By Angie Leventis Lourgos
One woman came to Chicago by bus from Indianapolis in mid-2017, pregnant but with medical complications that would have made labor and delivery potentially dangerous. Another woman traveled here from Wisconsin in March because she didn't have the financial means or will to have a baby.
Although they were strangers, 28-year-old Timna Axel hosted them in her Uptown neighborhood apartment for a few nights before and after their abortions at local clinics. Axel is a volunteer with Midwest Access Coalition, a Chicago nonprofit that helps defray the costs associated with traveling to terminate a pregnancy, including lodging, food and transportation.
"It seems like a lot of these (nearby) states have increased the barriers to abortion and other health care for women in recent years," she said. "It doesn't seem right there should be this island of health care access in Chicago."
More women are crossing state lines to have abortions in Illinois, according to the latest statistics from the Illinois Department of Public Health, which were released this week.
Last year, 5,528 women traveled to Illinois from other states to terminate pregnancies, almost a thousand more than the 4,543 women who came from out of state in 2016. The number of abortions statewide increased slightly, from 38,382 in 2016 to 39,329 in 2017, according to annual state reports. Of those, about 1,000 abortions each year were provided to women whose home states were marked "unknown."
While the data don't indicate the reason for out-of-state travel, Illinois is generally considered a reproductive rights haven in the more restrictive broader Midwest, where women often face waiting periods, gestational limits, fewer clinics and other hurdles.
To Mary Kate Knorr, executive director of Illinois Right to Life, this status is a badge of dishonor.
"The increase in abortions performed on out-of-state women is indicative of how truly regressive we are when it comes to protecting pre-born children in our state," she said. "Illinois is an outlier amongst our neighbors, whose legislatures have consulted science and found that discouraging abortions is in the best interest of their residents."
But Terry Cosgrove, president and CEO of the abortion rights advocacy group Personal PAC, praised Illinois as one of the few states in the middle of the country where women have access to the safe and legal medical procedure.
"So many states around us are enacting dangerous restrictions that put the health and lives of women at risk, so women have no choice really but to come to Illinois," he said. "It isn't anything but pure misogyny."
Across the country, 19 states adopted 63 new abortion restrictions in 2017, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights.
Some of the biggest shifts have recently been in Iowa, which last year passed a 20-week limit on the procedure as well as a 72-hour waiting period, though the waiting period portion of the law was immediately blocked by the courts.
"When access to abortion is politically restricted, those who have the means to travel will do so, and those without means are left most vulnerable," said Becca Lee, spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of the Heartland. "If someone can travel, they may be forced to take time from work, incur additional expenses, take time from family and make other sacrifices in order to access a safe, legal abortion procedure _ and they shouldn't have to."
Planned Parenthood of the Heartland also had to close four clinics in Iowa last year because of state defunding. Three of the clinics were in the eastern side of the state, near the Illinois border.
Caitlyn Dixson, executive director of Iowa Right to Life, said Iowa abortion numbers have been at "historic lows" the past few years, and she attributes the decrease in part to some of these recent anti-abortion measures. While she acknowledged that some women might be heading to other states, she doesn't believe travel accounts for the entire drop.
"I think women are simply choosing not to terminate," she said. "I believe that this decline goes hand in hand with the climate in Iowa, particularly after seeing the results of this last election," including a Republican incumbent governor staving off a pro-abortion rights Democratic challenger.
A recent study from the University of California, San Francisco found that, compared with other regions of the U.S., the Midwest had the fewest number of abortion clinics based on the population of women of childbearing age.
Even in the Midwest, the availability of abortion providers differed significantly state by state. For example, Illinois had about two dozen clinics, roughly one for every 120,135 women of reproductive age. Whereas in neighboring Wisconsin, researchers found three facilities providing abortions, about one for every 423,590 women, according to data collected in early 2017.
Abortion laws continued to fluctuate in many Midwestern states in 2018, though those changes wouldn't have had an effect on the most recent figures in Illinois.
As of October, Missouri was down to one abortion clinic statewide because of requirements that abortion providers have admitting privileges at local hospitals. Missouri also mandates a 72-hour waiting period.
Iowa this year passed a bill that would ban abortion as soon as a fetal heartbeat can be detected, as early as six weeks into pregnancy, but the measure was temporarily blocked by the courts; a similar bill is moving through the Ohio legislature.
In contrast, Illinois in late 2017 passed legislation that affirmed abortion rights _ expanding taxpayer-subsidized abortions and keeping abortion legal even if Roe v. Wade is overturned.
Edwin Yohnka of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois said the rise in out-of-state travel for abortion "fits a pattern that we have seen the past few years."
"While other states in the Midwest have imposed increasing restrictions and limitations on the ability of a woman to access health care, including abortion care, Illinois has largely moved to keep such health care more accessible," he said. "As a state that imposes relatively fewer unnecessary and punitive barriers, we should expect women to seek care in Illinois."
(c)2018 Chicago Tribune