CHICAGO — Health care groups that help people safely end their pregnancies are anticipating a surge in out-of-staters coming to Illinois as federal protections for abortion hang in the balance.
The conservative majority of the Supreme Court has signaled it may uphold a Mississippi ban on abortion, potentially overturning Roe v. Wade, which established a nationwide right to abortion before a pregnancy is 23 weeks along.
“Everything that we’ve seen so far indicates that the Supreme Court is prepared to ignore half a century of federal law and unravel the right to an abortion,” said Jennifer Welch, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Illinois. “I am very concerned.”
In December, the highest court’s justices also allowed a Texas law that bans abortion after six weeks to continue, though they said providers could sue. Other states have introduced copycat “trigger laws,” including Ohio and Tennessee, that would place more restrictions on abortion access if the Supreme Court does diminish the protections offered under Roe v. Wade.
Should those laws be passed, residents who need such health care might be forced to come elsewhere — like Illinois.
“In both of those cases, Illinois will be the closest place for patients to come get served,” Welch said.
As many as 26 states have “trigger laws” in place — including every state bordering Illinois, Welch said.
“Tens of thousands of people will be in this big abortion desert. Illinois already serves as a haven in the Midwest for abortion care, and that’s just going to multiply,” Welch said.
And though Chicago and Illinois have created protections for abortion, the area’s been no stranger to controversy over the issue. This weekend, a group of anti-choice advocates marched Downtown.
And Illinois had a trigger law until November 2017, when then-Gov. Bruce Rauner signed off on a bill that eliminated the law, which would have made abortions illegal in the state if the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. The bill also authorized funding for abortions through Medicaid and state employee health insurance.
In 2019, Illinois enacted a state law protecting the right to reproductive health care, including abortion. That move effectively designated Illinois as a destination for out-of-staters seeking an abortion.
In 2019, 7,534 non-residents received an abortion in Illinois, compared to 5,668 in 2018 and 2,970 in 2014, according to the state health department.
Illinois abortion funds and providers have prepared for an increase in people traveling from out of state for care even before the recent Supreme Court cases. They said they’ve seen gradual increases in people making appointments and calling their hotlines over the past few years.
“We saw this coming as soon as the former president put so many arch-conservatives on the Supreme Court,” Welch said. “For example, we built new health centers in the last couple of years, one in Flossmoor and one in Waukegan. We built the physical infrastructure to meet the demand, and we’re also planning ways to expand capacity at all of our health centers.
“We are here for people no matter what your ZIP code is. It’s an unnecessary burden on folks’ mental health that this particular care is so stigmatized.”
The Chicago Abortion Fund — which provides logistical, financial and emotional support to people during their abortion process — has also seen a “considerable increase” in demand, with more people calling and seeking assistance in traveling to Illinois over the past couple of years, said fund Executive Director Megan Jeyifo.
To prepare for potential limits to abortion access, “providers are gearing up and hiring more folks,” Jeyifo said.
The Chicago Abortion fund has focused on growing its capacity, infrastructure and money while “sounding the alarm” in an effort to “continue to support people at the same level, with the increase” in demand for abortions in Illinois, Jeyifo said.
Despite the organization’s planning efforts, Jeyifo said she’s worried about the ability of abortion funds and providers to manage the increase in demand as potentially half of the country could soon enact laws forcing residents to travel for abortion care.
“Illinois is such a critical state in our region. It’s dire — people are going to be forced to remain pregnant,” Jeyifo said.
The Chicago Abortion Fund supported about 3,000 people who traveled to Illinois for an abortion last year, compared to about 1,500 in 2020 and 183 in 2018, Jefiyo said. The majority of callers are from Indiana, Missouri, Wisconsin and Iowa, though the fund has supported people from Mississippi, Kentucky, Ohio, Arkansas, Louisiana and Tennessee, Jefiyo said.
“The failure of the Supreme Court to act in Texas has increased awareness of the circumstances people are already under — and it’s really a scary time,” Jeyifo said. “Protecting the legal right to abortion in the court is absolutely essential, but, also, it’s not enough.
“We need to do more because the legal right to abortion is ostensibly protected right now, and abortion is still unavailable to thousands of people in our region because of economic difficulties or lack of insurance coverage.”
Restricting abortion access means “people have to travel farther and pay more both for their travel and for their procedures,” said Madison Lyleroehr, a member of the Midwest Access Coalition board of directors. The organization provides support for people seeking abortions in the Midwest. Since 2015, it’s helped more than 2,000 people in 29 states access abortion.
“Even without Roe falling, it’s really difficult for a lot of people to access abortion, and it has been for a long time,” Lyleroehr said.
Lyleroehr said the financial support the coalition provides most often goes to people’s lodging and travel, “whether it be reimbursing gas money, buses, trains or — for folks who have to travel longer distances — plane tickets.” The group also helps with funding for food and child care.
Six in 10 people who have abortions are already mothers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Half of them have two or more children, The New York Times reports.
“We definitely saw a bit of an uptick [in demand] with the Texas law in September,” Lyleroehr said. “There’s no reason not to anticipate a large uptick in the case that Roe does fall.”
Like Jeyifo, Lyleroehr is concerned Illinois providers might not be able to handle an influx in patients if Roe v. Wade is overturned.
“Even in Illinois, there are only so many appointments available. There are only so many clinics open,” Lyleroehr said. “When you’re trying to serve not only your own state but people from other states — that’s going to cause people to have to wait longer, and the longer you have to wait to get an abortion, the more that it costs.”
In places like Missouri, Mississippi, North Dakota and South Dakota, there is only one clinic per state — rendering abortion inaccessible for people who can’t travel far for the procedure.
And about half of women who had an abortion in 2014 were below the poverty line, with another quarter very close to poverty, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a sexual and reproductive health-focused research and policy group.
“It’s a cycle where you run into one financial obstacle, and then by the time you’ve saved up enough money, the cost of the procedure has gone up, or the cost of a plane ticket has gone up,” Lyleroehr said.
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