Tonight, I came home from work to learn that my neighbors in Ohio just had a 20-week abortion restriction signed into law. In some ways, this news was bittersweet. While it is still a loss, it is better than the proposed “heartbeat bill” that would have set the ban at the time the fetus developed a heartbeat (6-12 weeks). On top of further restricting the right to a safe and legal abortion, the bill allows no exceptions for survivors of sexual assault. This news comes at a time when legislators across the northeast region of the country are considering similar legislation. While I am fortunate that Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf has promised to veto the bill, I am stuck thinking about the detrimental effects these bills will have on people in rural communities.
In my work as an activist and an anti-violence counselor/advocate at an organization providing services to survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence, I have met many people who have had abortions. Many of them, for many different reasons. Such as a few woman who chose to abort a pregnancy that was the result of rape or the woman who reached out to me to thank me for writing an op-ed about abortion in our local newspaper. If I have learned anything from these individuals, it is that this was an extremely difficult decision to make, they don’t regret it, and it was extremely difficult to access the means to a legal, safe abortion.
I live in a small, rural city in central Pennsylvania. As my neighbors will agree, sometimes this means having to travel to get the things we need. Unfortunately, healthcare is not exempt from that list. When it comes to specialized healthcare, we sometimes have to travel across counties. For healthcare needs that are often subject of political debate—such as abortion-related care or gender affirming medicine for transgender people—this burden is often amplified. For many of us—myself included—it is not that uncommon to travel three or four hours for adequate healthcare. In my experience, traveling over three hours for healthcare has always put pressure on me to make quicker decisions about my health based on whether I thought I’d be able to get back to the doctor again.
When I think about the pending legislation that will further limit the time period we are able to access safe, legal abortion, I think of my experiences of jumping through hoops and over barriers just to get the basic healthcare I need and the similar experiences faced by the people I have met who have had abortions.
Members of my community, who already have to travel at least 2.5 hours to the nearest abortion provider, will no doubt be prevented from getting the care they need in time. If the do have access to said care, these bills will put pressure on them to make quicker decisions. The Guttmacher Institute recently released a report stating that abortion seekers are usually able to get an appointment within one week of their call, but sometimes experience delays of two weeks or more. I think about the time frame for somebody seeking an abortion within the limits of 20 weeks. For many people, they are unaware that they are pregnant until three or four weeks into their pregnancy. So, in reality, that gives people 16 weeks to find the nearest abortion provider, get an appointment, schedule time off from work and find transportation to the appointment.
I believe these bills and other attempts to politicize reproductive healthcare will also negatively impact those of us who are seeking reproductive health care that is not abortion related. Take for instance, testing for sexually transmitted infections. According to some of the local medical providers I have spoken to, we have seen a significant increase in chlamydia, especially among high-school kids.
The increase conveniently started after our local family planning clinic closed its doors due to budget cuts. Due to the lack of resources in the community, the medical providers reached out to the agency I work for to ask for help in providing education about sex and sexually transmitted illnesses. This is not the expertise of the agency I work for, but the medical providers were so concerned that they were looking for any help they can get. To be sure, I don’t know if chlamydia outbreak was directly related to the closing of the family planning clinic, but I do believe the clinic could have helped with the aftermath.
Bills that further limit the right to a safe, legal abortion place an unnecessary burden on people living in rural communities. The bills are designed to take advantage of the already burdened individuals such as people in rural communities, sexual assault survivors and people in poverty. Bans like these make it impossible for some of us to get medical care and force others to make choices based on medically unnecessary deadlines, rather than what is best for them. Making the decision to seek an abortion or any other healthcare is already a difficult process and these laws will only make it more difficult for our neighbors to get access to the decision they’ve made. Tonight, I find myself pondering the question: do we truly have the right to a safe in legal abortion if we don’t have reasonable access to the means of exercising that right?