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Planned Parenthood launching a mobile abortion unit in southern Illinois as number of out-of-state patients skyrockets

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 10/3/2022 Angie Leventis Lourgos, Chicago Tribune
Colleen McNicholas, chief medical officer of reproductive health services of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, stands outside the Planned Parenthood health center in Fairview Heights in June. © Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune/TNS Colleen McNicholas, chief medical officer of reproductive health services of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, stands outside the Planned Parenthood health center in Fairview Heights in June.

CHICAGO — Planned Parenthood is launching a mobile abortion unit in southern Illinois to help reach out-of-state patients and decrease wait times, as more states ban or severely restrict terminating a pregnancy.

The abortion provider announced the project Monday, roughly 100 days after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which established the right to terminate a pregnancy nationwide. Since the June 24 reversal of federal reproductive rights protections, out-of-state abortions have surged in Illinois, where terminating a pregnancy is legal.

“Over the past 100 days, I’ve cared for people from across the country who traveled to southern Illinois for abortion care,” said Dr. Colleen McNicholas, chief medical officer of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, which covers southern Illinois. “These patients are navigating a politically designed obstacle course to access abortion and other basic health care.”

The mobile unit is expected to be operational by the end of 2022 and will be located at different points along the southern border of Illinois, though its specific route, times and locations have yet to be determined, Planned Parenthood officials said. It will initially offer only medication abortions but will eventually expand to include first-trimester aspiration abortions, the agency said.

The Planned Parenthood affiliate retrofitted a 37-foot recreational vehicle to “create a patient experience similar to what one would experience when they are coming for a medication abortion at one of our health centers.” The vehicle will include a standard lab, small waiting room, two exam rooms that further down the road can be converted to procedure rooms for surgical abortions.

The recreational vehicle will only travel to locations in Illinois, not any states where abortion is outlawed or significantly restricted, agency officials said. But the ability to drive along the border — closer to better access points for traveling patients, including those from Illinois — is expected to decrease travel times and distances and free up space in brick-and-mortar clinics, Planned Parenthood officials said.

The mobile unit will also provide family planning services like birth control and emergency contraceptives, as well as sexually transmitted infection testing and screening, Planned Parenthood officials said. Services will be available to in-state and out-of-state residents.

Pro-Life Action League Executive Director Eric Scheidler said he believes the mobile unit is Planned Parenthood’s attempt to “corner the interstate abortion market” and “muscle out the competition.”

“Personally, I’m horrified by the bloodthirstiness of this scheme: an RV driving around looking for unborn children to abort,” he said.

Abortion providers across Illinois have been planning for a massive influx in patients post-Roe, but many expressed shock at how quickly the number of patients spiked after the ruling. The southern region of the state, which has only two abortion clinics, has been particularly hard hit. Wait times have skyrocketed from several days before the fall of Roe to 2 1/2 weeks, even with expanded clinic hours, Planned Parenthood officials said.

“This is what we mean when we say banning abortion does not eliminate the need for abortion care,” said Yamelsie Rodríguez, president and CEO of the Planned Parenthood affiliate.

At the Planned Parenthood Health Center in Fairview Heights, patients from states other than Missouri and Illinois increased by more than 340% after the fall of Roe; the rise in travel and wait times appears to be increasing gestation points as well, with abortions after 14 weeks in pregnancy increasing by more than 115%, agency officials said.

“For the past 100 days — and even longer in some places — we have been living in two Americas: One where abortion is available and one where it is not,” McNicholas said. “This post-Roe reality was both predictable and preventable: Patient confusion, a politically designed patchwork of access across the country and health care systems not knowing how to navigate laws that are not based in science. The list goes on and on.”

There are about two dozen abortion clinics in Illinois, though most are in the Chicago area. Eleven of the 102 counties in Illinois have at least one abortion provider. In five of those counties, only medication abortions are offered, which are restricted to early pregnancy.

New abortion providers are expected to come to Illinois soon, including a clinic in Carbondale that’s scheduled to open this month, adding a third option to the southern part of the state. A Planned Parenthood of Illinois clinic in Champaign last month expanded its space and services to help handle the surge in patients.

Over the past three months, roughly a dozen states across the country — including Missouri — have banned abortion in almost all cases, eliminating access for around 80 million Americans, according to the New-York based Center for Reproductive Rights; 50 clinics nationwide have either shut down or halted abortion services since the end of Roe.

The last clinic in Missouri — a Planned Parenthood in St. Louis — announced that it would cease providing abortions on June 24, when terminating a pregnancy became illegal in that state.

“One day, we will bring back abortion care to Missourians,” Rodríguez said. “Until then, we are committed to protecting and expanding care where and when we can. This is our act of defiance.”

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