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Thousands already come to Illinois for abortions. Thousands more could soon join them

 Alison Dreith, deputy director of the Hope Clinic for Women located in Granite City, Illinois. Dreith sought an abortion in Illinois in 2016 while she was living in St. Louis and said she wishes she could have sought care from her regular doctor.
Derik Holtmann
Belleville News-Democrat
Alison Dreith is deputy director of the Hope Clinic for Women in Granite City. Dreith sought an abortion in Illinois in 2016 while she was living in St. Louis and said she wishes she could have sought care from her regular doctor.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

The number of patients from Texas visiting an abortion clinic in Granite City hasn’t changed much, even since the state effectively banned abortions in September.

The reason?

“We’ve always seen those patients,” said Alison Dreith, the clinic’s deputy director.

Illinois has long been a destination for those seeking care, predating Texas’ Senate Bill 8 and its drastic new legal precedent. Even since the Supreme Court found abortion constitutional in 1973, it has been easier to drive hours or fly to Illinois for care.

As Illinois has increased abortion rights while other states whittled away at them, out-of-state patients have increasingly sought services here. In 2015, they accounted for 8% of all abortions in the state. In 2016, that number increased to 12%, and it has risen every year since.

“This reality is actually one that we have been living for a very long time,” said Dr. Colleen McNicholas, chief medical officer for Planned Parenthood’s St. Louis region.

With more states planning restrictive laws — including an effort in Missouri to ban most abortions after eight weeks of pregnancy — and a decision on Roe v. Wade looming, abortion rights leaders say they’re prepared for Illinois to assume an even larger role as a point of access for patients in the Midwest and south, or beyond.

If Roe is reversed, Planned Parenthood expects upwards of 14,000 patients from Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Oklahoma and Tennessee, to travel to southern Illinois for abortions. The organization’s analysis estimates all the states bordering Illinois would move quickly to ban it.

“It’s bad in and of itself that people for generations have had to do this,” Dreith said. “It’s worse in some places, and it only stands to get worse from here.”

Why do people come to Illinois for abortions?

About 60% of Hope Clinic’s roughly 3,000 to 4,000 annual patients come from out of state. There’s financing available. Flights to Chicago can be relatively cheap and convenient. The drive to the metro-east region across from St. Louis is doable from restrictive states to the south.

Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a law in 2019 protecting abortion care in the state, calling it a “fundamental right.” A 2017 law signed by Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner allowed Medicaid and state health insurance to cover abortions for Illinois residents. In the General Assembly’s upcoming veto session, lawmakers are expected to consider repealing a law that requires parental notice when a child seeks an abortion, the Associated Press reported.

But patients aren’t just driving across the Mississippi River from Missouri. They’re traveling increasingly longer distances. So far this year, Hope Clinic has seen patients from 19 states, and from 24 last year. It’s a ripple effect caused by a shrinking pool of access.

“The insult right now is in Texas,” said McNicholas, “but it is causing a wave of displacement of patients out of their communities.”

Measures like the Texas law lead Illinois to become more protective of abortion care, says state Rep. Amy Elik, an anti-abortion Republican from Fosterburg.

“Unfortunately there are lawmakers that have a knee-jerk reaction to pro-life laws in other states and try to make Illinois more abortion-friendly than it already is,” Elik said.

Life after abortion

As she protested outside Hope Clinic on a recent sunny October afternoon, Liz Cordes, a 72-year-old retired teacher’s aide from Godfrey, said abortion is a “scourge upon us.”

“Life is precious,” said Cordes, who is there regularly. “This is a curse upon our world, our society. It’s a total disregard for human life.”

Madeline Petrosky, a 25-year-old medical assistant at Hope Clinic, says she has a life because of abortion. She had one after becoming pregnant at 13 years old. When she cares for patients that age at Hope Clinic, she tells them there’s life after abortion.

“I tell them they’re going to be fine. They’re going to grow up,” said Petrosky, who grew up in Granite City and now has a 9-year-old daughter.

She hopes society can normalize abortion, which technology has made safe and effective. The term “surgical abortion” is a misnomer, since access through the vagina means the procedure takes only five to 10 minutes. Medication abortion is as simple as swallowing a pill. Even the large surgical rooms at Hope Clinic aren’t always necessary. Most abortions could be performed in a doctors office, said Dreith, the clinic’s deputy director. Stigma and strict laws push the procedures into barricaded, specialized clinics, creating fear.

Petrosky was able to stay in her hometown for an abortion, but thousands have to seek care far outside their communities. Dreith was living in St. Louis in 2016 when she needed an abortion. She crossed into Illinois, but wishes she could’ve sought care from her regular doctor.

“It’s unfortunate that I couldn’t get it at my general practitioner and had to come to an abortion clinic like this and travel outside my own community,” Dreith said.

Though she expects providers like Planned Parenthood to continue marketing Illinois as a haven for abortion care, the Republican representative from Fosterburg says she’s “not giving up in the fight.” She plans to oppose the repeal of the parental notice law, but there aren’t many more options as a lawmaker.

“I hope for a world where all babies are welcomed and loved from the moment they’re conceived,” Elik said.

Future of abortion in Illinois

Planned Parenthood and Hope Clinic have already invested $10 million in their metro-east clinics in anticipation of Roe’s demise. They are planning to increase staff and “thinking broadly” about how to support patients when they’re coming from hundreds of miles away, McNicholas said.

Basic preventative health care such as birth control isn’t readily available for some low-income communities. Child care is a challenge even middle and upper middle class people struggle with.

“Abortion does not exist in a silo,” she said.

Cordes, the anti-abortion protester, said she believes “the Holy Spirit came down to counsel” lawmakers in Texas who passed SB8. She said she hopes God will do the same in Illinois, and help those seeking abortions realize “there are other options for everybody.”

While patients with resources may find a way to travel, others may have no choice but to remain pregnant.

One 2018 study by the nonpartisan National Bureau of Economic Research estimated if a clinic within a mile moved 25 miles away, it decreased the abortion rate by 10% because of transportation issues and a backlog in appointments. The New York Times estimated the average distance a patient would have to travel would increase to 279 miles from 35, according to the newspaper’s analysis of researcher data.

A lack of access to abortion could “move across the country very quickly,” McNicholas said.

“Abortion is really an important tool right now for how (patients) are going to survive to the next day and live out their own dreams,” McNicholas said. “We hear that every single day from patients when their procedure is done.”

Kelsey Landis is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

Kelsey Landis is an Illinois state affairs and politics reporter for the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.