FLOSSMOOR, Ill. — One of the first patients to arrive at the clinic the day it resumed abortion procedures after the reversal of Roe v. Wade was a woman who had just driven nine hours from Arkansas.
The Planned Parenthood clinic here in Flossmoor has occasionally gotten patients from Texas after it severely restricted abortion access last year, but its out-of-state patients have been mainly from Indiana, less than 10 miles away, said Stephanie Navarro, the health center manager.
The woman from Arkansas was unusual in that regard. But much of the clinic’s staff took her arrival as a sign of what’s to come.
“That was out of the ordinary,” Navarro said. “But that is what’s ahead for us now. Women will have to work harder to get to us.”
Before leaving on the more than 500-mile drive back home, the woman told the staff at the clinic simply that “Arkansas sucks,” said a medical assistant who checked the woman out.
Arkansas’ abortion ban makes it illegal to perform an abortion or attempt to perform an abortion and it allows no exceptions for rape or incest.
The state is one of more than a dozen surrounding Illinois that has banned, severely restricted or is likely to ban abortion, making Illinois a refuge of sorts for people seeking such care.
Health care sites across the state have already started feeling reverberations in the form of high call volumes, often from patients who will scramble hundreds of miles to get to them.
Reproductive options have crumbled in the states neighboring Illinois, including Wisconsin, where a “zombie law” from 1849 banning abortions except to save the mother’s life kicked in upon the reversal of Roe. Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin said it immediately suspended all abortions and is actively working with Illinois providers to redirect patients.
In Indiana, which did not have a “trigger law” banning abortions with the fall of Roe, as Arkansas did, the state’s attorney general has asked federal judges to lift orders blocking several state anti-abortion laws, and the Legislature will be taking up abortion restrictions during a special session scheduled to begin July 6.
Illinois is also the closest state to offer abortion services for people living in the South and other parts of the Midwest.
Planned Parenthood of Illinois anticipates it will see an additional 20,000 out-of-state patients annually, up from the roughly 1,000 it now serves each year.
The weeks and months ahead will most likely grow more intense, said Dr. Amy Whitaker, chief medical officer for Planned Parenthood of Illinois who was performing procedures in Flossmoor on Tuesday.
“I wasn’t at all surprised and still when it became real I started to cry,” Whitaker said of the Roe reversal. Much of the day after the court’s decision was filled with tears, she said. “It almost felt like rapid cycling between devastation and rage, but also tempered by laser focus on what we need to do now.”
The clinic, one of 17 run by Planned Parenthood of Illinois throughout the state, has spent the last year preparing for the possibility of a post-Roe United States.
An unfinished procedure and ultrasound room, in the office’s small medical corridor, is expected to be ready by August, Navarro said. It will be the clinic’s third such room and was created solely to handle the anticipated uptick in post-Roe patients.
The office is also actively recruiting and hiring medical assistants, Navarro said.
While there has so far been only a trickle of change to the Illinois health clinics themselves in the days after the Roe reversal, a deluge has already hit Planned Parenthood’s central call center in Champaign.
The phones have not stopped ringing, said Mara, an abortion navigation program manager for Planned Parenthood of Illinois, who is one of two people throughout the state tasked with helping patients with travel logistics, including accommodations and arranging for a companion to help.
“We were inundated on Friday really as soon as the decision came down,” said Mara, who did not want to use her full name for fear for her safety. “It was a moment we’ve all been preparing for and yet I found there was nothing that could have prepared me for what that would feel like to see those referrals coming through, to have our phone be ringing off the hook, to be connecting with colleagues saying, ‘How are you doing’ and ‘What are you seeing?’”
“It was really intense.”
Most of the calls have been coming in from Wisconsin and Tennessee, she said. Tennessee’s trigger law is set to go into effect in 30 days from the Supreme Court ruling, but the state’s attorney general has asked the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals to allow a state law largely banning abortion around six weeks of pregnancy to take effect as soon as possible.
Mara stayed late on Friday and worked over the weekend because of the high call volume.
The workload is manageable right now, she said, adding that they have been prepared for this for quite some time but the new normal will take time to adjust to.
“In this new landscape, there’s really no telling how this influx of patients will affect us at this point in time. I’m confident we’ll be able to connect with the patients who need us, but that’s part of this whole thing, right? It’s like we can have all the projections in the world, but we don’t know what this is going to look like and yeah, it’s overwhelming to think about.”
Patients are not necessarily directed to the closest clinic, she said, because sometimes they need to get to the one with the earliest available appointment, which means they are now going all over Illinois.
In Planned Parenthood’s clinic in downtown Chicago, where the organization’s administrative offices are, Julie Uhal was hired precisely for this moment.
Uhal came on in 2020 specifically to support initiatives that strengthen and expand capacity and patient access at Planned Parenthood health centers to meet the projected surge of patients coming to Illinois for care post-Roe.
Uhal said that Friday — the day the Supreme Court decision was announced — did not bring any major operational curveballs because planning had already been in the works, including the opening of strategically placed clinics, a telehealth system and an internal abortion care subsidy program. But the days following have brought a need for reassurance, not only for patients but also for staff.
“I don’t think I’ve ever cried in as many Zoom meetings as I did on Friday,” she said. “A lot of people were just really feeling all the emotions. It’s sadness. It’s rage. It’s despair. It’s all the things and it’s all valid, but we, you know, pull ourselves up because we know that our patients need us.”
The goal now is to decrease wait times for appointments and bring on more staff, she said.
As clinics close in several surrounding states, health clinicians who can no longer practice are also now looking to Illinois, she said. She has already received calls from doctors who are looking to relocate and work in the state’s clinics. Physicians in states with bans face potential criminal charges if they continue to provide abortion services.
Even with a plan in place, Illinois will need to remain adaptable and “ever evolving in this new world,” she said.
On the health center side of the downtown Chicago location, the office was quiet, but the staff, including family planning clinician Maureen Brocks- Hussain, said there was a heaviness in the air as they prepare for what’s ahead.
The clinic hasn’t yet seen a surge in patients, but those who came in for procedures after Roe’s fall have been anxious, Hussain said.
During those conversation, Hussain said, she reassures them that they will receive the care they are there for but that it’s important to spread the word to other people who are in need of abortion care.
“Abortion is still legal and accessible in Illinois, they need to know that we’re ready to meet the demands of the moment.”