By BeLynn Hollers
SHREVEPORT — For Texas women seeking abortions in a state that has banned them after approximately six weeks, it was a journey they never expected to take.
Traveling with a friend from a small Texas town. A lonely 13-hour bus ride across the state. A 4 1/2-hour trip from a city where a Planned Parenthood clinic could no longer take an appointment after six weeks of pregnancy.
On Tuesday, they were among the Texas women who arrived at Hope Medical Group for Women in this northern Louisiana city. While there, they described to The Dallas Morning News their reasons for getting an abortion, and their sudden realization that what is often already a difficult decision would be harder following S.B. 8 — which has been described as the nation’s most restrictive abortion law.
The clinic lies just beyond the Texas state line, a few miles off of Interstate 20, and operates in a one-story building surrounded by a wooden fence. It has two surgical rooms and one doctor who sees patients for abortions on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
This Tuesday, the lobby began to fill by midday. The clinic opens at 8:30 a.m. with the first appointments for the day starting at 10 a.m. Women are not allowed to bring partners or friends due to COVID-19 restrictions. Seats are spread apart to maintain social distancing.
Ringing phones echoed inside the waiting room. On that day, the ringing never stopped.
Hope Medical is one of several abortion providers outside of Texas that have seen their clinics fill after Sept. 1, when Texas enacted S.B. 8. The law bans abortions after fetal cardiac activity is detected. That can be at around six weeks, before some women know they are pregnant.
The law has been challenged by the Biden administration, which filed suit to block its enforcement. At a hearing Friday in Austin, lawyers for the Justice Department argued that the law violates Supreme Court precedent. But lawyers for the state of Texas countered that it does not because the state is not enforcing an abortion ban, rather the law allows private individuals to bring lawsuits against violators. Courts have blocked all laws passed in other states banning abortions after cardiac activity is detected, but the Texas law has survived legal challenges so far.
Hope Medical staff said 50 percent of their patient volume is now women from Texas since the law went into effect just four weeks ago. While they’ve always seen women from cities such as Dallas, Longview and those close to the northeast border, they are now coming from Texas cities farther afield, such as Houston and Austin, the clinic’s director Kathaleen Pittman said.
The three women in their early 20s who spoke to The Dallas Morning News while visiting the clinic said they had learned of the law around the same time that they learned they were pregnant. Two spoke on the condition that their last names not be published and one spoke on the condition of anonymity, in each case because of the personal nature of their decision or out of fear that friends or family members who helped them might be sued.
“I never really thought about the law until it had to do with me,” said Cassidy, 22, who is married and has a toddler.
Cassidy said she didn’t know she was pregnant until she had made it to seven weeks, and by then S.B 8. had gone into effect.
Afraid her family might sue her for the decision, Cassidy had a friend drive her the 2-1/2 hours to Shreveport, while her husband took the day off to watch their toddler.
“My family is really petty, very petty. So I was really worried about them finding out,” Cassidy said.
S.B. 8′s enforcement mechanism is through private lawsuits in which citizens of any state can sue those who “aid or abet” an abortion in Texas after the limits set by the law. But the one person who cannot be sued under the law is the woman who receives the abortion. Still, many are not familiar with the intricacies of the law, and the threat of lawsuits is creating confusion and fear.
Cassidy said she and her husband realized they couldn’t afford another child at this time, though she hopes to have more children in the future. She took on a couple of side jobs and got aid from the Texas Equal Access Fund to pay for her abortion.
Echoing the sentiment of many women about choice, Cassidy clarified, “It’s your body, but you can’t get rid of it, OK, so pause. I think there should be a limit. I don’t think somebody should make it to say 30 weeks … but six? I found out when I was seven weeks.”
Cassidy received her abortion at nine weeks on Tuesday.
That same afternoon Asharia, a 21-year-old server, arrived at Hope Medical from Texas. It was her second trip. On Sept. 21, she made a 13-hour bus trip there for her first appointment at the clinic and another 9-hour trip back home. Louisiana state law requires that patients wait 24 hours after their initial counseling appointment to receive an abortion.
Asharia wasn’t aware that S.B. 8 would ban abortions after six weeks when she found out she was pregnant.
“I found out right before Sept. 1, but I didn’t even know they were making the rule.”
She learned about the law when she called a Texas abortion clinic.
“I called them, and they told me that they were changing the law on Sept. 1, and they didn’t have any more appointments until after Sept. 1,” Asharia said.
So she took an appointment on Sept. 7. When she got to the clinic, she found out just how far along she was. She was six weeks pregnant. She could not get an abortion in Texas.
The obstacles she has faced, she said, have left her mentally drained.
“It confuses you, like maybe you’re making the wrong decision. It really just confuses you, doing it by yourself and having to go through it all just to do it,” she said.
Another woman from Texas said she found out she was pregnant two weeks ago, when her mother, a former doctor, had her take a home pregnancy test. She went to a doctor to get checked out.
“Found out I was pregnant at six weeks and one day, which is like, it was crazy when she told me that. I was like ‘Are you serious?’ She’s like, ‘I feel bad’ and I was like, ‘Yeah,’ I mean, it’s messed up,” she said.
The welding student says she is most concerned about the lack of exemptions on the law for victims of sexual assault, especially minors.
“I’m 22, and like, that’s still young, that is not even close to experiencing life, you know, but from what I know I’ve seen some little girls, you know, like young come into Planned Parenthood,” she said.
While it took her 4 ½ hours to reach Shreveport, she noted there is a Planned Parenthood just 15 minutes from her Houston home.
“I mean, it is the law, like you can’t break the law, because if you do then there’s more problems than the one you already have.”
The stories of these women are the kind that clinic director Pittman hears often — women who struggle to get to their appointments due to childcare or transportation issues given the increased distance.
“My stories haven’t changed much, because sadly it’s the same old, same old. You know, women trying to take care of families and state legislators trying to screw them over,” she said.
This is not how many Texas lawmakers see it. Before signing the bill on May 19, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said its purpose is to save unborn lives.
“Our creator endowed us with the right to life and yet millions of children lose their right to life every year because of abortion. In Texas, we work to save those lives.”
In Shreveport, the law also seems to have led to the clinic managing more women with a different reason for wanting an abortion.
Haley Brand, director of patient advocacy at Hope Medical, said that the clinic is now seeing women from Texas who are terminating wanted pregnancies, something that is not as common. Generally, their reasons are due to fetal abnormalities.
Brand said she had only seen one wanted pregnancy in the year she has worked at the clinic. However last week, she met two women wanting abortions after hearing of their chances of experiencing fetal abnormalities.
“I had two patients, one from Houston and one from Dallas, that were here as advised by their OB-GYN. They were told that the pregnancy was nonviable, or if they were to deliver the pregnancy, it would have hours of life, and then would die an awful death,” Brand said.
The two women she described were both around 13 to 14 weeks pregnant, when genetic testing and ultrasound technology can better detect nonviable pregnancies.
“So they drove, six, seven hours to a clinic, where they could have a procedure that should have been able to be performed by their own OB.”
Brand said they are booked out with 40 to 50 patients a day until Oct. 18.
Since the enactment of S.B. 8, abortion providers in other nearby states have also reported an uptick in Texas patients.
Trust Women Foundation which has clinics in Oklahoma City and Wichita, Kan., has seen an increase. Schaunta James-Boyd, co-executive director, said that since its Oklahoma City clinic has filled up with Texas patients, its Wichita clinic is now seeing more Oklahomans.
“Our clinic director just stated that the majority of patients are coming from Texas, so that means that patients that are needing services in Oklahoma have nowhere to go,” James-Boyd said.
Zachary Gingrich-Gaylord, communications director for Trust Women, says that although its Oklahoma City clinic normally would see 15-20 women from Texas a week, it is now seeing approximately 60.
“To have that kind of displacement across the region is really traumatic and dramatic, and it creates a lack of access for people in these other states,” he said.
Gaylord said that some large Texas cities like Dallas and Houston, where clinics had to stop receiving patients after six weeks, had more clinics operating than there are in states like Kansas.
Planned Parenthood of the Great Plains, which includes Oklahoma, Kansas and Arkansas, has seen 250 patients from Texas since Sept. 1, interim president and CEO Emily Wales said.
Dr. Kristina Tocce, vice president and medical director of Planned Parenthood Rocky Mountains, said that they would see eight patients from Texas in Colorado in a typical week. The week following S.B. 8′s enactment, they saw an increase of 20 patients and now are seeing 50 % of its patient volume coming from Texas.
Similar to the providers in Louisiana, Tocce has seen an increase in patients who are coming for termination of wanted pregnancies, such as possible birth defects.
“A few weeks ago a patient traveled 16 hours one way to get to us from Texas, had a desired pregnancy … with the fetal anomaly,” she said.
Tocce said her patient’s doctor in Texas was unable to give her guidance about the next steps.
“This provider actually spoke to their patient and said, ‘I’m sorry, if you’re pursuing abortion care, I really can’t help guide you.’”