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Virginia abortion providers expect increase in out-of-state patients following Dobbs decision

People march in front of Virginia State Capitol
Protesters march in front of the Virginia State Capitol after the Supreme Court decided to overturn Roe v. Wade. (Photo: Scott Elmquist/VPM News)

Following the Supreme Court’s decision to repeal Roe v. Wade on Friday, abortion providers in Virginia are preparing for an influx of patients from neighboring states where the procedure is now illegal.

Thirteen states — including two that share borders with the commonwealth, Kentucky and Tennessee — already have legislation in place to ban all or nearly all abortions that was triggered by the case’s repeal, according to the Guttmacher Institute. In addition to the states with trigger laws, nine others, including West Virginia, already have laws in place from prior to the 1973 Roe decision that might be used to restrict the legal status of abortion.

Jill Abbey is the administrator of the Richmond Medical Center for Women, which, Abbey said, became the first clinic in Central Virginia to offer people abortion services in 1973.

“Certainly, we expect to see more patients from the surrounding states,” Abbey said. “We already see patients from Tennessee and West Virginia, and we see patients from North Carolina. So unfortunately, those women will find themselves traveling further. And we're here to take care of them.”

Despite the federal court’s decision, abortion remains legal in Virginia in all cases until the third trimester. Third-trimester abortions are already illegal in Virginia unless a patient’s life or “permanent health” is endangered. Both Abbey and Rae Pickett, director of communications for the Virginia League of Planned Parenthood, said they will keep providing abortion services without interruption.

“[We] will continue to serve patients every day, no matter what,” Pickett said.

According to a 2019 study by the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonpartisan organization that researches religion, culture, and public policy, Virginia is one of only two states in the South where the majority of those surveyed, 51%, support legal abortion.

To cope with the expected increase in out-of-state patients, Pickett said the Virginia League of Planned Parenthood is planning to hire additional staff. Abbey said her practice, in addition to the other Medical Centers for Women locations in the commonwealth, are considering expanding their allotted times to perform these services.

“In our Richmond office, we see patients four days a week. And the others, we see one day a week. It may be that we will have to increase the number of days that we're providing care,” Abbey said. “We're not anticipating an inability to do that. Again, we're more concerned about the patient's having more work to do.”

The Supreme Court’s decision will have a disproportionate impact on low-income and minority people, according to a national survey of more than 8,000 abotion patients conducted by the Guttmacher Institute in 2014. That year, three-fourths of abortion patients were low-income, and most patients identified as Black or Hispanic.

“The people who are going to be most negatively impacted are the folks who are already experiencing a huge disparity in how healthcare is administered, and then what the health outcomes actually are,” Pickett said.

The Guttmacher Institute reported that in 2020, 18,740 abortions were preformed by Virginia providers, up 9% from 2017.

Despite being legal in the commonwealth, access to abortion services is still limited. According to another study by the the institute, in 2018 there were 16 abortion clinics in Virginia. Those clinics are concentrated in the Richmond, Charlottesville, Roanoke, Newport News and Virginia Beach regions.

The location of those providers means that many rural Virginians, and people seeking care in Virginia from out of state, are forced to travel long distances to access abortion services. That can be costly for patients who need to take time off work and pay for travel expenses. Those barriers, according to Pickett, could lead people to take unsafe measures to end a pregnancy.

“I think that there will be a lucky few who are able to come to Virginia to travel to get care,” Pickett said. “Folks will do what they need to do in order to live their lives. I hope that they have the ability to choose a legal abortion from a provider of their choosing in this country. I worry that that will be limited or completely eliminated after this ruling.”

When Democrats had control of the General Assembly in 2020, they repealed several restrictions on abortion access, including ending the requirements that women recieve ultrasounds and wait 24 hours before they can have an abortion.

According to LaTwyla Mathias, executive director of the progressive advocacy organization Progress Virginia, that came after several restrictions were passed by the General Assembly when it was controlled by Republicans. As a member of the Virginia Reproductive Equity Alliance, a coalition of organizations focused on reproductive freedom and women’s equality, Progress Virginia successfully lobbied legislators to repeal abortion restrictions.

“The legislature had done as much as they can to restrict those handful of clinics that we still have available in Virginia,” Mathias said. “But we've worked hard. We were able to pass the Reproductive Health [Protection] Act, and we were able to repeal some of those ‘trap laws’ that were passed in the legislature.”

But now, reproductive rights advocates are preparing for another fight over abortion access during the next legislative session.

Republicans took control of the state House this year, and the Democrat's one-vote “brick wall” in the Senate depends on the support of Sen. Joe Morrissey, who has sided with Republicans in a handful of recent votes related to abortion and said earlier this year he supported restricting abortions past 20 weeks.

A spokesperson for Gov. Glenn Youngkin said on Friday that he is asking a group of four Republican senators to push for a 15-week cutoff next January, when the General Assembly reconvenes. A bill to limit abortions past 20 weeks was proposed during the legislators’ last session, though it was ultimately defeated.

“Virginia needs to not get too comfortable with that state of things. Because it could change,” Pickett said.