ST. LOUIS – Just 21 kilometers (13 miles) and the waters of the Mississippi River are all that separate easy access to abortion in Illinois and a process filled with restrictions in Missouri, two states at the center of a battle that stirs passionate emotion and debate in the United States.
It takes just 20 minutes to travel from the only abortion clinic in all of Missouri, a facility that was close to losing its license this week, and one of the more than 40 that provide that service in the neighboring state.
In one of them, the Hope Clinic for Women, the walls are adorned with signs reading “Abortion is Normal,” a message that rings true in Democrat-majority states such as Illinois but which is scorned by many people in conservative states, 24 of which have passed laws in recent years to restrict access to that procedure.
Women seeking an abortion in Missouri must wait at least 72 hours between the time of their first visit to the clinic and the day of the procedure, undergo two pelvic exams and receive a booklet (with information doctors consider imprecise) that is aimed at dissuading them from interrupting their pregnancy.
In addition, doctors who practice abortion in Missouri must be within a distance of 15 minutes from the nearest hospital and their clinics must have facilities comparable to an operating room.
Dr. David Eisenberg, medical director of the only abortion clinic in Missouri, a Planned Parenthood facility in downtown St. Louis that is the lone potential option for more than 1 million women of reproductive age in a state the size of Uruguay, said four other clinics in the state have been forced to shut down since 2008 due to restrictions he considers excessive.
That explains why around 55 percent of the patients arriving at the Hope Clinic for Women come from Missouri, according to Dr. Erin King, executive director of that clinic located on the other side of the Mississippi River.
She said that the number of patients from that neighboring state has risen sharply over the past two years.
“In Illinois, you would access the care just like you would any other health-care service,” King said in an interview with EFE at that clinic located in the town of Granite City.
“So within several hours, you’ve been here, you’ve had your procedure and you’re going home to your own family,” she added.
A joint US federal and state program known as Medicaid that provides free or low-cost health coverage to millions of low-income people has covered abortion costs in Illinois since last year.
By contrast, in Missouri, Medicaid will only pay for abortion (a procedure that can cost as much as $1,500) in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother, according to Planned Parenthood’s Web site.
But both the clinic in St. Louis and the Hope Clinic for Women perform a similar number of abortions, 3,000 per year, and the exodus of patients to Illinois is a relatively recent phenomenon that has intensified with the signing of a bill last week by Missouri’s governor that bans abortion after eight weeks of pregnancy.
“Nothing has changed in Missouri right now. But they’re worried about the changes that are coming. They think there’s a lot of confusion about what’s happening,” King said.
The situation is the opposite in Illinois, where the state legislature has just passed a law that would guarantee access to abortion in the event the conservative justices on the US Supreme Court vote to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which established women’s constitutional right to an abortion.
The abortion issue has been a contentious one for decades in the United States but has come to the forefront once again with the passage of anti-abortion legislation by nine states this year.
The new laws include a near-total ban on the procedure in the state of Alabama.
None of the new abortion laws have yet taken effect and are certain to face legal challenges.