Misinformation around abortion bills causing confusion and fear for patients

Abortion is still legal in all 50 states.

May 21, 2019, 4:16 PM

Dalton Johnson knew that his phone would be ringing off the hook.

Every time Alabama lawmakers or courts move on a bill that chisels away at abortion rights, patients call in with questions for the Alabama Women's Center, one of the three clinics that provide abortions in the state, which is owned by Johnson.

That happened in 2013, when lawmakers required that abortion providers have admitting privileges at local hospitals, and again in 2016 when they banned a second trimester method known as dilation and evacuation, and barred abortion clinics within 2,000 feet of public elementary and middle schools. All of those laws -- which are known as Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (TRAP) laws -- were later blocked in court.

"It happens every time one of these TRAP laws happens," Johnson told ABC News. "There's always a flood of calls: 'Are you guys still open?' 'Can I get my procedure done?'"

Since the state Senate passed a bill last week that would criminalize providing abortions, without exceptions for cases of rape or incest, the "phone's been ringing nonstop," Johnson said, especially since Gov. Kay Ivey went on to sign it.

The signing of that Alabama bill came a week after Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed a so-called "heartbeat" ban. This week, Gov. John Bel Edwards said he'd sign a "heartbeat" ban in Louisiana should it pass the state legislature.

None of these bills have gone into effect, and the Georgia and Alabama bills are both facing legal challenges. Abortion remains legal in all 50 states, and no state has a functioning six-week abortion ban.

The sometimes convoluted procedures for how laws are approved and then challenged in court, coupled with the charged language used by politicians and advocates on both sides of the issue, has at times left patients misinformed.

Employees at abortion clinics in Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana told ABC News they are receiving non-stop calls from patients, mostly with the same concerns: has abortion been outlawed, has the clinic closed its doors, should appointments made for the future be pushed sooner? One Alabama clinic got a call from someone asking “will they get locked up, will they be charged of a crime" if they got an abortion.

Amanda Kifferly, vice president for abortion access at The Women's Centers, told ABC News she's concerned about how these laws are potentially raising the stigma around abortion, and making patients feel like "it's actually a criminal experience."

A big thing we encounter is just misinformation and stigma keeps (patients) from going to their appointments.

"We don't want people to feel like they have to break a law in order to get safe care," she said.

Staci Fox, president of Planned Parenthood Southeast, said that after Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed a so-called "heartbeat" ban, "there was a lot of media headlines speculating about the impact of the bill and speculating about criminalization of women, and what we started hearing was a lot of fear."

It got to the point where Planned Parenthood Southeast set up an automated message on their call line just to say abortion is still legal and their doors are open.

"We want to make sure everyone in this country knows what's going on," said Fox. "But at the same time, I don't want a single person to be feeling scared and alone and abandoned, and thinking about doing something, when they can come in and get something safe and legal."

PHOTO: A sign is pictured at the entrance to a Planned Parenthood building in New York, Aug. 31, 2015.
A sign is pictured at the entrance to a Planned Parenthood building in New York, Aug. 31, 2015.
Lucas Jackson/Reuters, FILE

Some health care providers are putting information on their websites and on social media, and they're also relying on advocacy groups and funds, like the Yellowhammer Fund in Alabama and the Southeast division of Access Reproductive Care (ARC), to help educate the public with accurate information.

While employees at clinics and other health care providers say they are happy to answer questions, they worry about the patients who are not calling. Providers worry about what patients will do to attempt to self-manage if they think they can't come in for an abortion, which is a safe medical procedure with a very low rate of complications when performed under proper conditions.

"I'm not sure what we can do beyond educate when we have them on the phone," said Kathaleen Pittman, who runs the independent clinic Hope Medical Group for Women in Louisiana.

Advocates also worry that the bad press generated by the restrictive laws could impact recruitment of qualified doctors to states like Georgia and Alabama, which have among the highest rates of maternal mortality in the country. Dr. Lisa Haddad, who is affiliated with the Emory University School of Medicine in Georgia, told ABC News she knows of one doctor who held off on making a decision to take a position in the state because of restrictive laws.

"We know that it's going to influence attracting individuals from coming to the state -- a state that has huge gaps in maternal care," Haddad said. For her part, Haddad has noticed she's been "more self-aware" recently, especially since anti-abortion protesters at George's capital were carrying guns.

Johnson, in Alabama, said the bill there is "just one more thing to discourage physicians coming to the state, especially physicians in women's health," on top of an overall health care system that is generally lacking. Alabama is ranked 46th out of the 50 states in health care, according to U.S. News.

We are still open, we are still providing safe and secure terminations, and that's most important.

Add to that, Johnson said, "When you're [discussing] placing jail time on physicians making health care decisions that are best for their patients, that's scary."

Chad Jackson of the West Alabama Women's Center told ABC News that he sometimes wonders if he will still have a job in six month. But he said he is even more concerned about "what the women will do once the doors close," should the Alabama ban actually go into effect.

Still, Jackson said the clinic has no plans to close.

"We are still open, we are still providing safe and secure terminations," Jackson said.

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