Soon after Texas’ Senate Bill 8 went into effect in September 2021, banning abortions as early as six weeks, thousands of people crossed state lines for abortion care. Now that Roe v. Wade is expected to be struck down after the SCOTUS draft decision leaked last week, abortion care providers and funds are gearing up for an unprecedented surge in patients from across the country where bills similar to SB 8 will go into effect. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 26 states are likely to ban abortion if abortion rights are revoked at the federal level. In response to newly proposed anti-abortion legislation in Idaho, clinics in the neighboring states of Washington and Oregon are preparing their response by hiring more staff and fundraising to be able to meet patient’s needs.
If Roe falls, Idaho Lt. Gov. and gubernatorial candidate Janice McGeachin has already said she wants to implement the country’s harshest abortion ban, modeled after SB 8. On Monday, McGeachin insisted that Gov. Brad Little call a special legislative session to eliminate rape and incest as exceptions to the state’s abortion law.
Idaho has already passed a bill similar to SB 8, banning abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy by allowing family members to sue abortion providers. The law was supposed to take effect on April 22, but the Idaho Supreme Court issued a stay while it addresses a legal challenge filed by Planned Parenthood Great Northwest, Hawai’i, Alaska, Indiana, Kentucky. To meet the needs of abortion patients in the region, Planned Parenthood is renting medical office space on the Oregon-Idaho border, in Ontario, Oregon, just an hour away from Boise, Idaho. Planned Parenthood has not confirmed its plans for the space, but it has said it is preparing for an influx of out-of-state patients seeking abortions in Oregon in light of multiple legal challenges to abortion rights.
“Different clinics face different problems based on the area that they’re in, and how much opposition they face,” said Beth Vial, board member of the Northwest Abortion Access Fund (NWAAF). “It’s nice, at least in Oregon, there’s a lot of pro-choice legislators that are wanting to work with us to make sure that abortion is as accessible as possible in Oregon. It’s nice to feel like we have people on our team fighting this fight as well.”
According to Grayson Dempsey, a spokesperson for The Lilith Clinic, which is the only independent abortion clinic in Oregon, as well as the only clinic in the state that performs abortions until 22 weeks, they are seeing 10 patients a month from Texas, as well as patients from Idaho and Alaska. Additionally, they serve patients from more rural areas, even in so-called blue regions like northern California, eastern Washington, and eastern Oregon, and the numbers continue to increase. The Guttmacher Institute estimates a potential 234% increase in people traveling to Oregon for abortion care once the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade.
According to Mercedes Sanchez, the director of communications for Cedar River Clinics, an independent clinic in Washington, they have seen patients from over 31 states, and likewise expect to receive a surge of out-of-state patients once the SCOTUS decision officially comes down.
“We are well aware of what’s coming,” Dempsey said. “We are doing what we can to prepare for that influx.”
Preparations include ensuring the in-office operations run smoothly, like making sure the telephone systems have increased capacity, increasing the efficiency of their health record systems, and streamlining their scheduling. The goal is to boost patient flow to ensure they have additional rooms where patients can recover while other patients receive care.
“We are looking at every possibility so that we can see as many people as needed to come to our clinic,” Dempsey said.
The Lilith Clinic is also preparing for heightened anti-abortion extremists as more patients arrive and clinics in other states shutter from bans. They are raising funds to hire more security to protect patients from anti-abortion protesters, installing bullet-resistant glass windows, and implementing emergency procedures.
“We know that when there aren’t patients to harass in states where abortion bans have taken effect, those people will travel,” Dempsey said. “It hurts my heart to talk about this.”
According to a study by Abortion Care Network, independent clinics like the Lilith Clinic provide the majority of abortion care in this country at 58%, yet often have the least amount of resources directed their way. Unlike Planned Parenthood, independent clinics do not have separate fundraising departments.
“I think sometimes we forget that independent clinics are often out there on their own just trying to make it work,” Dempsey said.
Oregon and Washington are two states that have historically welcomed abortion access. Washington recently signed a bill that prohibits a bill like Texas’ SB 8. Portland was also recently one of three cities in the U.S. to offer paid leave to city employees following an abortion. The policy in Portland allows employees to take up to three days of paid leave if they’ve had a miscarriage, stillbirth, or pregnancy loss. The policy covers time off “irrespective of whether [a pregnancy termination is] deemed medically necessary.” Vial has also worked closely with NWAAF in advising Portland city leaders to allocate $200,000 to NWAAF in response to SB 8. Oregon state Medicaid also covers abortion care for anybody who’s eligible and enrolled. In 2017, Oregon passed the Reproductive Health Equity Act, making sure that all private insurance for Oregonians covers abortion care, but people from out of state are not eligible.
NWAAF serves clients in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Alaska, and it is already seeing an uptick in requests to support people traveling to the region as abortion is becoming more challenging to access in states like Texas. For out-of-state patients, traveling means the added burden of getting time off work, having to lose pay, and finding child care, and the added emotional stress of having to manage all of these factors.
“I think the system of abortion funds is going to be really taxed after the decision because so many people will need to be traveling, and that’s why the funding of abortion funds is also critical,” Sanchez said. “People travel to states where there are legal protections for abortion because there’ll be less judgment and less hostility than they’re accustomed to seeing in their states.”
According to Sanchez, one patient told their staff that she traveled to Washington for an abortion because she “wanted to get as far away from Texas as possible.”
“We need to be prepared to still be able to offer care to the community,” Vial said. “People will still be needing to access abortion, whether Roe is there or not.”
Dempsey said going forward the goal is to think creatively of ways to provide care to people in abortion deserts, including blue states, which could also mean getting them access to telemedicine and medication abortions.
“That’s going to make a big difference in the lives of patients,” Dempsey said. “We need to think about what it looks like to create communities that are welcoming to abortion patients.”