COLUMBIA, S.C. – A wave of newly approved abortion restrictions in the Southeastern United States has sent providers scrambling to reconfigure their services for a region with already severely limited access.
Stiff limitations enacted in South Carolina and pending in North Carolina and Florida — states that had been holdouts providing wider access to the procedure — are threatening to further delay abortions as appointments pile up and doctors work to understand the latest constraints.
“There’s really going to be no way for the whole abortion-providing ecosystem to manage it all," said Jenny Black, the president of Planned Parenthood South Atlantic.
Black, who oversees the organization’s work in North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia and parts of Virginia, said providers have had to quickly determine how to comply with the pending laws amid the “decimation of abortion access across the South.” She expects new restrictions will compound the stressors on a system that was already seeing lengthy waiting periods in North Carolina driven by an influx of patients from Georgia and Tennessee.
Abortion is severely restricted in much of the South, including bans throughout pregnancy in Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia. In Georgia, it’s allowed only in the first six weeks.
South Carolina joined its neighbors rolling back the procedure Thursday when the governor signed a bill banning most abortions around six weeks of pregnancy. But providers quickly filed a lawsuit seeking to block the law that resembles one already deemed a violation of the state constitution's right to privacy by the South Carolina Supreme Court.
“This is a great day for life in South Carolina, but the fight is not over. We stand ready to defend this legislation against any challenges and are confident we will succeed,” Republican South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster said in a statement.
A report released in early April by the Society of Family Planning found rising numbers of abortions in states near those with the deepest restrictions but where abortion had remained largely legal. Florida and North Carolina were among the states with the biggest increases — and among those where new limits are pending.
Most abortions after 12 weeks of pregnancy will be banned in North Carolina beginning July 1 and a six-week ban in Florida will take effect only if the state’s current 15-week ban is upheld by the state Supreme Court.
South Carolina had also proven to be a key destination for people seeking abortions. Provisional state Health Department data showed larger numbers of out-of-state patients after the state's highest court overturned previous restrictions and left abortion legal through 22 weeks.
The new law will change that status, according to Caitlin Myers, an economics professor at Middlebury College. Myers, who studies the effects of reproductive policies, said limited evidence suggests about half of the people who want abortions won't be able to make the six-week threshold.
“It’s likely to end up sending a lot of desperate people seeking abortions even farther distances and result in even greater congestion at the facilities that are left to receive them,” Myers said.
Jessica Tarleton, an OB-GYN in Charleston, anticipates sending patients outside the state for abortions. She said the new law will disproportionately affect those who lack financial means for child care, hotels and air travel. Most women who get abortions are already mothers, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
The action comes as many state legislatures convene for their first regular sessions since the U.S. Supreme Court struck federal abortion protections. Over the past two months, Republican officials in North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida have pushed Virginia closer to being a regional outlier as a place with relatively permissive access.
The tide of state-level activity has been welcomed by anti-abortion groups who had long chipped away at access. Caitlin Connors, the southern regional director for Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, celebrated the recent legislative changes as victories made possible by last summer’s ruling.
“We are officially in an era where states who have tried to pass pro-life legislation — laws that would protect unborn children, laws that would also implement services for moms and families and babies — to finally be able to be enacted and not be under the chokehold of the Roe v. Wade decision,” Connors said.
That shifting landscape has also heightened uncertainty among providers that has kept them from expanding services, Myers said, and likely will prevent some patients from getting abortions as doctors weigh what is and isn't permissible.
Erica Pettigrew, a family medicine doctor in North Carolina, said the new constraints will make it much more difficult for her to help patients navigate the system. Although North Carolina Republicans pitched the new 12-week limit as a middle-ground change, Pettigrew pointed to other provisions that make it much more restrictive.
New hurdles require that women make in-person visits to a medical professional at least 72 hours before the procedure. The three-day waiting period could previously be initiated over the phone. The law also requires a doctor to schedule a follow-up visit for women who have a medically induced abortion, increasing the hardship on those who travel from other states.
Those regulations will make it harder to advise patients on their options, she said, especially when waiting periods already spanned two to four weeks in some cases.
Other delays may result from what Pettigrew called unclear exceptions for certain life-threatening conditions.
“Now we’re in this horrible purgatory of trying to figure out how to interpret it, how we can comply with the law,” Pettigrew said. "There’s so many unknowns.”
Immediate reproductive care has been slowed in states restricting abortion, and Tarleton believes South Carolina will be no different. The new law mandates that doctors document their rationale for inducing an abortion under a list of excepted circumstances and make “reasonable efforts” to avoid the procedure. She expects to seek legal advice when treating patients for early pregnancy complications and miscarriages, which she fears will increase maternal mortality in a region where many states already report some of the nation's worst rates.
“We are likely to see sicker pregnant patients, sicker babies,” Tarleton said. “That’s going to start happening now that there’s really no place to turn in the Southeast for this kind of care.”
Associated Press writer Hannah Schoenbaum contributed to this report from Raleigh, North Carolina. Schoenbaum and Pollard are corps members for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.