Fear and uncertainty grip patients as abortion referral services struggle to keep up

By: - August 8, 2022 4:00 am

Abortion rights advocates. (Photo by Astrid Riecken/Getty Images).

Abortion referral services have seen a change in how they do their work, but despite restrictions that make it less possible to get an abortion in Ohio, clinics and non-profits definitely haven’t seen a shortage of need.

Abortion Fund-Ohio, which provides case management, grants and resources for patients in need of abortion care, had to take an “intake pause” recently, not because they didn’t have things to do, but because of an onslaught of calls and requests following the overturning of Roe v. Wade by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Normally on a busy day we would get 10-15 calls,” said Maggie Scotece, interim executive director of Abortion Fund-Ohio. “On (the U.S. Supreme Court) decision day, we got 71 calls.”

For the next two weeks, Scotece said AFO received 45 to 50 calls per day.

Not only was the non-profit overwhelmed with patient needs, but they also had to take time to figure out the legal ramifications of their work.

Scotece said after the decision came down sending the issue of abortion to individual states rather than upholding the 1973 decision to legalize it nationwide, AFO and the clinics they partner with in the state anticipated having a month to organize next steps for everyone involved.

Instead, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost filed a motion that day to release SB 23 from the legal tangle under which it had been held since 2019 when it was passed by the General Assembly. Hours after the U.S. Supreme Court decision came down, Ohio’s abortion law was put in place.

The six-week abortion ban, passed as Senate Bill 23, made it illegal to conduct an abortion in Ohio after what sponsors wrote in the bill as “detectable cardiac activity,” which some say happens at about six weeks gestation, though scientists say many pregnant individuals may not even know they’re pregnant at that point.

“Our clinics were notified in the early afternoon that we had to end services at 3 p.m. that day,” Scotece said. “Not being able to perform services the next day meant that hundreds of patients would have their appointments cancelled the next day.”

Logistical systems started breaking down, as donations came in a flood so strong, the non-profit couldn’t take them all. But the donations would be needed even more now, with the services needing to divert funds they would have used in the state for abortion care to transportation costs for patients to get to surrounding states with less restrictions.

“We went from navigating a couple people out of state a month, and now it’s lots of people every day,” Scotece said.

The intake pause became necessary so the small staff could breathe, and reassess how to help their patients and keep up with the voluminous documentation required in their work. They had to close their helpline for two weeks. They referred patients to Pre-Term in Cleveland, who had designated referral lines so that patients could still navigate the system.

“Everybody’s scared, and we didn’t want to create more uncertainty for our clients,” Scotece said.

Now that the intake pause has lifted, abortion rights advocates are still working to overcome what they say are formidable barriers for their patients: clinic wait times taking pregnant people past the legal gestation period for abortions, information about available abortion options and transportation/lodging costs to the closest cities for services, like Pittsburgh and Chicago.

“It’s going to continue to be hard and expensive for our patients,” Scotece said.

The Ohio Women’s Alliance, which addresses issues like clinic employment and abortion resource development, is doing their best to eliminate the barriers to service as well, along with helping clinic employees with next steps, should restrictions cause things like clinic closures or layoffs.

Because of these changes, Alana Belle, the deputy director of the OWA, said many clinics will be downsizing and unemployment will be a problem for clinic workers.

The OWA has created resources from grief counseling to a job portal in partnership with Work in Progress, to help clinic workers, but Belle said the needs could be helped by getting rid of abortion restrictions and the potential for full bans in the state.

“It can get worse, this is not the worst it can be, because there are several states that have total abortion bans,” Belle said. “With my knowledge of who is in our legislature and what their goals are, I do not underestimate their ability or desire to pass a total abortion ban.”

With an election upcoming that could change the layout of, among other things, the Ohio Supreme Court, Belle said there could be hope on the horizon.

But what also needs to change is the stigma of abortion and the information being spread about the nuanced issue.

“People need to be comfortable saying the word ‘abortion,” because that’s what’s being attacked,” Belle said. “We should be having conversations about the nuances around abortion and why we should not be restricting access to health care.”

Pre-Term Cleveland did not respond to requests for comment.

This article includes clarifications to the Ohio Women’s Alliance partnerships.

Follow OCJ Reporter Susan Tebben on Twitter.

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Susan Tebben
Susan Tebben

Susan Tebben is an award-winning journalist with a decade of experience covering Ohio news, including courts and crime, Appalachian social issues, government, education, diversity and culture. She has worked for The Newark Advocate, The Glasgow (KY) Daily Times, The Athens Messenger, and WOUB Public Media. She has also had work featured on National Public Radio.