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Planned Parenthood to launch its first mobile abortion clinic post-Roe

Colleen McNicholas, chief medical officer at Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, at a clinic in Fairview Heights, Ill., in April. (Martha Irvine/AP)

In the nine months before Roe v. Wade was overturned, the Planned Parenthood clinic in Fairview Heights, Ill., had been busier than usual, picking up an influx of Texas patients who traveled north after the state’s six-week abortion ban.

But when Roe fell in June, the steady stream of out-of-state patients turned into a surge as abortion was banned or severely restricted in states encircling Illinois. The number of patients at Planned Parenthood’s Fairview Heights clinic in southern Illinois has increased 340 percent since the Supreme Court decision, according to the provider.

“Pre-decision, we were able to get folks in for abortion care in about two to three days,” said Colleen McNicholas, chief medical officer at Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, which covers southern Illinois. “Now it’s about two to three weeks.”

Prompted by the number of patients who must travel out of state for abortion care, Planned Parenthood on Monday announced it was launching its first mobile abortion clinic, which will cover Illinois’ southern border.

The mobile units join mail-order abortion pill providers and telehealth appointments among the latest strategies sought by reproductive rights advocates and health-care providers to keep abortion safe and accessible to as many patients as possible as the landscape grows more restrictive, particularly in the South and Midwest.

Planned Parenthood’s mobile unit is expected to be operational by the end of the year, when it will begin by providing medical abortions up to 11 weeks of pregnancy. Organizers anticipate that it will also help to expand the capacity of its brick-and-mortar clinics by offering family planning services, emergency contraception and testing for sexually transmitted infections.

McNicholas described the unit as a 37-foot converted RV with “fully functional exam rooms to provide the full spectrum of services,” as well as a lab and a waiting room inside.

“It truly mimics the experience one might have at one of our smaller health centers,” she said.

There are plans to equip the unit for surgical first-trimester abortions early next year. The exact route and location is yet to be determined, but the mobile unit will operate along the southern Illinois border, Yamelsie Rodriguez, president of the regional Planned Parenthood arm, said during a news conference.

McNicholas said pre-Dobbs v. Jackson, the Supreme Court ruling that overturned Roe, about 4 percent of the patients at the Fairview Heights clinic were from outside the bi-state area — the clinic is just 10 miles from the Missouri border. Now the number is closer to 40 percent. In 2021, the last full year abortion was legal in Missouri, 3,639 state residents received abortions, according to state health data.

“I can’t tell you the number of patients I’ve seen get in their cars at 2 a.m. and drive nine hours here, and then have to get back in their car immediately afterward and drive nine hours back,” McNicholas said.

A mobile unit means cutting down on patients’ travel and hours away from work or paying for child or elder care. It also means serving more patients who need procedural care and can’t be treated via telehealth, McNicholas said.

“At the most fundamental level, we as Americans deserve access to basic health care where we live,” McNicholas said. “And we’re in a situation where potentially half of the country will have abdicated its responsibility to basic lifesaving health care.”

Illinois and Minnesota are the lone states in the Midwest that have safeguarded abortion rights post-Roe. Michigan has a referendum on the November ballot that will determine whether it becomes the third.

McNicholas said there are no immediate plans for additional mobile units but said Planned Parenthood is working with other partners throughout the country that are providing mobile care.

And though mobile clinics are operated out of states only where abortion remains protected by law, abortion supporters and opponents, as well as legal experts, acknowledge that complicated interstate issues loom.

States such as Illinois may try to write rules that limit what are known as “long-arm statues” from states such as Texas with “bounty laws.” Such laws incentivize private citizens to sue anyone they suspect of “aiding or abetting” the state’s abortion ban, and it’s unclear how far outside state borders the laws may try to reach, said Robin Fretwell Wilson, a professor who teaches family and health law at the University of Illinois College of Law.

“You have the whole interstate problem: How can a blue state protect itself from the projection of red-state public policy into a blue state?” Wilson said. “We don’t know the answer yet, but Illinois is right in the crosshairs.”

Answers may come, she said, once a state goes to court over the matter, and probably not before.