(NEW YORK) — In the seven months since Texas enacted a law that bans nearly all abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, its northern neighbor, Oklahoma, has felt the impact.
“We are essentially having to turn the vast majority of people away from getting abortions because we just cannot keep up with the volume,” said Dr. Christina Bourne, the medical director of Trust Women, which operates an abortion care clinic in Oklahoma City and one in Wichita, Kansas. “We could be doing abortions 24 hours a day and not keep up with the volume that is demanded of us.”
Now, Oklahoma appears close to enacting its own abortion ban, which providers like Bourne and others in surrounding states say could lead to a whole region of the country lacking adequate abortion access.
In late March, the Oklahoma House passed a measure, House Bill 4327, that would ban abortion at any point in the pregnancy unless it is “to save the life” of the pregnant person or if the pregnancy is the result of “rape, sexual assault or incest that has been reported to law enforcement.”
Like Texas’ law, HB 4327 also allows for citizens to sue for up to $10,000 anyone who performs or “aids and abets” an abortion.
Earlier last month, the Oklahoma Senate passed a similar bill, SB 1503.
“We know that patients who need abortion are not going to stop seeking it, it’s just going to get harder and harder for them to access,” said Emily Wales, the interim CEO and president of Planned Parenthood Great Plains, which covers Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas and parts of Missouri. “Right now, patients may be traveling a few hundred miles from home, five or six hours, they’re going to add another five or six hours to get to the Kansas City area or to Wichita, and for some patients, that won’t be feasible.”
So far in 2022, the two Planned Parenthood clinics in Oklahoma that offer abortion services have seen more patients from Texas than from Oklahoma, according to Wales.
If the anti-abortion bills in Oklahoma are signed into law as expected, experts say women who have the means will have to travel further for abortion care, while those who don’t will not get care.
“We expect that the facilities that remain open in other states will be overwhelmed, as we have already seen with Senate Bill 8, with residents from other states coming in to get care,” said Dr. Kari White, an associate professor and faculty research associate at the University of Texas at Austin. “And there are some people for whom these longer distances are are just going to be impossible, and they will consider either other ways to try to end their pregnancies by ordering medications online or potentially doing something unsafe, and other people will be forced to continue their pregnancies.”
White, who is also the lead investigator of the Texas Policy Evaluation Project, has studied the impact of Texas’ six-week abortion ban. According to her research, around 1,400 Texans have gone to another state for abortion care each month since SB8 went into effect in September, with 45% traveling to Oklahoma.
“We’ve certainly heard from some of the people we’ve interviewed in our study that they were willing to wait a little bit longer to get an abortion in Oklahoma because they could travel to Oklahoma, but it was too far for them to go to a state like New Mexico,” she said. “They just couldn’t make it work in terms of the additional cost, the time away from work or their child care responsibilities.”
New Mexico and Colorado, which have less stringent abortion restrictions, are likely to become hotspots for women in the region who have the means to travel for abortion care.
Those states have also felt the impact from SB8, according to Planned Parenthood, which reported a more than 1,000% increase in abortion patients with Texas zip codes at Planned Parenthood health centers in Colorado and a more than 100% increase at Planned Parenthood health centers in New Mexico compared to the previous year.
Other states that surround Oklahoma — Kansas, Missouri and Arkansas — face their own restrictions on abortion access and are dealing with already overwhelmed systems, experts say.
The two Planned Parenthood clinics that provided abortion care in Missouri have been closed in the last few years due to state restrictions, according to Wales, who added, “Missourians for a long time have been living the Texas crisis, where the majority of them are forced to flee their home state for care already.”
Arkansas has around three abortion clinics statewide currently, while Kansas has four, according to Sandy Brown, president of the Kansas Abortion Fund, a volunteer-run, nonprofit organization that helps fund Kansan women seeking abortion care.
“Our clinics here have been swamped,” Brown said. “They just can’t absorb the volume of people coming in from other states. Now, if Oklahoma happens, it’s really, really going to be bad, because we already can’t almost handle the patients that are coming in now.”
In May or June, the Supreme Court will announce its ruling on a 15-week ban in Mississippi and whether or not it is constitutional. If the Supreme Court determines the ban is constitutional, it could mean Roe v. Wade is either overturned or fundamentally weakened.
More than half of the nation’s 50 states are prepared to ban abortion if Roe is overturned, according to a report from the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights organization.
If that happens, another factor to watch will be whether states that have banned abortion make it increasingly difficult for their residents to obtain abortions in other states, Mary Ziegler, visiting professor of constitutional law at Harvard Law School and author of Abortion and the Law in America: Roe v. Wade to the Present, told ABC News earlier this year.
In the meantime, abortion rights advocates and providers say they worry that the far distances people are having to travel to seek abortion care means the most vulnerable people, such as those without the financial resources to travel, are being left behind.
“Traveling is an option and has always been an option for affluent white people,” Bourne said. “Through abortion restrictions, we are legislating people who experience intersecting identities, poverty, people of color, queer folks, people with many children, people with busy lives who are going to be left out of that and forced to carry a pregnancy to term that perhaps otherwise wouldn’t have.”
Wales, of Planned Parenthood Great Plains, said that as clinics in Oklahoma and Kansas have seen increased demand for abortion services, that has resulted in a delay in services for the type of general reproductive health care, like contraception and cancer screening, that makes up the majority of the clinics’ work.
“The increased need in abortion and the restrictions from the states … those things have pushed family planning patients and other types of care back,” Wales said. “It also means our family planning patients are coming in more concerned, more confused about what is available to them, because they just understand that rights are being restricted.”
“It has created a great deal of fear, I think, among the people we see,” she said.
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