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News / Nation & World

As South shuts down abortion, thousands turn to Illinois clinics

By AMANDA SEITZ, Associated Press
Published: March 25, 2023, 3:46pm
2 Photos
Dr. Colleen McNicholas, chief medical officer at Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, stands inside a recovery area inside Planned Parenthood on March 10  in Fairview Heights, Ill.
Dr. Colleen McNicholas, chief medical officer at Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, stands inside a recovery area inside Planned Parenthood on March 10 in Fairview Heights, Ill. Roberson) (jeff roberson/Associated Press) Photo Gallery

FAIRVIEW HEIGHTS, Ill. — Dr. Colleen McNicholas is fresh off performing two abortions when a ringing phone quickly stops her.

“Oh, ugh,” she said, eyes widened, before she darted off to another room.

Just the day before, 58 women had abortions at the Fairview Heights Planned Parenthood clinic, 15 miles east of St. Louis. But the new day is still stacked with appointments; as many as 100 abortion and family-planning patients might walk through the doors.

Every day is busy now.

Hundreds of women travel each week to the southern tip of Illinois to secure an abortion, something that is no longer available to millions living in a 1,800-mile stretch of 11 Southern states that have mostly banned pregnancy terminations since the Supreme Court stripped away constitutional protections for women to end pregnancies.

But another barrier awaits them once they reach the clinic in one of the country’s most abortion-friendly states. Anti-abortion advocates in neon hazard vests frantically try to wave passersby down at the gates, hoping to talk them out of what they are about to do.

The clinic’s waitlist for abortions has grown from two days to nearly three weeks after the Supreme Court ruling last June — even after staffers started working 10-hour shifts and the clinic opened on Saturdays.

“With every piece of litigation, with every new constitutional amendment, with every new abortion restriction in a state that has some access, we are on this teeter-totter of what can we do here to make more space for the people who are going to be fleeing their home state?” McNicholas said.

With 10,000 abortion patients expected this year at the clinic, there’s talk of opening on Sundays. Staff developed an emergency plan that would convert some patient rooms, normally reserved for birth-control consultations or vasectomies, to make more room for abortions. A recreational vehicle has been retooled into a mobile clinic that can travel along the state line for doctors to provide abortions.

That still won’t be enough to keep up, McNicholas predicted.

She’s eyeing a proposed six-week abortion ban in Florida that could send even more women from the South seeking abortions up north. And she’s closely watching how a Texas judge will rule on a case that seeks to keep the abortion pill mifepristone off the market.

“Any additional decision has the potential to really change demand again,” McNicholas said. “It’s like crisis management every day of the year.”

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