Arkansans seeking abortions must travel long distances after Supreme Court ruling

FILE — An Interstate 40 sign is shown in this 2019 file photo.

Arkansans now must travel hundreds of miles for abortion care after Friday's U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

The out-of-state trips compound other hurdles to abortion access for Arkansans, including taking time off work, finding child care and complying with a patchwork of regulations in other states.

The court's overturning of Roe v. Wade triggered laws banning most abortions in Arkansas and neighboring Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Missouri. Texas and Oklahoma, Arkansas' other two neighbors, enacted bans on abortions before the decision, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-choice research group.

While the Supreme Court ruling repealed the constitutional right to an abortion, it doesn't prevent people living in states with abortion bans from seeking services in other parts of the country, according to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland.

"We recognize that traveling to obtain reproductive care may not be feasible in many circumstances," Garland said in a Friday statement. "But under bedrock constitutional principles, women who reside in states that have banned access to comprehensive reproductive care must remain free to seek that care in states where it is legal."

At least one Arkansas nonprofit working to increase abortion access saw an influx of support on Friday. Arkansas Abortion Support Network received thousands of dollars in donations within hours of the Supreme Court's decision, said Ali Taylor, co-founder and president of the organization.

"[Donations] are coming in from all over," Taylor said.

More people seeking abortions have also reached out to the organization on the day of the ruling.

Along with community and educational outreach, Arkansas Abortion Support Network provides clinic escorting services and helps patients fund abortions. While the organization doesn't directly offer travel funds for people seeking abortions, Taylor said the network plans to increase funding it provides for the procedure to offset travel costs.

Arkansas Abortion Support Network is connected to other groups -- including the Brigid Alliance and Midwest Access Coalition -- which provide travel support.

The Brigid Alliance, a New York-based group, helps provide travel, food, lodging and other logistical assistance for people seeking abortions, according to its website. The Midwest Access Coalition is based in Illinois and offers support to people traveling in the Midwest for abortions, according to its website.

Arkansans seeking abortions may have to travel as far as New Mexico, Colorado or Illinois, according to Emily Wales, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Great Plains.

"That's a terrible reality for a provider of service that is essential and time-sensitive," Wales said during a news conference Friday.

Patients may struggle to find day care services for their children or take time off work, Wales said.

In 2020, more than 3,000 abortions were obtained in Arkansas, and women ages 15-49 drove an average of 113 miles one-way to a clinic for abortions up to 22 weeks, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

The drive from Little Rock to Wichita, Kan., where one of the closest abortion out-of-state abortion clinics is located, is nearly 450 miles. An abortion clinic in Granite City, Ill., is a roughly 350-mile drive from Little Rock.

Planned Parenthood Great Plains manages clinics in Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. Of these states, only Kansas is still offering abortions. But before the Supreme Court ruling, Kansas health care providers were already struggling to offer services to in-state patients, Wales said. She expected medical professionals wouldn't be able to handle an influx of patients from neighboring states.

State laws in Kansas can restrict abortion access. Patients must wait 24 hours after counseling before receiving abortion treatment and can't receive treatment after 22 weeks, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

Abortion is not restricted based on pregnancy stage in New Mexico or Colorado. In Illinois, abortions are banned at fetal viability, generally between 24 and 26 weeks of pregnancy. All three states allow qualified health care professionals, not just physicians, to provide abortions, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

Health care providers have found that patients who must travel long distances to receive abortions are less likely to make their appointments. After bans in Texas and Oklahoma, for instance, Wales said many patients who would have otherwise sought abortions weren't able to manage hourslong trips to out-of-state clinics.

"For many of those patients, the conversations ended in them saying 'I simply cannot get through the logistics needed to seek care even though I'm confident in my decision and my family may be supportive of what choice I'm making,'" she said.