provide medical abortion, both in the hands of clinicians and in the hands of patients.

    There's a number of studies that have shown this, that patients can do safely.

  • Sarah Varney:

    To do that, they sometimes need to leave home to have privacy from their children or an abusive partner.

    We heard the story of one woman who wasn't able to have her medication abortion safely in her own home, so she relied on an abortion fund for financial support to finish the process at a hotel here in Decatur.

    Over the last few years, as restrictions grew in surrounding states, Illinois has become a safe haven. In 2018, about 5,600 women came here from out of state for abortion care. In 2020, that number increased 70 percent to nearly 9,700.

    We're driving to Chicago. That's where many women from the Midwest and the South have to travel in order to access abortion care. There are just far more clinics in the Chicago area than anywhere else in the state. And they're driving long distances. From Lexington, Kentucky, it's 400 miles. From Memphis, Tennessee, it's 530 miles. And from Houston, Texas, it's more than 1,000 miles. And that's just one way.

    It's a busy morning at Megan Jeyifo's house in Chicago. Her husband is getting their kids ready for camp, and she and her colleague, Qudsiyyah Shariyf, have a long list of women who need their help. Together, they run the Chicago Abortion Fund, which helps women access care who can't afford it or live in states where its illegal.

    We heard in Hope Clinic yesterday a lot of people coming from Tennessee, Kentucky, Texas, Oklahoma. What are some of the things people need in order to make that journey?

  • Qudsiyyah Shariyf, Chicago Abortion Fund:

    Definitely, since the start of this year, being 2022, each month, we see folks from at least 20 states. We're supporting a lot of folks who are calling us, trying to figure out, can I be seen in my home state? Is there a place close to me?

    Or maybe they're just like, I know Chicago. I'd rather just come to Chicago and get care.

  • Megan Jeyifo, Chicago Abortion Fund:

    It can be as simple as over the border in Indiana as a $14 train ticket. We have bought clothes for people who didn't think they were going to end up staying here for multiple-day appointments, maxi pads, a hotel stay, a child care stipend.

    And something that we really try to underscore with our callers is that the difficulty you have faced up to this point to get an abortion isn't a reflection of the morality of your decision to have an abortion. This is political. This has nothing to do with you, your body, your doctor, your choices. Those are yours. And we trust you to make a decision for yourself and your family that is powerful and brave.

  • Qudsiyyah Shariyf:

    OK, and do you have health insurance right now?

  • Sarah Varney:

    The phone calls to the Chicago Abortion Fund are constant. Many of those women end up in Chicago at clinics like Family Planning Associates.

  • Dr. Allison Cowett, Family Planning Associates:

    It's difficult to imagine how this ramp-up will occur to be able to take care of all these extra patients. One day, we're seeing our usual number of patients and, the next day, 20,000 more people who are calling.

  • Sarah Varney:

    Dr. Allison Cowett is the clinic's medical director.

  • Dr. Allison Cowett:

    At least half of people who seek abortion have used some form of birth control in the month prior to them seeking abortion.

    There will always be a need for abortion, whether it is because people got pregnant and weren't intending to get pregnant, because their birth control failed, also because there are many situations where women cannot stay pregnant for their own health and to save their own life.

    There are so many different reasons that women seek abortion.

  • Sarah Varney:

    How do you feel in this moment?

  • Dr. Allison Cowett:

    When I'm here at work, I have to say I feel very calm, because I feel like this is — we are part of a solution for so many people's lives.

    When I'm outside of my work environment, I do feel rage, and I feel concern that we're not getting that word out there that this is a public health crisis and the end of women as equal partners in our society.

  • Sarah Varney:

    We have gone from one end of Illinois to the other. Just behind me in Wisconsin, clinics have stopped booking appointments for patients, forcing women to travel elsewhere.

    It's another example that borders matter.

    For the "PBS NewsHour" and Kaiser Health News, on the Illinois-Wisconsin border, I'm Sarah Varney.

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