As the Alabama Senate debated a near-total abortion ban over the past week, Alabamians began calling the Alabama Women’s Center for Reproductive Alternatives, one of just three clinics in the state that offer abortions.
They wanted to know “are we still open, are we still providing care,” Dr. Yashica Robinson, an OB-GYN at the clinic, told Vox.
On Tuesday, the day the bill passed the Alabama Senate, “one young lady was telling us about a dream that she had that she was going to wake up and get here to the clinic and we were going to tell her that we couldn’t take care of her,” Robinson said.
The Alabama bill, which was signed into law on Wednesday, does not take effect for six months. Alabama Women’s Center plans to challenge it in court, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama has announced a legal challenge as well. Meanwhile, the clinic is currently open and seeing patients. But the questions it’s getting aren’t unusual.
Providers around the country say a wave of strict anti-abortion bills is making patients think the procedure has been outlawed. That wave continues — on Thursday, the Missouri Senate passed a bill banning abortion at eight weeks of pregnancy (the bill now goes back to the state House for approval).
The strictest of these anti-abortion bills haven’t actually taken effect yet, and abortion remains legal in every state, including Alabama. But for some patients, the bills might have their intended effect, even if they never become the law of the land.
Abortion is legal in all 50 states
These bills, which have passed in Iowa, Ohio, Kentucky, Mississippi, and, most recently, Georgia, would ban abortion once a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which can be as early as six weeks into pregnancy. Because that’s before many people know they are pregnant, reproductive rights advocates say the “heartbeat” bills are de facto abortion bans.
Neither the heartbeat bills nor the Alabama law has gone into effect yet. All the heartbeat bills have either been blocked by courts or are likely to face a court challenge soon. On Wednesday, for instance, the ACLU and Planned Parenthood filed suit on behalf of an Ohio abortion clinic, challenging the state’s heartbeat law.
But public conversation around the bills, many of which are part of a drive to challenge Roe v. Wade, may have made some patients think that abortion is already illegal in their state.
“I think people are already confused,” Dr. Catherine Romanos, a doctor who performs abortions in Ohio and a fellow with the group Physicians for Reproductive Health, told Vox earlier this year. “I worry that there are patients that heard about the bans passing and now just aren’t seeking care that they otherwise would seek because they think abortion is illegal already.”
These concerns aren’t new. In 2013, Kate Michelman, the former president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, wrote at HuffPost that abortion had become so stigmatized that “many think it is still illegal 40 years after Roe v. Wade.”
But the wave of restrictive laws may have added to the misconception. Over the past 90 days, searches for queries like “is abortion legal in every state,” and “is abortion legal in all 50 states” have spiked, according to Google Trends.
The answer is yes.
That doesn’t mean everyone can access the procedure. As of 2014, 90 percent of US counties lacked an abortion clinic, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Many states have only one clinic. Federal Medicaid funding can’t be used to pay for most abortions, and many states restrict state Medicaid funding as well. That, combined with the expense of travel and the need to take time off work, can put the procedure out of reach for some low-income people.
Restrictions on Medicaid funding, as well as geographical concerns, have made abortion access particularly difficult for Americans of color. Abortion is often talked about in terms of “choice,” Dr. Krystal Redman, the executive director of the group Spark Reproductive Justice Now, told Vox earlier this year. But “historically, black folks and brown folks have not had the ability to choose.”
Still, reproductive rights advocates say that despite problems with access, people throughout the country, including in Alabama, should know that they can still get abortions.
“On the federal level, abortion is still legal. Roe is still in place,” Monica Edwards, an Alabama native and fellow with the group Unite for Reproductive & Gender Equity, told Vox before the Alabama law was signed. People who have questions about accessing an abortion in their state should contact their local abortion fund, she said.
Meanwhile, as the Alabama law works its way through the courts, Alabama Women’s Center will “continue to provide care as long as we can,” Robinson, the OB-GYN, said. “We are going to continue to work and advocate for the care that our patients need.”