Abortion is still legal everywhere in the United States. But some patients living in Alabama and Georgia don’t know that, after their state legislatures passed near-total abortion bans in recent days.
“We are receiving numerous phone calls, requesting information and thinking [Roe v. Wade] has been overturned,” said Gloria Gray, director of West Alabama Women’s Center. The clinic received 20 such calls on Wednesday, the day after Alabama passed its ban. Normally they don’t get any calls from patients asking if abortion is legal.
“We’re seeing an increase of folks calling with questions [and] concerns about access,” said Calla Hales, the director of A Preferred Women’s Health Center, which operates four abortion clinics, two of which are in Georgia. “About 1 in every 4 calls is a patient asking if abortion care is still legal.”
Last Tuesday, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) signed a six-week abortion ban into law, which doesn’t take effect until 2020. About a week later, on Wednesday night, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) signed a bill that would outlaw abortion unless there’s a serious medical risk to “to the unborn child’s mother.” Abortion providers who break the law could face up to 99 years in prison. The Alabama ban will take effect in six months.
Knowing the effective date for both of these laws is critical due to expected lawsuits challenging them.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) already said it plans to sue each state over the bans, and federal courts are likely going to block these laws before either takes effect. Judges struck down six-week abortion bans in Iowa and Kentucky earlier this year. In Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court protected the right to abortion before viability, which is around 24 weeks into a pregnancy.
Abortion is still legal everywhere, more or less, unless the Supreme Court decides to overturn Roe — which is the goal of lawmakers passing these extreme abortion bans, hoping that legal challenges wind up before the nation’s highest court. Meanwhile, patients are understandably confused.
“From patients, we are hearing fear,” said Amanda Kifferly, vice president of abortion access at The Women’s Center, which operates five clinics in Connecticut, Georgia, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, “It’s happening nationally.”
It’s happening in their Pennsylvania clinics, where there are concerns about a ban on abortion based on a prenatal diagnosis of Down Syndrome. Patients visiting each of The Women’s Center’s clinics are panicking about the future of abortion rights, including people traveling from nearby states with their own abortion restrictions. Everyone’s bringing their own stories and concerns with them, she said.
Kifferly said her clinic staff, who are frustrated and disappointed with their elected officials, are doing the best they can to combat that fear, but it’s a challenging undertaking.
“There are tag-lines out there that say ‘We will stay open’ and ‘No matter what, we are here for you,’ and I think that dedication is strong and true,” Kifferly told ThinkProgress.
“But I do think when you turn on the news and you see the number of bans coming through and you look at a picture of the United States, you can see where the concern is coming from. It’s absolutely legitimate,” she added.
Many articles, particularly from anti-abortion websites, are looking for clicks and putting out misinformation. “Things that I’ve heard is ‘You can’t travel outside of Georgia when this happens because that will be murder,'” said Kifferly.
Patients have been calling The Women’s Center’s advocacy center to ask if they can still have an abortion. On Thursday, dozens of callers from Alabama even called the center, even though they don’t operate a clinic in the state. They’ve been hearing misinformation about how abortion is already illegal in the state and wondered if they could travel elsewhere. Kifferly recounted another person who called the day the Georgia ban was signed into law and asked if she could still have an abortion if “tomorrow I’d be six weeks.”
The call center at Planned Parenthood Southeast — which operates clinics in Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi — also experienced a significant influx of calls since the Georgia ban was signed into law.
“We had so many calls, we had to set up a separate line to direct concerned callers… and that’s just the women we heard from,” said Staci Fox, the president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Southeast, in a press call. “Imagine how many more women are too scared to call or feel too alone and abandoned by their state to even reach out to make an appointment or assume that abortion is already illegal,” she added.
Hundreds of women and gender minorities have called the Planned Parenthood affiliate hotline to ask whether they need to schedule their appoints earlier or cancel altogether. One domestic violence survivor called the center Wednesday morning, trying to figure out what she’s seeing in the news. Her confusion just exacerbated what she was already dealing with at home.
“We have very nervous patients calling who don’t understand the legislative processes, the judicial processes, and the headlines are scary — and they are assuming abortion is already illegal,” said Fox.
Even before bans in Georgia and Alabama garnered national media attention, it was hard to follow abortion restrictions as they vary by state. A few states ban abortion 20 weeks after someone’s last menstrual period, while other states ban a common type of second-trimester procedure. But in recent days, it’s become clear there’s a lot of confusion around the current state of abortion rights and what happens if the Supreme Court does overturn Roe.
Gray said a patient who visited her Alabama clinic the other day said she’d just go there if abortion is outlawed. “Honey, you don’t understand, this clinic won’t be here,” Gray said, recounting what she told the patient. “This is a right that patients always have taken for granted,” she said. Now it’s time to fight for the right, she added.