Bans bring back the bad old days of travel abortions

The writer is a contributing columnist, based in Chicago

For me, “it’s déjà vu all over again” — and I don’t just mean war in Europe. As a child of the 1960s, I never thought I would live to see abortion banned in many US states, or forced again into the back alleys of my homeland.

I came to sexual maturity at a time when safe abortion was unobtainable in my home state of Michigan, so I planned to sneak across the border into Canada if the need arose (which it never did). Soon after I turned 17, the US Supreme Court gave me the constitutional right to end a pregnancy, with its 1973 Roe vs Wade ruling.

Now, a more conservative court is expected to constrain or overturn Roe, ruling by the end of June. Some states have already passed restrictive measures and the bad old days of abortion travel — or to put it crudely, as we did back then, the choice between Canada and the coat hanger — may have returned as well.

Illinois, where I now live, has become an island of abortion access in a sea of states where ending a pregnancy is either practically or legally impossible. Nearly 10,000 abortions were performed on out-of-state patients in 2020, up 28.5 per cent on the previous year and 71 per cent more than in 2018, says the Illinois public health department.

Peter Breen, vice-president and senior counsel for the Thomas More Society, a conservative public interest law firm, condemns the fact that Illinois has turned itself into “the abortion capital of America”. But the number of women travelling to the state for help is only set to increase.

Jennifer Welch, president and chief executive of Planned Parenthood of Illinois, says she expects Illinois abortions to rise by two to five times, if the Supreme Court allows states to make their own rules about restricting terminations (Illinois would choose to remain abortion-liberal). Already, since the passage last September of a Texas law banning most terminations after six weeks of pregnancy, she estimates Illinois has seen a 30 per cent rise in out-of-state patients. “And Texas is five states away.” 

Some 26 US states are “certain or likely” to ban abortion if the Supreme Court turns its back on Roe, according to the Guttmacher Institute, an abortion research organisation. Just last week, the Florida legislature passed a law banning most abortions over 15 weeks.

Pamelyn Richardson, 68, was a college student in Kansas in 1972 when she had to travel over 1,000 miles alone, through a dangerous part of Washington DC in the middle of the night, to end an unwanted pregnancy. She and her soldier boyfriend fell pregnant before Roe vs Wade, when her town only allowed birth control for married women. Richardson “borrowed somebody’s engagement ring and went to the doctor but I didn’t even get past the front desk”, she recalls. Then her boyfriend went to boot camp and days later Richardson shipped out to DC for the abortion, she said.

Afterwards, the clinic “sent me away with a pink piece of paper with a telephone [number] and a dime taped to it and said if you run a fever, call us”, she recalls. She used the coin to call from the pay phone in the lobby of her dormitory, and then battled to persuade a Kansas chemist to fill the prescription provided by the out-of-town clinic.

Half a century later, a college student from Texas, who declines to give her name, tells the Financial Times an eerily similar story: she, too, travelled over 1,000 miles and spent more than $1,000 for an abortion that she was five days too late to qualify for at home, because of the new Texas law.

Both women agree that they feel lucky to have had the resources for abortion travel, which many women of colour, or those who are poor or rural, may lack. I never thought that I would live again in a country where access to abortion is determined more by money and race than by right.

Travel abortions may be logistically easier now than in the old days, says Debby Pope, 69, who had a termination at 17. “But that doesn’t mean the emotions will be different,” she says. “Being very young and very scared and going to a faraway place” is no easier than it was 50 years ago. From the nuclear threat to abortion wars, the fears of my childhood have all come back to haunt me.