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Abortion providers and advocates experience déjà vu as Roe v. Wade is threatened

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

Last time NPR spoke with Kathaleen Pittman, the phone was ringing off the hook at her abortion clinic in Shreveport, La.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

KATHALEEN PITTMAN: Hello. This is Kathaleen. How may I help you?

FLORIDO: Many of those calls were coming from Texas just next door because Texas had just banned abortion for pregnancies older than six weeks. Fast-forward to this week's leak from the Supreme Court signaling it's set to overturn Roe vs. Wade, abortion providers like Pittman are steeling themselves for these sorts of scenes to begin playing out across the country.

If Roe is overturned, about a dozen states would ban abortions immediately, with others likely to follow, so we wanted to check in with some abortion-rights advocates to see what the past few days have been like and how they're preparing for what might come next.

I'm joined now by Kathaleen Pittman of the Hope Medical Group for Women in Louisiana. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

PITTMAN: Thank you for having me.

FLORIDO: We also have Dr. Erin King, executive director of the Hope Clinic for Women in Granite City, Ill. Hi.

ERIN KING: Hi - nice to be here.

FLORIDO: And finally, Odile Schalit, who directs the Brigid Alliance, a group that helps women connect with abortion services. Thank you for being here.

ODILE SCHALIT: Thanks for having me.

FLORIDO: I understand you all had just attended the National Abortion Federation conference earlier this week when the draft ruling from the Supreme Court was leaked. You were surrounded by other abortion-rights advocates, and I'm wondering what that moment was like. Odile, can I ask you?

SCHALIT: It's hard to capture. I think that the best way to do so is to say that it was a combination of feeling stunned, mad and a sense of resignation and acceptance that this is something that we knew was coming for a long time and gratitude that, unlike many other moments that have been quite similar to this one, in this one, we got to actually - some of us - be together.

FLORIDO: Kathaleen, I want to go to you. It was just eight months ago that your clinic, which is the closest abortion clinic in Louisiana to the Texas border, saw this huge influx of patients after Texas passed SB 8. Does this feel like deja vu?

PITTMAN: Deja vu all over again. Actually, it does. I had actually returned to my hotel room when a reporter called me and said, have you seen the news? And I'm - no, I haven't. She sent it to me. So I actually canceled my plans so I could start conferring with our attorneys and my staff. I felt like I needed to do some reassurance there. This was an early draft. And I reminded them, you know, we have overcome so many obstacles. We'll see this through. We'll do what we need to do. And to my staff's credit, the concern was about the women. Not a single employee expressed concern for themselves or their livelihood. Everybody has been worried about the women.

As you said before, we had seen such an influx from Texas last fall. And at Hope, we are still operating with a waiting list. On any given day, I have 300 names ready for us to reach out to them to schedule that very first appointment. So I spent my time reassuring and telling them, you know, it's not over, not yet. In order to provide abortion care in Louisiana, you have to be willing to have a certain amount of optimism. Otherwise, we can't get out of bed in the mornings.

FLORIDO: Dr. Erin King, I want to go to you. Your clinic is in Granite City, Ill., just about 10 minutes from the Missouri border, where abortion access has already been quite restricted. And Illinois is surrounded by states that have trigger laws, meaning automatic bans would go into effect if Roe is overturned. How is your clinic preparing for this possible outcome?

KING: So you are correct. We actually see about 60% of our patients are from Missouri. They are coming from out of state. And we have watched over two years as Missouri has restricted abortion so much that there are just a couple hundred abortions happening in Missouri right now where there used, you know, be over 5- to 6,000 at least per year.

And so we are extremely worried about the Supreme Court decision that the same thing is going to happen in more states around us. And pretty much every other state that borders Illinois will immediately or, over this next several months after a Supreme Court decision, will have significant restrictions on abortion if not a complete ban on abortion.

So we've actually been preparing for several years. We are optimistic all the time. We want the best for our patients. But we also are realistic. And to be prepared to even be able to see a small portion of the patients that will need access out of their own states, we've had to add staff. We've added nurses. We've added doctors. We've added appointment types. We have the capacity to expand pretty quickly hours and appointments and have been able to even though we've seen influxes of patients on and off from surrounding states. But no one will be ready for the number of patients that can't access care if the decision from the Supreme Court is anything like the draft that's come out.

FLORIDO: I imagine you've been getting a lot of phone calls in the last few days. Tell me about who's calling and what they're saying to you.

KING: Well, the minute the draft decision was leaked - of course, we weren't open at that time; we were open the next morning - we had patients immediately calling, asking were we canceling their appointment because they thought abortion was now illegal in the country. There was a lot of confusion around what access and care was available just the next morning after the leak of a draft. So I can't even imagine the amount of confusion that's going to happen and concern when the real decision comes down.

And we were also getting calls from - luckily from supporters, saying, what can we do? How can we help? Who can we fund? What funds can we help? What patient support organizations should we turn our attention to? And unfortunately, we also had a very strong protester presence outside of our office for the next several days, including actually today. We've seen almost double the number of protesters and a lot more anger and really angry, mean words towards patients and staff entering the building.

FLORIDO: Are you increasing security?

KING: Yes.

FLORIDO: Kathaleen in Louisiana, are you making plans to scale up your clinic, or are you kind of taking a wait-and-see approach because of the pending restrictions that Louisiana's legislature might pass soon?

PITTMAN: There is no possibility of scaling up. We have a trigger ban in Louisiana. Should Roe be reversed, we would cease to exist - all three clinics in Louisiana. You have to understand - none of the clinics that provide abortion care in Louisiana offer any other type of care. Because we are dealing with some of the poorest of the poor, there would be issues with, say, if we were to attempt to provide routine GYN care. How is that cost going to be covered? Most of the patients that come to us would qualify for Medicaid because of their income. However, in Louisiana, it's against the law to provide any type of funding, Medicaid or otherwise, to clinics that provide abortion care.

So in Louisiana, it's all or nothing. We can't do more than abortions. We can't even relocate to expand, should we need to, without having to apply for a new license, which would not be forthcoming, I assure you. There's a Planned Parenthood in New Orleans that, years ago, had a new facility, applied for an abortion clinic license, and that has never come to fruition and probably never will.

FLORIDO: Odile Schalit, your organization, the Brigid Alliance, is a practical support organization. You help people get across state lines all over the U.S. Describe some of the logistics of that for me. What does it look like to help someone get across state lines to find an abortion that might not be available where they live?

SCHALIT: Yeah. So at the Brigid Alliance, we cover a wide range of logistical needs. So that can include anything from transportation, like flights, bus tickets, train tickets, gas, cash for parking, cash for a rental car service. It can also include lodging, reimbursements for childcare. And critically, we coordinate these things for our clients. As you can imagine, having to access an abortion, having to travel for that, having to negotiate the disruption that that causes to your life is significant enough. Having to then plan a whole trip, especially if you've never traveled out of your state before, which is the case for many folks who - a lot of people who travel from rural areas - that that is - can be a significant hindrance to whether someone even tries to travel.

So we - our coordinators - our incredible coordinators spend a lot of time trying to make sure that our clients feel safe in traveling, feel that they have a companion in us, that they are not alone. That means being in touch with them regularly so that they feel that support. So we're really - we work with our clients from when we first speak with them all the way until they get home.

FLORIDO: Kathaleen Pittman in Louisiana, where you are, what kind of patients are you expecting are going to be most affected by this potential forthcoming ruling?

PITTMAN: I think what we will be seeing most affected would be the marginalized communities, which actually makes up the majority of our patient roster. Most of the women we see here at Hope are living at or below the federal poverty level. The majority are persons of color. The majority already have one or more children at home and are trying to decide what's best for them. We're seeing them having to navigate just to get to our clinic - issues with transportation, issues with child care, time off work, time off school. Again, it's going to be those who have the least that will suffer the most.

FLORIDO: I've been speaking with Kathaleen Pittman of Hope Medical Group in Shreveport, La., Odile Schalit of the Brigid Alliance and Dr. Erin King of Hope Clinic in Granite City, Ill. Thank you all so much for being with us.

KING: Thank you.

SCHALIT: Thank you.

PITTMAN: Thank you for having us.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICHOLAS BRITELL'S "END CREDITS SUITE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.