Abortion providers and reproductive rights advocates in Democratic-controlled states are preparing for a wave of patients traveling from conservative neighbors when the U.S. Supreme Court releases an opinion that is expected to strike down the federal right to an abortion enshrined half a century ago by Roe v. Wade.
In interviews, those providers say they have already seen an increased number of patients traveling across state lines since Republican-controlled legislatures passed new limits on abortion access. But they say those figures will surge when the high court’s decision allows so-called trigger laws barring abortion to take effect.
“Our own data models predict in the first year after Roe is overturned, we’re expecting to see over 14,000 additional patients to turn to Illinois,” said Bonyen Lee-Gilmore, vice president of strategy and communication at Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri. “We’re now trying to figure out how to have the manpower, enough hands to help the patients that are going to be turning to us soon.”
Lee-Gilmore’s chapter of Planned Parenthood includes clinics in southern Illinois, a Democratic-controlled state that is surrounded by several other states in which abortion would become illegal or severely restricted if Roe falls.
The draft opinion leaked last month would, if it stands, create a patchwork nation of states where abortions are either protected under state law or completely banned. Women living in parts of Montana would have to travel to Washington, Minnesota or Colorado to receive an abortion. Women who live on the Gulf Coast would have to travel to North Carolina, Illinois, New Mexico or Kansas to seek care.
Today, the clinics in the St. Louis region perform between 6,000 and 7,000 abortions a year. That number could jump to 20,000 if the Supreme Court’s leaked opinion becomes official, Lee-Gilmore said. To handle the increase, one Planned Parenthood clinic is in the process of adding another 18,000 square feet of medical space.
In Colorado and New Mexico, Planned Parenthood chapters began experiencing an influx of patients seeking abortions last year, when Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) signed legislation that barred many abortions. Now, with the possibility of abortion banned or curtailed in Oklahoma, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming and Nebraska, those clinics are considering what they need to do to increase capacity.
“All options are on the table,” said Neta Meltzer, who handles communications for Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains. “Does that look like hiring more providers? Does that look like opening new locations? Does that mean expanding hours?”
Building capacity is both a physical challenge and a human resources issue, Meltzer and Lee-Gilmore said. Conscious that appointment spaces will be snapped up, abortion clinics and their allies in both regions are seeking new doctors, nurses and physician assistants to accommodate more patients.
“Capacity is gong to be a challenge for the foreseeable future. Not just for us but for providers all across critical access states,” Lee-Gilmore said. “There has to be someone on the other end that catches those patients. So we have to think about the system holistically.”
Other groups are beefing up the number of volunteers they are recruiting to handle the non-medical parts of the expected surge. Karen Middleton, who heads Cobalt Advocates, an abortion resources provider in Colorado, said her group was building its list of volunteers who could drive patients from Denver’s airport to a clinic.
“People are opening their checkbooks. Folks are very concerned and we are seeing an influx of resources across the network of organizations that provide abortion care,” Middleton said. “We’re going to do everything we can in our power to coordinate and provide collaboration for the people who can provide abortions in the state of Colorado.”
While conservative states have spent years passing new abortion restrictions — in many cases with the aim of knocking down the precedents established by Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey — liberal states have raced in recent years to codify abortion rights, or to expand access.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) last month signed a measure enshrining the right to an abortion in state law. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s (D) administration has advanced rules that allow more clinicians to perform procedures. Twenty-two states now have some form of protections written into state law.
Those measures, abortion advocates say, are a sign of the preparations they have made in recent years as the Supreme Court’s conservative wing has grown, both in number and influence. After former President Trump nominated Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett to the bench, abortion rights supporters say they knew Roe’s days were numbered.
“We’ve been working for a few years to be ready for this,” Middleton said. “We didn’t think it would happen so soon.”