Planned Parenthood is preparing to open its first mobile abortion clinic in Southern Illinois, which will bring services closer to patients by traveling along the borders of neighboring states where abortion has been outlawed.
The 37-foot RV, which will be staffed by a small team of three to five is equipped with a waiting room, lab space and two exam rooms.
The mobile clinic is part of a larger effort by a Planned Parenthood chapter operating in both Illinois where abortion is legal, and Missouri where abortion has been banned, to cut travel times and costs for patients seeking abortion care.
The mobile clinic is expected to be in full operation before the end of the year, according to Dr. Colleen McNicholas, chief medical officer of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri.
The affiliate’s Fairview Heights abortion clinic on the Illinois side of the St. Louis region has been flooded with abortion patients since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June and revoked the federal right to an abortion.
From June through October of this year, the clinic saw a 370% increase in patients seeking abortion from states outside its service area of Missouri and Illinois, representatives of the St. Louis office said.
The increased demand for abortion care for women living in the South and Midwest as well as patients who are seeking abortion later in pregnancy due to the Supreme Court decision has come “more quickly than we expected,” McNicholas said.
The average travel time to an abortion facility increased significantly for women in the United States and more than a dozen states enacted complete or partial bans on abortion after the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling, according to a study released Tuesday by the Journal of the American Medical Association.
JAMA researchers considered abortion facilities in states where the procedure has been banned to be inactive, cutting the number of active facilities by a tenth. The drop in active facilities means a third of women of reproductive age in the US live more than an hour from the closest abortion facility.
Abortion patients travel up to 600 miles for care
McNicholas said many patients travel up to 600 miles each way to receive abortion care at the Illinois clinic, many of whom are forced to make difficult adjustments for their children, jobs and other family responsibilities in order to travel the distance.
“The abortion-providing infrastructure across the country is really fragile right now,” McNicholas told CNN. “Across the ecosystem of abortion providers, we are really feeling the weight of so many folks who are traveling for care. The biggest barrier for us in providing care is helping folks navigate that logistics, helping reduce wait times as much as we can.”
During its initial stages, the clinic will only offer medication abortion as well as pregnancy testing, pregnancy ultrasounds and sexually transmitted infection testing and treatment, which will help “offload some capacity” for the Fairview Heights brick-and-mortar clinic, McNicholas said. By the first quarter of next year, the goal is to start offering surgical abortions for patients, she added.
Before the Supreme Court decision, it was already difficult for many women in the country to access abortion, according to Rene Almeling, a professor of sociology at Yale University.
“While this is a particular response to the ways that abortion restrictions have now gone state to state, it is addressing a very long-standing problem of people having to travel for hours, endure waiting periods, expend their own dollars,” Almeling said of Planned Parenthood’s mobile clinic.
“The fact that Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers are reduced to taking these sorts of extreme measures to try to increase access to abortion is a very sad statement about contemporary American politics,” she added.
Mobile clinic will reduce barriers
The concept for the mobile clinic came long before the Supreme Court stripped the federal right to abortion, as Missouri already had some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the nation, with many residents traveling to Illinois for abortion care, according to McNicholas.
In anticipation of the “inevitable” overturning of Roe v. Wade, the Planned Parenthood affiliate in 2019 opened a clinic across the Missouri border in Fairview Heights.
“One of the things that we had learned from our experience in Missouri was that having a physical space to come to meets the needs of some people, but it still presents tremendous logistic barriers for folks. If we were truly going to be doing some innovative work after Roe was overturned to reduce barriers for folks, we needed to find a way to bring that care closer to them,” McNicholas said.
McNicholas and her team are in the final stages of ensuring all equipment is working and starting to fill the schedule with patient appointments. They are also planning the route the mobile clinic will follow by analyzing data on the travel patterns of patients to Illinois over the past few months to determine what would make “the most impact for folks,” McNicholas said.
Another part of the plan involves implementing alarm systems, cameras and other security measures to protect patients and staff from any possible threats.
Staff members at the St. Louis office will help patients make an appointment at the mobile clinic depending on the distance they have to travel for abortion care, matched with when the unit will be in an area closer to where they are.
Cynthia Buckley, a professor of sociology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, said Illinois has been an “oasis for reproductive care” for women living in neighboring red states.
Buckley called the mobile clinic a “godsend,” because while there are some abortion clinics near Illinois’ border, there is a severe lack of clinics north and south of the border.
Among Missouri’s border states, abortion is legal in Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas. It is illegal with very few exceptions in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Kentucky, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks abortion laws.
“The easier we can make it for women to access care, the better off everyone will be,” she said. “This is a mobile clinic that provides a wealth of information on reproductive health care, this is not just about abortion, this is about counseling, cancer screening, prenatal care and information about reproduction.”