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Texas abortion ban turns clinics into travel agencies

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Patients admitted to In the bright offices of the Houston Women’s Reproductive Services on the third floor, they usually followed the usual steps of a regular medical appointment: checking in, taking blood pressure, examining other vital organs. But over the past nine months, typical rhythms and protocols have completely changed. These days, patients seeking medical care for abortions are rushed for an ultrasound scan – laboratory work is done later. They are often overcome by palpable anxiety. “Our patients are in absolute panic when they come. They have nervous breakdowns, they tremble with fear,” says administrator and founder Cathy Kleinfeld. “It’s heartbreaking. So we’re trying to give them the answers they need right now.”

The answer they need immediately is whether they are within the narrow six-week mark and whether they can qualify for an abortion in Texas under the Senate’s draconian Act 8, which bans abortions in the state after the detection of fetal heart activity. “We all hold our breath during every ultrasound,” says Kleinfeld.

The small staff of four full-time employees is also consumed by urgency and anxiety; if abortion care happens outside of a strict time frame, it can mean costly and disruptive lawsuits that could end a career.

There are some who are within the window and can get abortion care at the clinic. They usually “cry” with relief, Kleinfeld says, although they still have to wait 24 hours after the ultrasound, as another 2011 state law requires. But on the other hand, there are more than 300 patients and thousands of callers that the clinic has been forced to turn down since the ban went into effect. These are people, Kleinfeld says, who feel “devastated” and “deeply shaken.” Some end up confused and overwhelmed, burdened with contemplating how and even if they can secure the resources and manage the logistics needed to get out of the state. How can I get childcare, time off and money for travel and accommodation? Providers and advocates strongly emphasize that low-income Texans and people of color have been disproportionately affected by the harsh law and are more likely to carry unwanted pregnancies to term.

As a result, Texas clinics have become grim travel agencies. Since last September, when SB 8 went into effect, an average of about 1,400 Texans have traveled out of state each month to have an abortion, almost equivalent to the number Every year between 2017 and 2019, according to the Texas Policy Assessment Project. Some are forced to travel hundreds, even thousands of miles to get an abortion, Guttmacher said, causing a “domino effect” by delaying treatment for others in clinics across the country.

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