Texas women drive hours for abortions after new law

The nation's most restrictive abortion law is driving many women from Texas to seek services as far away as Oklahoma and Kansas

SHREVEPORT, La. -- The 33-year-old Texas woman drove alone four hours through the night to get to the Louisiana abortion clinic for a consultation. She initially planned to sleep in her car, but an advocacy group helped arrange a hotel room.

Single and with three children ranging from 5 to 13, she worried that adding a baby now would take time, food, money and space away from her three children. She doesn't have a job, and without help from groups offering a safe abortion, she said, she probably would have sought another way to end her pregnancy.

“If you can’t get rid of the baby, what’s the next thing you’re going to do? You’re going to try to get rid of it yourself. So I’m thinking: ‘What could I do? What are some home remedies that I could do to get rid of this baby, to have a miscarriage, to abort it?’ And it shouldn’t be like that. I shouldn’t have to do that. I shouldn’t have to think like that, feel like that, none of that.

“We have to be heard. This has got to change. It’s not right.”

She was one of more than a dozen women who arrived Saturday at the Hope Medical Group for Women, a single-story brick building with covered windows just south of downtown Shreveport. Some came alone. Others were accompanied by a friend or a partner. Some brought their children because they were unable to get child care.

All were seeking to end pregnancies, and most were from neighboring Texas, where the nation's most restrictive abortion law remains in effect. It prohibits abortions once cardiac activity is detected, after about six weeks, before many women even know they are pregnant. It makes no exceptions for rape or incest. As a result, abortion clinics in surrounding states are being inundated with Texas women.

The women agreed to speak to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity so they could talk openly about their experiences.

Like many of the others, the 33-year-old Texas mother said she tried to schedule an abortion closer to home, but she was too far along. By the time she arrived at the clinic for the abortion on Saturday, she was just past nine weeks and had to undergo a surgical abortion rather than using medication. She said the ordeal left her angry with the Texas politicians who passed the law.

“If I had to keep this baby, ain't no telling what would've happened. I probably would've went crazy, and they don't understand that," she said, her voice filled with emotion.

A 25-year-old woman made the 70-mile trip south from Texarkana, on the border of Texas and Arkansas. She said she was already five weeks along before she realized she was pregnant, and she knew it would be impossible to schedule the required two visits at a Texas clinic. By the time she was able to make an appointment in Shreveport, her pregnancy was almost too advanced for a medication abortion.

“Luckily I found out when I did, because then I was still able to take the pill rather than the surgery," she said.

While she was at the clinic, her husband waited for hours in the car with her young son, who is a toddler and is still breastfeeding. They had no one to watch him.

The Texas law has been bouncing between courts for weeks. The Biden administration urged the courts again Monday to suspend it. That effort came three days after a federal appeals court reinstated the law following a blistering lower-court ruling that created a brief 48-hour window last week in which Texas abortion providers rushed to bring in patients again.

As most of the women entered the clinic's parking lot, they were met by anti-abortion protesters, mostly from East Texas, who regularly make the trip to Shreveport.

John Powers, 44, a machinist from Jacksonville, Texas, said he typically makes the nearly two-hour drive twice a month with the goal of getting any woman to change her mind. In the 13 years he's been protesting outside clinics, he says he's convinced two women not to go through with their abortions, which he calls “turnarounds."

“I'm not going to say it happens a lot," said Powers, who has six children and supports any law that makes it harder for women to get an abortion. “Let's say I never have another turnaround, that one baby that can now grow up and marry and have her own children, go to school and maybe become a journalist. That'd be worth it, easily worth it to me."

Once inside the clinic, women are greeted by staff members who offer assurance and understanding. The clinic director put her arm around one woman as she escorted her to the back of the clinic. A television in a corner of the waiting room is tuned to Black Entertainment Television. A separate “chill room" with soft music and large leather couches offers patients a chance to rest before their procedure.

Many of the women's stories are troubling for Kathaleen Pittman, the clinic administrator who started working in an abortion clinic 30 years ago. She said she recently spoke to a mother in Texas trying to get an abortion for her 13-year-old daughter, who was sexually assaulted.

“She's a child," Pittman said. “She should not have to be on the road for hours getting here. It is absolutely heartbreaking."

Before the Texas law went into effect, Pittman said, about 20% of her clients were from Texas, mostly the eastern part of the state close to a three-state region called the Ark-La-Tex of about 1.5 million people, with Shreveport at its geographic center. Now that number is closer to 60%, and the women come hundreds of miles from Austin, Houston or San Antonio.

About 55,440 abortions were performed in Texas in 2017, according to the most recent data available from the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that supports abortion rights, although some of those patients may have been women from out of state. Abortions performed in Texas account for more than 6% of all abortions in the U.S., Guttmacher reported.

With an estimated 1,000 women per week in Texas seeking an abortion, clinics in nearby states report being overwhelmed.

The Trust Women clinic in Oklahoma City, which is about a three-hour drive from Dallas-Fort Worth, saw about 11 patients from Texas in August. In September, after the Texas law went into effect, that number jumped to 110, and phones at the clinic are ringing constantly, said Rebecca Tong, co-executive director of Trust Women, which also operates a clinic in Wichita, Kansas.

“Many of them are trying to literally drive through the night and then show up at 8 a.m. for their appointment, having not rested," Tong said. “It’s just not a good situation to go into an outpatient surgery having driven through the evening and think you can just go right home afterward."

The Texas law and the difficulty in scheduling out-of-state appointments also force women to wait longer, which means greater expense, more risk and fewer options for terminating the pregnancy, Tong said.

Legislators in some states surrounding Texas hope to implement a similar law that would prevent most abortions. In Oklahoma, Republican state Sen. Julie Daniels wrote or sponsored four separate measures to further restrict the practice. All four laws are being challenged in court.

When asked to respond to the Texas women, Daniels said her calculation is not complicated.

“The calculus is simple and straightforward: An unborn child is a child. It's a life. It's simply that, and so it's not any more complicated than that," she said. “I'm concerned first and foremost with the life of the unborn child."