As more states restrict abortion, others put out the welcome mat for women

Lawmakers and advocates are working to establish "islands of access" across the country.
A woman gazes out an airplane window at the Statue of Liberty engulfed in clouds.
The allocation from the New York City Council can be used toward abortion care for anyone in New York City or anyone who has traveled to New York City to receive abortion care.Jackson Joyce / for NBC News

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By Adam Edelman

Some states and cities have a message for women seeking abortions who live in places where it is becoming increasingly restricted: We're here for you.

New York City and Illinois — spurred by a slew of states that have passed laws recently to limit or ban abortion — are taking action to provide women from out of state with financial and other assistance for easier access to abortions.

Last month, the New York City Council approved $250,000 for abortions for poor women who live in, or who have traveled to, the city specifically to receive the procedure — the first time, experts told NBC News, that a municipality has directly allocated money for abortion that could be explicitly used for residents from other locales.

The $250,000 will be given to the New York Abortion Access Fund, a volunteer network helping women seeking abortion access.

The funds can be used toward abortion care for anyone in New York City or anyone who has traveled there, said NYAAF board member Janna Oberdorf. The money will cover the cost of the procedure — but not travel or lodging, although NYAAF is plugged into a nationwide network of other advocacy groups that help raise travel funds for women who can't afford to get to states and cities that offer legal abortions.

Costs for abortion care vary widely, but the total could cover up to 500 procedures, Oberdorf said.

Women who are traveling to New York City for abortion care will likely have found out about NYAAF through abortion rights groups and activists in their own states or even just via a Google search, Oberdorf said.

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Meanwhile, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, last month signed a law making abortion a "fundamental right" in the state, codifying Roe v. Wade into state law, striking down a handful of anti-abortion provisions that had been on the books for decades (like spousal consent, waiting periods and felony penalties for doctors performing the procedure) and requiring nearly all insurance plans, both public and private, to cover abortion.

In strengthening the state's abortion law, Illinois lawmakers are inviting women from other states to come for abortions.

Illinois shares a border with three states that have in recent months put into place restrictive anti-abortion laws, and the new law — the Illinois Reproductive Health Act — is designed to send a message to women from those states that they are welcome to travel to Illinois for abortion care.

"Should you live in a state that has restricted your right to a safe and legal abortion, we want to make sure you know that Illinois is a place where it is safe and legal," Democratic state Sen. Melinda Bush, who sponsored the bill, said. "We want it to be clear that Illinois is a beacon for women's reproductive rights."

Women from next-door Missouri — which currently has only one abortion clinic — have been traveling to Illinois for abortion care in recent years in increasing numbers, but experts say the new law will have an even more powerful influence on that trend.

"Illinois is surrounded by very conservative states, so protecting access in Illinois means you're protecting access not just in Illinois but for people from those states who may need to travel," explained Elizabeth Nash, a state policy analyst at the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that studies reproductive health rights.

Abortion rights advocates across the U.S. are lauding New York City's funding and Illinois' new law as creating "islands of access" for women in need, in anticipation that Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion nationally, could be struck down.

"It's so important — now and as we head into an uncertain future — that there be these kinds of islands of access, so that even if there are places that are putting up significant roadblocks for abortion, that there are at least places that can be a refuge and provide that access for women who need it," said Kristin Ford, the communications director for NARAL Pro-Choice America.

At least five other states have also taken action this year to expand access to abortion care, although those measures aren't expected to necessarily have the welcoming impact for women from other states that the New York City and Illinois measures have. Maine's Democratic governor, for example, signed into law last month a measure requiring public and private insurance in the state to cover abortion care and another bill that allowed nurse practitioners and other medical professionals other than doctors to perform abortions.

Vermont's Republican governor, meanwhile, signed a bill in June also making abortion a "fundamental right" in the state, while Nevada has a new law that eliminated several roadblocks for women seeking an abortion, including a requirement that doctors ask for a patient's marital status and age before performing the procedure.

On the other hand, at least nine states have, in 2019, have passed restrictive abortion laws intended to strike at Roe v. Wade, although many face legal challenges.

Kentucky, Mississippi, Ohio, Georgia and Louisiana all passed bills prohibiting abortion when a fetal heartbeat can be detected — which can be as early as the sixth week of pregnancy, before many women even know they’re pregnant.

Alabama’s governor signed a law in May making performing an abortion at any stage of a pregnancy a felony punishable by 10 to 99 years or life in prison.

And Missouri — whose governor signed a bill in May prohibiting abortions at eight weeks of pregnancy — is dangerously close to seeing its only remaining abortion clinic close. If it closes, Missouri will become the first state since Roe v. Wade to not have a single abortion clinic.

This makes measures like the ones Illinois and New York City more important than ever, said Nash, of the Guttmacher Institute.

"The message in these places is that we are creating a safe place for people to come and travel here for abortion," she said. "Which is really important, given the concerns surrounding the state legislatures in 2019 that have tried to ban or restrict abortion."