More women forced to travel to seek abortions as US states clamp down

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An effective ban on abortion in Texas has sparked an increase of at least 11-fold in the number of pregnant women travelling across state lines for a termination, research has shown, a sign of the hurdles that have been created by a wave of new restrictions on the procedure.

Between September and December of last year 5,574 women travelled from Texas to abortion clinics in seven nearby states, often undertaking emotionally gruelling, lengthy and expensive journeys by car or plane, according to researchers at the University of Texas. This compares with 514 women in the same period in 2019, the most recent pre-pandemic year.

Now, as multiple Republican-controlled states pass copycat laws aimed at curbing abortion as much as legally possible, pro-choice campaigners warn that more women may soon face similar obstacles.

In New York and California, where nearly a third of all abortion facilities are located, travel distances for women seeking to terminate their pregnancies are often under 25 miles. By comparison, even before the recent spate of anti-abortion legislation was enacted, women in parts of Texas, North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana — where there are few, if any, abortion providers — often had to travel over 300 miles to reach the nearest abortion facility.

According to economist and reproductive policy expert Caitlin Myers and the recent study from the University of Texas in Austin, those distances could reach 500-800 miles with widespread abortion bans.

Inspired by the tough restrictions in place in Texas, state legislatures and Republican governors are racing to enact similar measures as they seek to establish their rightwing credentials ahead of elections in November and beyond. Last week Idaho banned abortions after six weeks of pregnancy — the same as Texas — and a few days later Arizona lawmakers restricted abortions after 15 weeks.

Oklahoma, which borders Texas, is considering one of the toughest laws yet. Its House of Representatives has voted to ban all abortions unless they will save a mother’s life. If backed by state senators, it would block abortion access in a state that has experienced an influx of Texans seeking terminations.

“[This] does not end abortion, but it will induce compliance because no abortion provider will violate it and risk a lawsuit,” said Wendi Stearman, the Republican lawmaker who sponsored the bill.

Some of the laws are enforced through so-called “bounty hunter” clauses, which allow privates citizens to sue anyone who “aids or abets” an abortion, such as doctors or nurses, and potentially recover damages.

Critics say the wave of bans is unravelling the constitutional right to an abortion enshrined in 1973 by Roe vs Wade, a landmark Supreme Court ruling. Conservative lawmakers have also been emboldened by a pending decision from the Supreme Court later this year in a case involving abortion restrictions in Mississippi, which could result in Roe’s protection against state laws that pose an “undue burden” on abortion access being overturned or substantially weakened.

It is also forcing some women to carry unwanted pregnancies to full term as others endure the emotional trauma and financial hardship of travelling out of state.

“Abortion has become incredibly political, a red meat issue used to galvanise the Republican conservative base, which equates terminating a pregnancy with murder,” said Carol Sanger, a professor specialising in reproductive rights at Columbia Law School.

The Guttmacher Institute, a pro-choice research body, says if the Supreme Court decides to overturn Roe, at least 26 states, primarily in the south or midwest, are certain or likely to ban abortion. That could force millions to travel to terminate unwanted pregnancies, with a disproportionate impact on people of colour, those with low income, young women and immigrants, the institute says.

“If the Supreme Court overturns abortion rights, patients won’t just have to cross one border — they might have to go three or four states away,” said Elizabeth Nash, associate director of state issues at Guttmacher. “A person in Louisiana would have to make a 1,300-mile round trip to get to the closest clinic.”

Options are already narrowing, as more states enact restrictions forcing some clinics to close, causing lengthy waiting lists at clinics already trying to serve women travelling from Texas. According to the University of Texas study, waiting times for abortion appointments in Oklahoma have increased from about two weeks on average in September 2021 to nearly a month in January 2022.

Travelling brings its own challenges. Maleeha Aziz was nine weeks pregnant and in college when she embarked on a 720-mile journey from Texas to Colorado eight years ago to seek an abortion.

Aziz — who is now a community organiser at the Texas Equal Access Fund, a non-profit providing financial and emotional support to women forced to travel interstate — said she had been told, falsely, that Texas banned the abortion pill, also known as medication abortion. Since surgical abortion was not an option for her, she decided to take the trip.

“I went into panic mode and borrowed money to travel. When I walked into the Colorado clinic, protesters called me a murderer and yelled horrible insults at me,” she said. The experience left her emotionally scarred and $2,000 in debt, she said.

The barrage of new abortion restrictions has prompted action from some companies and high-profile philanthropists.

Citigroup recently said it would cover the cost of travel for staff seeking abortion care, while Salesforce has offered to relocate employees if they are concerned about accessing reproductive healthcare. MacKenzie Scott, co-founder of Amazon and the ex-wife of Jeff Bezos, donated $275mn to Planned Parenthood, the women’s healthcare provider — the largest single gift in the organisation’s century-long history.

President Joe Biden vowed to preserve a “woman’s right to choose” in his State of the Union address but his administration has limited powers to influence state law, particularly if Roe is overturned.

The wave of anti-abortion legislation has also motivated campaigners like Aid Access, an organisation founded by a Dutch doctor in 2018 to help women who cannot access abortions in their home countries, which has stepped up its efforts to supply American women with pills via post to terminate their pregnancies.

The Biden administration waived restrictions forcing women to receive pills in person from service providers, rather than receive them by mail, during the pandemic. In December it made the laxer rules permanent.

In the first week after the Texas ban, orders for pills via the Aid Access website spiked 1,180 per cent, from about 11 requests from Texans per day to 138. Over the following three months, demand slowed somewhat but remained almost 175 per cent higher than before the law went into effect.

Such services have become the latest battleground for anti-abortion groups, which complain pro-choice advocates are breaking the recently-enacted laws. This week, South Dakota’s governor signed a law to make distribution of abortion pills by mail illegal and require women to have three in-person consultations with a doctor before undergoing a medication abortion.

For campaigners like Aziz, the tide of legal restrictions risks turning the clock back to the days when a dangerous back-street abortion was the only option

“I worry all of these additional barriers . . . [make] it unsafe for people that are trying to access healthcare,” said Aziz.

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