Pennsylvania could become destination for abortions if Roe is overturned

Abortion rights advocates and anti-abortion protesters demonstrate in front of the U.S. Supreme Court

Abortion rights advocates and anti-abortion protesters demonstrate in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021, in Washington, as the court hears arguments in a case from Mississippi, where a 2018 law would ban abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, well before viability. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

In December 2021, after wrapping up a full day of seeing patients at her family medicine practice in Camden, Dr. Maya Bass boarded an airplane and flew to Oklahoma. There, she would spend the next 48 hours providing abortions for women at one of the state’s four clinics, about 130 miles north of the Texas border.

Bass has been traveling to Oklahoma for years, spending a few days there every month or two to provide services at the Trust Women Foundation clinic in Oklahoma City. She used to live and practice in Oklahoma full time, and when she moved back to the East Coast, where she grew up, she wanted to continue offering abortion care someplace where it was harder to come by than New Jersey. The demand in Oklahoma, she said, has only increased since neighboring Texas enacted its 6-week abortion ban, and Texans with unwanted pregnancies have begun crossing state lines to get abortions.

“I’m always impressed by the resiliency of my patients,” said Bass. “Especially since so many of them are coming from Texas and have driven two, four, six, eight, even 10 hours. Occasionally, I’ve even taken care of someone who had to fly.”

If Roe v. Wade is overturned, as the Supreme Court signaled is likely during oral arguments, the decision of whether abortion is legal will be left up to each state. At least 23 states have laws on the books that would likely ban abortions if Roe is overturned.

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In the same way that Oklahoma has now become a destination for abortion care since the Texas ban, it’s likely other states that continue to allow abortions and border those with new bans will see a surge in demand. Pennsylvania is one of those states.

New Jersey, which has some of the least restrictive abortion laws in the country, isn’t directly bordered by any states that will lose access.

For Bass, that’s why it remains so important to provide abortion care somewhere where it’s harder to come by. For each two-day stint in Oklahoma, she’s scheduled to see 40 patients a day, and there’s a waiting list. Providers are in short supply, too: Bass said almost all of the abortion providers at the clinic where she works fly in from out of state, as she does. At one point when she was living there, she recalled, she was one of two abortion providers that actually lived and practiced in Oklahoma.

Part of the reason Bass chose to move back to the East Coast is that Oklahoma proved a hostile environment for an abortion provider.

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“The idea of protesters coming to my family medicine practice when I was living in Oklahoma and making it so that my patients there didn’t feel comfortable seeing me was like a real concern,” she said. “Not to mention the safety of my family.”

Oklahoma is one the so-called trigger states, meaning that if Roe is overturned, Bass and her colleagues will likely need to relocate their activities if they want to keep providing abortions.

New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware are not trigger states, but that doesn’t mean they won’t feel the impact — especially Pennsylvania.

A recent report from the Guttmacher Institute estimates that the number of people within driving distance of Pennsylvania who could seek abortions there will increase by more than 1,000% if Roe is overturned — from 170,000 annually now, to 2.1 million.

Neighboring Ohio has passed a six-week ban on abortions that is not in effect now but is designed so that it would be once Roe is overturned. For 70% of women in Ohio, Pennsylvania would be the closest state with no ban.

West Virginia banned abortion before Roe v. Wade, so if the ruling falls, that state’s law would likely go back into effect there. The report estimates that Pennsylvania will be the closest state with no ban for 40% of West Virginia women.

And there’s no guarantee that Pennsylvania will remain a safe haven for abortion access. Right now, Pennsylvania law restricts abortion after 24 weeks, the “viability” standard, which refers to the time after which a fetus could survive outside the womb. The state already places many additional significant restrictions on abortion access, such as prohibiting public funds, including Medicaid, to be used for abortion care.

If Pennsylvania elects a Republican governor in 2022, it’s possible the commonwealth would see more restrictive laws enacted. Democratic pro-choice Gov. Tom Wolf has repeatedly vetoed bills that would further restrict abortion access passed by Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled House and Senate.

Because they would be forced to stop practicing in Oklahoma, Bass said her team at the clinic has been discussing expanding capacity at their clinic in Wichita, Kansas, where abortion access is likely to remain if Roe is overturned. But she worries that by reducing the number of clinics and increasing the travel distance required, patients will have to wait even longer for abortions, if they get them at all. Though abortion is largely a safe medical procedure, Bass worries that those obstacles would only serve to make it more dangerous.

“This is a patient safety issue by making abortion illegal,” she said. “We are actually worsening our patient outcomes with no medical evidence for why. That’s been one of the hardest things to see.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the current number of states that could restrict or ban abortion soon after the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe.

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