To fortify access to abortion throughout the Midwest and in Missouri, where the procedure is almost entirely banned, Planned Parenthood is launching a mobile clinic across the state line in southern Illinois.
The mobile clinic will be part of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri and will provide medication abortions up to 11 weeks gestation. It’s expected to launch later this year.
Abortion clinics on wheels have begun to get off the ground across the country, and this mobile unit will be the first throughout the Planned Parenthood network, said Yamelsie Rodríguez, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri.
In the coming weeks, Planned Parenthood will also be taking over the location of Tri-Rivers Family Planning, a Title X health center in Rolla, which recently closed. It provided contraceptives, pregnancy tests and additional reproductive health services to residents across central Missouri.
The dual initiatives are two prongs in Planned Parenthood’s strategic plan to bolster access to abortion and reproductive health care in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade.
“We are doubling down on our commitment to expanding access to family planning in the state of Missouri,” Rodríguez said, “while we continue to work nonstop to rebuild access to abortion in the state.”
The mobile clinic will have two fully functional exam rooms, a lab and ultrasound machines. The unit will be built with the ability to also offer procedural abortions, which may be offered later, Rodríguez said.
While exact routes for the mobile unit have not been finalized, the 37-foot long, 8-foot-wide RV will aim to both reduce the miles patients are traveling for care while also relieving pressure on Planned Parenthood’s abortion clinic in Fairview Heights, Illinois — just across the Missouri border.
The surge in patients traveling to what has become an abortion safe haven in southern Illinois, “happened practically overnight” after Roe v. Wade was overturned in late June, Rodríguez said.
Calls for assistance for transportation, accommodations and monetary aid received by the Regional Logistics Center in Fairview Heights more than doubled in the first two months following the Supreme Court’s decision, Rodríguez said, and have come from practically every state where abortion has been restricted.
In Missouri, the state’s trigger law banned nearly all abortions the day Roe v. Wade was overturned, and Planned Parenthood — previously the state’s last abortion provider — ceased all abortion services. Most abortions are outlawed in at least 14 states, with bans blocked by the courts in nine states, according to The New York Times.
Planned Parenthood has extended its hours at its Fairview Heights clinic to 10 hours a day, six days a week, with appointments also being offered one to two Sundays a month. Having appointments seven days a week is the next goal.
The crush of demand and longer distances patients are now forced to travel to access the procedure means Planned Parenthood is seeing a rise in demand for an abortion later in pregnancy, said Colleen McNicholas, Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri’s chief medical officer.
“So as the numbers and demand for procedural abortion, particularly in the second trimester increase,” McNicholas said, “it’s going to be really critical for us to be able to redistribute some of the demand for medication abortion — a service that we know is completely safe to offer outside brick and mortar either via telehealth or via mobile care.”
Planned Parenthood ceased offering medication abortions, which are typically induced by a two-pill regimen, in Missouri in 2019 after the state mandated pelvic exams on patients that McNicholas said were “really truly a violation of our medical ethics to continue to provide that service under those conditions.”
In Illinois, Planned Parenthood has provided medication abortions through telehealth — an avenue that is banned in Missouri — and can mail the pills to patients. Prior to Roe v. Wade being overturned, over 60% of those seeking an abortion nationwide across Planned Parenthood health centers sought a medication abortion, Rodríguez said.
‘We’re going to continue to show up’
In the wake of Roe v. Wade being overturned, confusion has swirled.
A hospital system in Kansas City temporarily ceased providing emergency contraception, citing ambiguity in the state’s trigger law, and Missouri physicians shared fears of potentially fatal delays in care due to doctors’ fears of prosecution under the law.
That’s when Tri-Rivers Family Planning in Rolla began receiving calls from patients worried they would have to remove their intrauterine devices and seeking guidance to cut through the misinformation on whether their birth control was now illegal.
“We’re still having people that tell us that that’s why they’re getting those longer acting methods,” of birth control, said Hailey Kramer, Tri-River’s lead nurse practitioner. “Because they don’t want to get pregnant in this day and age.”
Many of Tri-River’s patients are low-income and lack health insurance, and the clinic will be the Planned Parenthood affiliate’s first rural location in the state, where access to health care — and reproductive health care in particular — can be especially difficult to attain in the face of long distances, cost barriers, stigma and more.
Rodríguez said it’s part of Planned Parenthood’s commitment to expanding into communities in the need of greater reproductive health care and continuing to make abortion accessible — even as it faces losses of over $600,000 a year from restricted Medicaid payments from the state. Planned Parenthood’s lawsuit against the state over the restricted payments is ongoing.
“We’re going to continue to show up,” McNicholas said. “And whether it takes a month, a year or 10 years, we will fight our way back to having equitable access to all reproductive health care, including abortion in the state of Missouri.”