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Sunday, June 25, 2017

For women seeking abortions, state restrictions make access a challenge

Missouri has some of the strictest and most actively debated abortion laws in the country, said NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri director Alison Dreith.

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Corrected graphic: A previous version of this graphic misstated the percentage of Missouri women who live in a county without an abortion provider. The Maneater regrets the error.

Tori Aerni/Staff Photographer

Alison Dreith never imagined that she would receive an abortion. But last May, at the age of 35, she went with her husband to Illinois for the procedure.

One in three women in America will have an abortion during their lifetime, but in Missouri, restrictions on access to abortion services have made getting abortions very difficult.

Missouri law requires a 72-hour waiting period for women before they have their initial consultation with a abortion provider. Dreith, who lives in St. Louis and is the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri, decided to get her abortion in Illinois because she didn’t want to be forced to wait. Through NARAL, she knew the provider in Illinois personally, which she said made the choice to go out of state easier.

“[Having to get an abortion] was really shocking,” Dreith said. “I decided to have my abortion procedure in Illinois because I had waited long enough … I didn’t want to be shamed by Missouri law and wait 72 hours again.”

Missouri’s sole active abortion clinic is in St. Louis, making it one of five states to have only a single clinic — 94 percent of Missouri women live in a county without an abortion provider. Anti-abortion pregnancy centers, such as My Life Clinic on Providence Road, outnumber abortion clinics in the state 74 to one.

“Missouri has always been a very pro-life state,” said Kristen Wood, president of Mizzou Students for Life. Wood and her organization volunteer at My Life Clinic, which promotes alternatives to abortion.

These pregnancy centers offer free consultations and ultrasounds, but not abortion procedure services. My Life Clinic offers free items, such as diapers and baby clothes, as incentives for attending bible study, parenting classes and support groups.

“Our goal is to make abortion unthinkable,” she said. “While making it illegal is a big step in the right direction, we want people to see the horror that abortion is. We want people to know that there are so many better alternatives, and we want to make sure that they know that we’ll help them get there and we’ll help them get those resources and we care about them.”

Pro-life groups aim to alleviate the fiscal burden on pregnant women, but pro-choice advocates argue that getting the procedure is a more financially sound option.

According to Planned Parenthood’s website, the average cost of an abortion is $1,500 in the first trimester, but the price is often less depending on which abortion procedure is used. In the United States, there is a national ban on using federal money to fund abortions, and in Missouri it is illegal for insurance providers to cover abortion.

“One of the main reasons women seek abortion is because they don’t have the economic opportunity to raise that family in a way they think fit,” Dreith said. “It’s [difficult] for low-wage workers having to take the time off work, without getting paid, to get the procedure. It’s a significant burden for Missouri women.”

Outside of Missouri, private insurance companies can decide whether to cover abortions, but due to the federal ban, the government cannot offer any financial aid for the procedure. Twenty-four states prohibit comprehensive plans from covering abortion in health insurance, according to the ACLU, yet all states have some form of restriction on abortion funding.

Prior to the procedure taking place, Missouri law requires physicians to provide women with a consent booklet of “printed materials provided by the department” describing the anatomical and physiological characteristics of the unborn child. These materials are required to include “color photographs or images of the developing unborn child” at various stages of development, according to chapter 188 of the Missouri Revised Statutes.

The state requires those printed materials to display the statement ‘the life of each human being begins at conception. Abortion will terminate the life of a separate, unique, living human being.” underneath the photographs in the booklet.

In addition, abortion opponents are pushing for a complete ban on abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. The bill has earned approval from a House committee, but has yet to be debated on the floor. Mizzou Students for Life members have petitioned in favor of this legislation.

"There have been a lot of attempts to change, back and forth, but we are trying to get a 20-week ban passed,” Wood said. “We had our members and we reached out to people, trying to get them to sign a ban on abortion for twenty weeks, saying that we would support that to give to our legislators.”

Dreith said NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri combats 30 pieces of state anti-abortion legislation each year. She said that the waiting period, consent booklet and active legislation mean Missouri has some of the strictest abortion laws in the nation. Therefore, most women nationally don’t face the same obstacles women in Missouri do when seeking abortions.

“I had a lot of guilt afterwards surrounding going to Illinois, and not waiting for Missouri law, which I fight everyday,” Dreith said. She said her guilt turned to relief when she realized most women around the country don’t encounter the same issues Missouri women do. “Most women don’t have to wait 72 hours, and aren’t given an informed consent booklet that has medically inaccurate information.”

Dreith said she encountered women in a variety of situations in life at the abortion clinic she went to in Illinois. Many other women had also traveled long distances — she said the average time Missouri women travel to receive an abortion is 150 miles. Some people were there for the first time, some were there for a checkup and some, like Dreith, were seeking abortions.

“One really rewarding thing about my experience was sitting in the waiting room where women were talking to one another, hearing the reasons for being there, sharing how far they came from, and giving advice,” Dreith said. “They were really lifting one another up and holding each other during that time, and it was quite a beautiful thing.”

Edited by Jared Kaufman | jkaufman@themaneater.com

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