A sign outside a clinic that provides abortions in Richmond, Va. (Sarah Vogelsong / Virginia Mercury)
By Brook Smith
Just over a year after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, abortion bans and restrictions have swept the South, leaving Virginia by far the least restrictive state in the region. Our position as a bastion of abortion rights is worth taking pride in, but it is also an immense burden on Virginians who seek care from abortion providers. In order to properly serve both in-state and out-of-state patients, Virginia must not only protect but strengthen its abortion infrastructure.
West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee — three states that border Virginia — have all banned abortion entirely, as have most states in the South. Florida has banned abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, Georgia has banned abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, and South Carolina‘s three clinics only perform abortions up to 14 weeks of pregnancy while the state’s 6-week ban is being challenged in court. North Carolina previously absorbed most of the traveling patients from the South, but a political shakeup led the state to pass a twelve-week ban, and all traffic for second-trimester abortions has now been directed to Virginia.
Although 93% of abortions in 2020 took place before 13 weeks of pregnancy, the option to seek abortion in the second trimester is increasingly important as clinics in many states close their doors. Increased traffic from across state lines has turned two to three-day day waits for appointments into two to three-week waits, such that many pregnant people who seek an abortion during their first trimester cannot access the procedure until their second trimester. In states that have 12-15 week restrictions, those delays can force potential patients across state lines. Delays are also costly: at one Richmond clinic, abortions cost patients $600 before 12 weeks and $2,255 by 20 weeks.
Many clinics may not have the capacity to offer abortion at later stages of pregnancy — for example, no Virginia clinic further southwest than Charlottesville offers abortions later than 16 weeks. Virginians less than 13 weeks pregnant can order abortion pills in the mail to avoid wait times, but those who are beyond 13 weeks, have certain high-risk pregnancies, or simply prefer a surgical procedure are forced to endure wait times or worse, travel across the state to a clinic that will accommodate them.
When clinics are backed up with schedules full of abortion procedures, anyone seeking health care at those facilities may suffer. Planned Parenthood, for example, offers services including birth control, hormone replacement therapy, testing for STIs, men’s and women’s sexual health exams, mental health care and even primary care alongside abortion services. Long wait times for abortions, consequently, may impact all of us. This is why Virginians are best served if the Commonwealth not only protects but expands access to abortion.
To respond to demand, we can follow the lead of states like Maryland by enacting new laws allowing professionals such as midwives and nurse practitioners to be trained to perform abortions, with funding set aside for training programs. Maryland will eventually have more abortion providers to soften the blow of out-of-state traffic.
Virginia would certainly benefit from such a policy; currently, the Commonwealth has only 17 clinics that provide abortions. Those clinics are clustered together, with five in the Richmond metropolitan area, four in Hampton Roads, three in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., two in Charlottesville, two in Roanoke and one in Bristol. Any Virginian who does not live in one of those areas must travel an exorbitant distance to seek an abortion — upwards of 75 miles depending on location, and much longer for many individuals along the state’s southern border who are too far along in their pregnancy to seek an abortion in North Carolina.
Strong abortion protections may also serve as a draw for residents of Southern states who are migrating north amidst legal persecution of women and LGBTQ+ people. Some young people, for example, are deciding where to attend college based on state policies pertaining to abortion. The Commonwealth’s ability to attract and retain well-trained workers — and, thereby, its economic success — may hinge on protecting and expanding abortion access.
By opening up our state to more qualified abortion providers, Virginia can invest in a future that is both just and prosperous for all Virginians — especially those who may seek an abortion.
Brook Smith hails from Floyd, Virginia and is a student at Yale University double majoring in Political Science and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. They are an intern for Virginia Organizing.
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