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Planned Parenthood mobile clinic will take abortion to red-state borders


Updated October 3, 2022 at 10:32 AM ET

With a growing number of patients in states that now prohibit abortion traveling for the procedure, Planned Parenthood says it will soon open its first mobile abortion clinic in the country, in southern Illinois.

"Our goal is to reduce the hundreds of miles that people are having to travel now in order to access care...and meet them where they are," said Yamelsie Rodriguez, President of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, said in an interview with NPR.

The mobile clinic will begin offering consultations and dispensing abortion pills later this year. It will operate within Illinois, where abortion remains legal, but will be able to travel closer to neighboring states' borders, reducing the distance many patients travel for the procedure.

"It gives us a lot of flexibility about where to be," Rodriguez said.

Illinois has become a hub for people from other parts of the Midwest and South who've become unable to get abortions in their home states as a result of this summer's U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade.

Anticipating that possibility, Planned Parenthood opened a large clinic in 2019 in Fairview Heights, Illinois, just across the state line from St. Louis. Missouri had some of the nation's strictest abortion laws even before the court released the Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization decision, and state officials moved almost immediately to implement abortion bans in response to it.

The Fairview Heights clinic is projected to receive about 14,000 patients traveling from across the region each year, an increase that "is materializing much, much faster than we anticipated," Rodriguez said. "We just need more access points."

The mobile facility – set up inside of an RV – will include a small waiting area, laboratory, and two exam rooms. It initially will provide medication abortion up to 11 weeks gestation, officials said. It eventually will offer surgical abortions, likely beginning sometime next year.

Patients seeing healthcare providers at the mobile clinic will follow the same protocol as those visiting a permanent Planned Parenthood facility, said to Dr. Colleen McNicholas, chief medical officer for Planned Parenthood in the region. They take mifepristone - the first in a two-drug protocol approved by the Food and Drug Administration - on-site. They're offered counseling about the other drug, misoprostol, which is taken later.

"The only thing that will change is the fact that now they might only have to drive five hours instead of nine hours," she said.

One of the first tasks will be to determine the best routes for the mobile clinic. The organization is reviewing data to determine where patients are coming from and looking at healthcare facilities, churches, and other locations as potential stopping-off points. Another important consideration will be safety and security for patients and staff, McNicholas said.

Officials say they may expand to additional mobile units in the future. If the mobile clinic concept succeeds, it could be part of a larger strategy to find new ways to reach patients seeking abortions post- Roe. An organization called Just the Pill also recently announced it would be providing mobile clinic-based medication abortion care to patients in the Western and Midwestern United States.

"We are all trying to work together to meet the exponential increase in the number of patients that are traveling from banned states to what we're calling 'haven states' for abortion care," Yamelsie Rodriguez said. "It's an all-hands-on-deck moment."

Planned Parenthood says between June, when the Dobbs decision was issued, and August, it saw nearly a four-fold increase in patients coming from outside Missouri or Illinois to its Fairview Heights clinic. The organization also is preparing to open a new family planning clinic in Rolla, Mo., in early November. Rodriguez said it's part of a larger push to expand services including contraception, STI screening, and transgender care, and to provide reproductive healthcare in underserved, rural parts of the state.

The overturning of Roe has set up likely battles between states with a patchwork of different abortion laws. Earlier this year, a Missouri state lawmaker unsuccessfully proposed allowing people to file lawsuits against those who help Missouri residents get abortions out of state - which she deemed "abortion tourism." That proposal failed, but legal experts say it's unclear how clashes between state laws will be resolved in the future.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.