A ‘chaotic’ week: Maryland abortion providers see ‘huge influx’ of calls from patients across the country

Published on: July 02, 2022 10:09 AM EDT|Updated on: July 02, 2022 5:58 PM EDT

Supporters of the baltimore Abortion Fund and the Women's March attend a rally in protest of the overturning of Roe V. Wade at the federal courthouse in Baltimore.
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After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last month, ending five decades of federal abortion protections, the phones at Baltimore abortion clinics began to ring — and they have hardly stopped since, providers said.

“It’s been a little chaotic these last couple of days,” said Marva Sadler, senior director of clinical services for Whole Woman’s Health, an abortion provider with clinics across the country and just outside Baltimore.

Initially, the clinic fielded calls from patients concerned about their existing abortion appointments, Sadler said. Staff members assured them that the high court’s June 24 decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization would not end abortion services in Maryland, which codified the right to abortion in state law about three decades ago.

By Monday, the phone lines were busy with a “huge influx” of calls from patients across the country looking to travel to Maryland for abortion care, Sadler said.

Twenty-six states are certain or likely to ban abortion in light of the Supreme Court’s 6-3 decision, predicts the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks sexual and reproductive health and rights. Reports of canceled appointments and scrambling patients have flooded from states that moved quickly to restrict access to abortions.

Maryland, a deep blue state, is positioned to be a haven for individuals who want to end their pregnancies.

The Maryland General Assembly already expanded access to abortion this year by allowing nurse practitioners, midwives and physician’s assistants to join doctors in performing abortions. The law took effect Friday. The state will also allocate $3.5 million a year to train health care professionals in reproductive services.

Clinics are preparing to accommodate an expected wave of out-of-state patients. A community nonprofit that provides financial assistance to people seeking abortions in Maryland has seen an outpouring of support. A doctor is planning to open a College Park clinic that will perform abortions into the third trimester of a pregnancy. (In Maryland, abortions are restricted after viability, which is typically considered to be around 24 weeks. Abortions are allowed after viability if the patient’s life or health is endangered or if the fetus has a genetic defect or serious abnormality.)

There are 11 surgical abortion clinics licensed in the state, according to Maryland Department of Health documents. That does not include non-surgical abortion providers that terminate pregnancies through medications and are not tracked by the state health department. In fiscal year 2021, doctors performed more than 10,000 Medicaid-funded abortions in the state, documents show.

An increasing number of patients from states with abortion bans or restrictions — including Kentucky, West Virginia and Ohio — have called the Potomac Family Planning Center, which has three offices in Maryland, to schedule abortion appointments or inquire about reproductive services, said Allison Claytor, the clinic coordinator. They have seen patients from as far away as Alabama, South Carolina and Texas. The clinic is prepared to expand its business hours, she said.

“I think we need to be really open to start accepting these patients and [get] used to this caseload we’re going to start seeing, if we haven’t started seeing it already,” Claytor said.

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It’s difficult to estimate how many people will flock to Maryland for abortion services, said Lynn McCann, co-director of the Baltimore Abortion Fund. That’s partly because the “legal landscape is constantly shifting and changing,” she said.

In recent days, judges have temporarily halted abortion bans from going into effect in some states. Still, access to abortion in several states neighboring Maryland is in jeopardy. West Virginia’s only abortion clinic stopped performing procedures for fear of prosecution. While Pennsylvania is bracing for thousands of out-of-state patients seeking abortions, reproductive rights there will likely hinge on the outcome of the governor’s race this fall, reports Axios Philadelphia. The Republican nominee, Doug Mastriano, wants to prohibit abortions in the state, as do Republicans who control the state legislature.

In neighboring Virginia, Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin has said he will seek to ban abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, the Washington Post reported. But he faces opposition from Democrats, who still control the state Senate. Virginia currently allows first- and second-trimester abortions, with third-trimester abortions only permitted when the life or health of the mother is at serious risk. Parental consent is required for minors.

Planned Parenthood of Maryland’s president and CEO Karen Nelson said the organization is tracking how many patients come from out of state, but at this point it’s too early to tell the size of the influx.

“There are 26 states at risk. We currently have nine states that have bans in effect,” Nelson said. “That represents 36 million women, half of the country’s population of reproductive health-age persons. So the numbers are pretty steep and we’re monitoring and watching right now.”

Last September, Whole Woman’s Health in Baltimore saw the arrival of Texas patients seeking abortions after the Lone Star State in 2021 passed a bill banning abortions after six weeks, Sadler said. So, months before a leaked Supreme Court draft opinion signaled the end of Roe v. Wade, the Baltimore clinic started preparing for a flood of out-of-state patients, she said. Clinic staff planned for physical upgrades, including making another room available for ultrasounds and exams, and moving an administrative office to create more space for patient care. They also began adjusting doctors’ schedules to make sure the clinic had coverage available for every day. The clinic is prepared to hire more employees if the demand for abortion services starts to exceed capacity.

“We have been afraid of this coming for quite some time,” she said, adding that the initial shock over the ruling has given way to staff members jumping into action to ”get patients and families the care they need.”

As demand for abortion services has surged, so has aid from people and organizations that support abortion rights. Within 24 hours of the high court’s decision, Planned Parenthood of Maryland received $70,000 in donations from 1,000 individuals, Nelson said. This week, it raised $100,000 to meet a match from the Hackerman Foundation, she added.

“There’s an outrage, there’s an anger,” Nelson said. “I spoke to a volunteer today who burst into tears and said, ‘I can’t believe I’m having to make this call, but what can I do to help?’”

An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll released in late June found that 56% of Americans oppose the Supreme Court ruling, compared to 40% who support it. Just more than half of respondents said they would definitely vote for a candidate who would support a federal law to restore the right to an abortion, the poll found.

Nelson said Planned Parenthood of Maryland will draw on the renewed energy around reproductive rights and the new state law that allows more medical professionals to perform abortions. It will seek to expand abortion access across Maryland, where two-thirds of counties do not have an abortion provider.

The Baltimore Abortion Fund has also seen a boost in donations.

McCann said that in the week following the Supreme Court’s ruling, the fund received $160,000 in individual, grassroots donations. By comparison, it spent $250,000 in all of 2021 to fund abortion procedures, she said. Local entities are also pledging support, including the city of Baltimore (which announced $300,000 in grants for abortion and family planning services), Open Society Institute-Baltimore and the Goldseker Foundation, she said.

The Baltimore Abortion Fund helps pay for the medical cost of abortion procedures as well as for other needs that clients may have, such as transportation, child care, translation services and meals. Half of its clients are Maryland residents, McCann said, and the other half are from other states. The number of out-of-state clients began increasing even prior to the overturning of Roe v. Wade, she said.

Every year for the last two years, the fund’s call volume has grown 40%, McCann said. “We’re expecting our call volume will increase 60% to 100% now that Roe has been overturned. It’s just a matter of when.”

The fund has received a “flood” of 600 volunteer applications, McCann said. She said it has been heartening to see. She also is asking for patience from prospective volunteers, and encouraged those who want to help to follow up with Baltimore Abortion Fund in the coming weeks and months.

“This is a movement, not a moment,” McCann said. “We need ongoing support, ongoing attention to build a world where abortion is not only legal, but affordable, destigmatized and available to anyone who needs it.”

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