It’s an understatement to say a lot has happened in the year since the Supreme Court overturned the nationwide right to abortion in its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.
But while many of the subsequent legislative and court actions to either ban or preserve access to abortion were predicted, the decision has had other, sometimes far-reaching consequences.
In this special episode of KFF Health News’ “What the Health?” four reporters who have closely covered the issue — host and KFF Health News chief Washington correspondent Julie Rovner, Alice Miranda Ollstein of Politico, Shefali Luthra of The 19th, and Sandhya Raman of CQ Roll Call — try to condense all that has happened since the nationwide right to abortion was revoked.
Among the takeaways from this week’s episode:
- In the Dobbs ruling last year, some justices said the decision would settle the issue of abortion in the courts. That has turned out not to be the case; jurisprudence about abortion access continues, largely in state courts.
- President Joe Biden has issued executive orders to preserve access to reproductive health care, including recently by directing federal agencies to find ways to increase access to contraception. But not all of the administration’s calls have translated into federal action, and some progressive groups are disappointed the Biden administration has not gone further in protecting abortion care.
- Perhaps the most significant action in Congress has been Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) blocking Pentagon nominations over a Defense Department policy supporting the ability of troops and their dependents to travel for abortion care. So far he has held up more than 250 nominations amid accusations that he is undermining national security.
- After Dobbs, there was anxiety in Democratic-run states that abortion restrictions would seep across state borders and lead to interstate prosecutions targeting abortion care. Those concerns have, so far, not materialized. Meanwhile, some states are attempting more roundabout ways to ban abortion, such as requiring all abortions be performed in hospitals when there are no hospitals in the state that perform the procedure.
- Polls show voters are now more supportive of abortion access than they have been in many years; more opposed to second-trimester bans; and more likely to identify abortion as a key priority when they vote. Health care providers are finding themselves pressed into advocacy or choosing to move to other states, potentially creating long-term care deserts.
- Plus, our panel of reporters reflects on one thing that will stick with them from their experiences covering abortion in the first year after the overturning of Roe v. Wade.
Also this week, Rovner interviews Alina Salganicoff, senior vice president and director for Women’s Health Policy at KFF. For KFF research and resources on reproductive health, click here.
Plus, for “extra credit,” the panelists suggest the favorite abortion-related stories they wrote in the past year they think you should read, too:
Julie Rovner: KFF Health News’ “Three Things About the Abortion Debate That Many People Get Wrong,” by Julie Rovner.
Shefali Luthra: The 19th’s “93 Days: The Summer America Lost Roe v. Wade,” by Shefali Luthra.
Alice Miranda Ollstein: Politico’s “Kansas’ Abortion Vote Kicks Off New Post-Roe Era,” by Alice Miranda Ollstein.
Sandhya Raman: Roll Call’s “Conservatives Use Abortion Strategies in Fight Over Trans Care,” by Sandhya Raman.
KFF Health News’ ‘What the Health?’
Episode Title: A Year Without Roe
Episode Number: 304
Published: June 29, 2023
[Editor’s note: This transcript, generated using transcription software, has been edited for style and clarity.]
Julie Rovner: Hello and welcome back to “What the Health?” I’m Julie Rovner, chief Washington correspondent at KFF Health News. We’re back in Washington this week, joined by some of the best and smartest health reporters. We’re taping this week on Thursday, June 29, at 10 a.m. As always, news happens fast and things might have changed by the time you hear this. So here we go. We are joined today via video conference by Alice Miranda Ollstein of Politico.
Alice Miranda Ollstein: Good morning.
Rovner: Shefali Luthra of The 19th.
Rovner: And Sandhya Raman of CQ Roll Call.
Raman: Good morning.
Rovner: So after last week’s special with the current and two former Health and Human Services secretaries, which I hope you all enjoyed, we have another special episode for you this week, one year after Roe fell. Saturday, June 24, marked a year since the Supreme Court overturned the nationwide right to abortion with its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. We’re going to start with an interview with my KFF colleague Alina Salganicoff, all about the work KFF has done on this topic over the last year. Spoiler alert: It’s been a lot. Then we’ll have our regular panel discussion. So, without further ado, here is the interview. I am pleased to welcome to the podcast my colleague Alina Salganicoff, senior vice president and director of Women’s Health Policy here at KFF. Alina, welcome to “What the Health?”
Alina Salganicoff: Thank you. Delighted to be here.
Rovner: So it’s an understatement to say that a lot has happened on the women’s health front in the year since the Supreme Court decided Dobbs. But I think your group has produced an enormous volume of information that a lot of journalists and researchers have already used to help paint a picture of those changes. For those who haven’t taken a stroll through the resources available at kff.org/womens-health-policy, give us an idea of what can be found there.
Salganicoff: Well, we have been collecting a tremendous amount of information. Most recently we released a survey of OB-GYNs on their experiences pre- and post-Dobbs and really found some very, I think, alarming findings in terms of the impact of Dobbs on clinical care. We’re also tracking abortion coverage, as well as tracking the availability of abortion at the state level, and we do that routinely. We have a litigation tracker that tracks litigation at the federal and the state level, and that’s just been a very active part of our portfolio and analysis as well. And that’s just an example of a few things that we have going on. But we also have an abortion dashboard, where we provide up-to-date information and analysis and data, not only for work that KFF has been doing, but also synthesis and analysis of other work that’s going on in the field.
Rovner: This is information that, I will confess, a lot of reporters have been using over the course of the year. So thank you for that. How would you describe the state of abortion rights in the U.S. a year post the overturn of Roe?
Salganicoff: Well, that’s a huge question. The answer, of course, truly depends on where you live. In states where abortion is banned, access has been all but eliminated, except for in the rarest circumstances. And honestly, in most cases, even women who qualify for those exceptions have nowhere to go or aren’t being served. In many other states, there are restrictions, particularly those with gestational bans that restrict where people seeking abortion can go. And even in states that uphold abortion rights, people may still need to travel far for abortions, even if … and maybe not even have access to telehealth abortions where they live.
Rovner: So I know this is an even harder question. Can you take 30 seconds to tell us what you think the biggest difference has been compared to a year ago, or I guess it’s now a year and a week ago?
Salganicoff: Well, that is a big ask, Julie. But I will say, for those who live in states where abortion is banned or greatly restricted, this is where you really see the biggest change. And this has, as we anticipated, disproportionately affected pregnant people of color, those who are young and low-income. But also, abortion bans have made it more dangerous for pregnant women and others to have a baby or to get needed medical care. Those seeking abortions have been the hardest hit, but they’re not the only group. And I think also that there’s growing awareness and acceptance that abortion cannot be relegated to the shadows of health care or banned without having broad repercussions on other aspects of health care. Maternity care, emergency care, treatment for cancer and autoimmune disease have all been impacted as well.
Rovner: Yeah, I think that’s been a big revelation for a lot of people, that lots of pregnant women who worked hard to get pregnant and are trying to have babies but have problems in their pregnancy are caught in some of these restrictions, even if unintentionally.
Salganicoff: Absolutely. And I think that the issue of the large disparities we have in this nation on maternal mortality really has brought this issue much more into the limelight, and really seeing how abortion is going to be connected to maternal mortality in this country.
Rovner: So, like me, you’ve been doing this work for a long time now. What surprised you most about the fallout from a year without Roe?
Salganicoff: Right. Well, when Roe fell, I think many of us anticipated in a short time half the states would ban abortion. And while that has happened in 14 states, legal challenges, along with ballot initiatives and elections, have made it clear that there is a will to maintain abortion access in many places where we didn’t think that was possible. Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, they’re all great examples of that, but they’re not the only states. The other, I think, has been the issue of the FDA and mifepristone, where the Supreme Court has temporarily blocked the lower-court ruling that would have essentially overturned the FDA’s scientific assessment of the safety and effectiveness of the drug, as well as the guardrails that are necessary for dispensing. But that case is not resolved. And then, finally, we have the issue of the Comstock Act, which is also related to that, which is an anti-vice law from 1873 that holds the potential, if enforced, to block the distribution of not only mifepristone but potentially anything that’s used with the intent to perform an abortion. That doesn’t mean just mailing the pill from the clinician to the patient, but also distributing the medication. And it’s going to affect states across the country, not just those where abortion is banned.
Rovner: So lots more to watch. One of your reports that surprised me was how many abortion restrictions there are in states even where abortion isn’t banned, and what we think of as pretty blue, like Massachusetts and Maryland. What kind of restrictions still exist in places that are otherwise considered abortion-destination states?
Salganicoff: Yes, that’s some work that we’ve recently done some analysis on. Yeah. Even if abortion is not legally banned, states can establish regulations and other requirements that effectively restrict access. In states like Maryland and Massachusetts, those are parental consent, or notification, laws. But there are other requirements such as waiting periods, ultrasound requirements, as well as laws that only permit those who have medical degrees to perform or dispense medication abortion pills, even though we know that advanced-practice clinicians, like physician assistants or nurse-midwives, can safely perform these procedures. That makes it harder for people, even in those states, as well as those who travel to get access to abortion.
Rovner: So, presumably, abortion rights advocates have work to do in many states, not just ones with bans.
Salganicoff: That’s right.
Rovner: I think another thing that came as a surprise to me, and we’ve already mentioned this briefly, is how health care for women that is not abortion has been affected. What are doctors telling you?
Salganicoff: Yeah. We recently did a survey of OB-GYNs, and I’ve also been out in the field in several conferences and meetings. And, you know, there’s been a lot of attention recently to the issue of miscarriage management, but also dealing with pregnancy in general and possibly also in the context of cancer care, care for chronic diseases, and emergency care. For example, there have been concerns about access to drugs like methotrexate, which is an abortifacient. It’s used to treat ectopic pregnancies, but it’s also used to treat cancer and autoimmune disease. And we’ve been seeing and hearing at least anecdotal reports about difficulties in accessing that drug. Our OB-GYN survey finds that clinicians are really worried about maternal mortality, their ability to provide care that meets the standards of care — medical care and the norms — and also to provide miscarriage care. That should worry not only those who can get pregnant, but many others as well.
Rovner: So what are you working on now that we should keep an eye out for?
Salganicoff: Well, of course, we’re laser-focused on tracking and analyzing the broader implications of the Dobbs ruling on abortion access. But we’re also focused on contraceptive access as well. And I think that hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention. There’s the issue of how Title X, which is the federal family planning program, is going to proceed in light of a federal decision to withhold the Title X grants for Oklahoma and Tennessee, states that are refusing to follow the requirement that Title X patients be given nondirective pregnancy counseling and referral. So this is an area that I think is going to get some attention on the Hill and in the courts, and I think other states are watching that. The other issue … are developments around emergency contraception and the real confusion that our polling has really documented about whether it’s legal and available. And we actually saw in our OB-GYN survey very low rates of physicians providing emergency contraception to their patients. And then finally, where all eyes are, of course, on the FDA for their decision about the over-the-counter status of an oral contraceptive pill. And we’re going to be looking at how that’s all going to roll out in the pharmacies, as well as whether there’s going to be an opportunity to provide insurance coverage for that newly available method.
Rovner: Lots more to come. I guess we’ll have to do this again next year. Alina Salganicoff, thank you so much for joining us.
Salganicoff: Thank you for inviting me. It’s been a pleasure.
Rovner: OK. We are back and I’m so pleased to have three of my favorite reproductive health specialists at the table today, who have spent a lot of the last year reporting from around the country and, in some cases, around the world. Alice, Shefali, Sandhya: Thank you all for being here. So I want to start with the people who are most affected by the Supreme Court’s action last year. What has happened to women seeking abortions since last year and women seeking other types of health care, too, for that matter?
Luthra: I think the data is pretty compelling, right? We can look at the WeCount numbers that just came out right before the anniversary. The number of recorded legal abortions has fallen quite precipitously. We have seen thousands fewer people get abortions. We’ve also seen dramatic increases in people traveling for care, going to Florida, to Illinois, to North Carolina, among many others. And what those numbers don’t always tell us is how difficult that journey is, how expensive it is. I think a lot about this study from when SB 8, the Texas six-week abortion ban, took effect, and they found there that some of the people who were traveling out of state, it took them so much money they couldn’t afford food for a week and then they ate whatever they could; they couldn’t afford dog food because it was just that difficult of a trip. And what we’re seeing is just people are, in some cases, accessing health care and other cases they are not. And it is becoming a lot harder and in some cases life-threatening. We’re all hearing the stories about people experiencing pregnancy complications and not being able to get timely care flying across several states while afraid they could go into premature labor on the plane.
Ollstein: Everything Shefali said is true. I also think that we need to put our critical hats on when we look at some of this early, preliminary data that’s coming out. It just takes time to get very solid, reliable data. And while the WeCount report is helpful, it has a lot of holes in it, and it makes estimates, and it doesn’t include people who are obtaining mifepristone and self-managing their abortions outside the medical system. You know, it doesn’t include data from certain providers and certain states. And so I think it will just take time to get a really accurate picture of what’s going on. We are sort of cobbling it together. You know, we have providers in blue states reporting how much increase they’re seeing in people coming in. We get some data from groups like Aid Access that mail the pills about the demand they are seeing. But there are a lot of people who aren’t going to show up in any of those counts. And we just sort of don’t know what’s happening to that, other than anecdotally, based on our reporting on the ground. And so I think, yes, there are a lot of people obtaining pills, there are a lot of people traveling, and there are a lot of people for whom neither of those are possible options and that they are going forward with pregnancies that they otherwise would have terminated.
Rovner: I think one of my biggest takeaways from the last year is the broader understanding of how common pregnancy complications are. I think a lot of people did not expect to see so many women with wanted pregnancies have difficulty getting care that they needed. I think people didn’t realize how common pregnancy complications are; they affect about 8% of pregnancies, or that’s 1 in every 12.5. That is a lot of people. And of course, as we all know, maternal mortality and morbidity in this country is embarrassingly high compared to other industrialized countries. I think people, particularly in the anti-abortion movement, used to talk about, you know, these serious pregnancy complications as being extremely rare. They just aren’t. I think we’re finally starting to see people talk about that.
Raman: You know, the past year I’ve seen so much more in the public consciousness about miscarriage management, which is something that we’ve all covered in the past, but it’s not something that I think has been talked about as much, brought up as much, some of the complications there. And especially when the treatment for miscarriages in many cases is very similar to what is done for abortions, and just some of the difficulties that different folks have been experiencing being able to get that care for miscarriages even if they are not seeking an abortion and it’s a wanted pregnancy. I think that has really come to light a lot as well.
Rovner: So the Supreme Court majority, I think in their majority opinion, sort of said they hoped that this would be the last word on abortion for a while. It obviously was not. So let let’s do a quick review of what’s happened in the courts since Dobbs was decided last year. I guess the big one that we’re waiting on is the case of mifepristone, the abortion pill, right?
Ollstein: That’s the main federal one, although there are some other ones. But as we all sort of knew at the time, this is really a state-by-state fight. And the state-level cases are still continuing to play out. You know, just recently there were some major rulings, in Wyoming, in South Carolina. We’re waiting on Iowa. There was this declaration by the justices that overturned Roe v. Wade that this would sort of “settle the issue,” quote-unquote. And it is extremely unsettled.
Rovner: It is. And of course we should mention that a lot of these state cases are because even though the Supreme Court ruled that the federal Constitution doesn’t have any right to abortion, a lot of states say that their state constitutions do.
Luthra: And the South Carolina one is particularly interesting because, in January, we had the state Supreme Court say that their constitution did not allow for a six-week ban. And just this week, that same Supreme Court, with one change in membership, heard almost the same version, a slightly different six-week ban, and there is a good chance they uphold it, which really speaks to not only the role of the courts in dictating abortion rights on a state-by-state level, but also the role of individual changes in the makeup of those courts and how just this one really small thing, like someone aging out of being on the state Supreme Court, can change access for thousands of people.
Ollstein: And state constitutions, even though they don’t have the word “abortion,” often are way more protective of abortion than people might have predicted. To Shefali’s point, that goes to which judges are interpreting it. But also you have some of these rulings in states we think of as very far to the right that are surprisingly protective of abortion. And I think that fight is continuing to play out. And I’m sure we’re going to get into later the attempts to insert language into the state constitutions that’s explicitly protective of abortion.
Luthra: One element on the federal courts that I think is worth flagging that is relevant to this mifepristone case as well, right — which, to recap, is currently at the 5th Circuit; they are debating whether to take mifepristone off the market, to impose more restrictions on how it’s prescribed. This will probably end up at the Supreme Court again, maybe within the year. But dormant in that case, and something that a lot of scholars have talked about, is this new legal questioning around the Comstock Act, this very old anti-obscenity law used in the past to censor Walt Whitman, to ban “Ulysses,” all sorts of crazy things, and is now being argued as a legal vehicle to end access not only to mifepristone, but to anything that can be mailed for an abortion. And scholars are quite critical of these arguments, but there is a reasonable chance that they come up again and again, and that, given the right case, the right lawyers, the right justices, that a case based on this reading of the Comstock Act could be used to argue for and potentially even implement a national abortion ban through the federal courts without using Congress.
Rovner: Yeah. Mary Ziegler, who’s been on this podcast, who’s one of the top abortion history scholars and a law professor, has been talking about this a lot. You know, everybody is sort of talking about whether or not they can implement or pass a national abortion ban. She says, depending on how they interpret Comstock, there already is, in theory, a national abortion ban. And it wouldn’t just be pills. It would be anything that’s mailed that really has to do with abortion, right?
Ollstein: Yeah. I also just want to go back to the mifepristone case and note that there’s not just one; there’s, like, five — five that I that I know of, maybe even more. The main one that could decide the federal regulation at the FDA level of mifepristone; there are several groups of states saying, Hey, if there’s a federal ban, it shouldn’t apply to us; and then there are two lawsuits that are attempting to challenge state-level bans on the drugs as violating the rights either of doctors and patients or of the pharmaceutical companies. So there are so many different permutations and ways this could go. It’s not just, you know, an up or down vote.
Rovner: Yeah, it’s definitely a full-employment-for-lawyers decision.
Ollstein: And health care reporters.
Rovner: And health care reporters. Well, I want to talk about the administration a little bit. President Biden has been both praised by abortion rights supporters for his administration’s support of abortion rights and chided for his personal reluctance to talk about an issue he is clearly not very comfortable with. What has the administration done in this arena, besides everybody paying attention to what President Biden does or doesn’t say himself?
Raman: I would boil down what I guess the president has done has been the three executive orders that he’s done since the Dobbs decision. So we had two last year that were more focused on abortion and things that he was asking various agencies and departments to do there. And then most recently, last week, we had one that was focused on birth control and contraception, broadening accessibility there. And I think the trick here is that all of these points within the executive order are calling on the agencies and departments to consider doing this, consider doing that. And while some of those things have come to fruition — we’ve had, you know, the VA [Department of Veterans Affairs] and the Department of Defense have changed their policies to kind of make access easier — we’ve also had certain things that have been outlined there not come out. We had in I think the first or second one last year that they had asked CMS [the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services] to find ways to make it so that there could be, you know, an 1115 waiver for Medicaid programs to cover out-of-state patients. And states haven’t really jumped at that or figured out a way for that to work out. So it’s a mixed bag.
Luthra: I think another sort of interesting element — for everything the administration has done, tried to expand access to mifepristone in pharmacies, tried to use EMTALA [the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act], the emergency medication law, to help people get abortions when they are needed for life-threatening situations in hospitals, it feels like there is always a Republican response that is quite effective in, if not neutering, then quite weakening that. And we’ve seen that with the Texas attorney general, potentially someday soon former attorney general, suing to challenge the EMTALA regs that we’ve seen that in the —
Rovner: He’s being impeached, for those of you who have not kept up — that the Texas attorney general. So we’re waiting for the trial of that impeachment.
Luthra: Yeah, we’ve seen like Alice’s really great reporting on the efforts by Republican attorneys general, including in blue states, to limit access to mifepristone in pharmacies, right, sort of going directly against what the administration is trying to do and what it sort of gets to is: For everything that they try, it is hard to see in reality how much of an impact it will make and can make on the ground in expanding access to abortion.
Ollstein: Oh, yes. And we should say that there are, you know, progressive advocacy groups who are disappointed and think the administration has not tried everything it could be trying. And so, you know, the administration has been touting everything it’s doing. And like we have said, some of it has made an impact, particularly defending these policies in court and stopping them from being struck down. But there is a lot of frustration. You know, I’ve heard specific calls for more to be done through Medicaid, more to be done in terms of exploring whether abortion providers could operate on federal land, even in red states. There’s just a lot of areas, and this administration is pretty cautious. And, you know, we can see, because of all the legal challenges, why that is. An adverse legal ruling could be damaging going forward. But, you know, I do want to note that there are pro-abortion rights advocacy groups who are not satisfied with the level of effort from the Biden administration so far.
Rovner: Frustrated, I think, is the accurate word there. Well, let us move to Congress because that’s relevant to what we were just talking about. As we have discussed on this podcast many times, Congress is pretty much gridlocked on all issues involving reproductive health. There are not 60 votes in the Senate for anything on either side, but there’s been some action in Congress the last year, right, Sandhya?
Raman: Yeah, I would say 1) historically, there’s rarely much movement on abortion policy in Congress. It’s just someone bringing something up a lot for messaging. But I think the main thing that that has had an effect is [Republican] Sen. [Tommy] Tuberville from Alabama has been holding up Pentagon nominations over the Department of Defense’s abortion policy, which allows service members who are stationed somewhere where abortion is not legal to be able to take off time and travel somewhere to get that abortion. And this has been holding up over 250 nominations so far. It’s been a big issue given that, I think, there have been folks from either side and former defense officials have said this is a matter of national security, that we’re not able to get this done over one person.
Rovner: This is a big deal that’s been kind of flying under the radar for two or three months now, right?
Ollstein: They’re at a total impasse.
Raman: Yeah, I think that the latest is mainly that, you know, Sen. [Joni] Ernst [R-Iowa] does want to have a vote on this when the NDAA goes to the Senate floor.
Rovner: The defense authorization — the annual defense authorization bill.
Raman: To kind of have a vote on that and try to get that. But they’re at an impasse right now. And it’s kind of unusual. I mean, it’s something that — people have held up nominations, but I think this in particular is a pretty interesting one.
Rovner: Yeah, I know the secretary of defense is very upset about it. It really is a matter of national security and they really haven’t been able to work this out. You know, we know, as we mentioned, Congress can’t sort of do anything. There is not a supermajority to either tighten federal abortion restrictions or loosen them. But one of the things that might have happened and that anti-abortion legislators talked about early in the year were things to better support pregnant women or pregnant women who’ve then had children, and trying to support those children. Even things like Title X, like contraception, Head Start, expanded Medicaid for maternal health for a year. We actually haven’t seen very much of that happening either, have we?
Ollstein: No, we have not. I will say we have in some states; some states that are very conservative have — they say it’s specifically because of the elimination of abortion access — moved to have more funding for moms and babies and even contraception. And so you have seen that. But no, at the federal level, it is running right into this anxiety about debt and spending and not wanting to open the pocketbooks on that front. I also think it’s interesting that House Republicans have not really used their majority to vote on an abortion ban. In a sense, it’s kind of a free vote for them because it won’t become law. And it’s just interesting and speaks to the tricky politics that they haven’t even done a symbolic vote. Meanwhile, you’ve had Senate Democrats do a bunch of symbolic votes to try to make Republicans uncomfortable with the issue. But again, these are all just sort of show votes that are not going to become law.
Rovner: Yeah, somebody should total up the show votes at some point over the last 10 years. I bet it would be a lot.
Raman: I will say that, you know, the one thing that I will acknowledge on a federal level is that, you know, when we had the omnibus last year, they did make the 12-month postpartum Medicaid pilot coverage permanent. And I think that will be a big thing, given that so many states have so quickly adopted the pilot of that. So that would see something that that there can be an effect, but —
Rovner: But it is still optional. States don’t have to — I mean right now —
Raman: It is still optional.
Rovner: Standard Medicaid cuts off new moms after 60 days, is that right?
Raman: Yeah, But I mean, it’s hard. I mean, I think it’s A) kind of what Alice said with the funding and the fact that we’re working with less than we had before. But also, if you look at the language of a lot of the bills that have been introduced that kind of focus on some of these things, you know, whether it’s different things for new moms — a lot of it has language that will polarize the other side. I think that if you see some of the packages and bills that have been put out by Republicans, there’s funding or redirecting resources for crisis pregnancy resource centers, which, you know, Democrats are not in favor of given that they don’t support abortion. And then we also have, I think, a lot of the Democrats’ bills might not specifically carve out certain things. I think that they “butt heads” …[unintelligible] … I think you have to kind of water it down, the language. And we haven’t really seen something that kind of can appeal to everyone kind of come forward, and also that doesn’t cost money. And finding that happy medium is very difficult.
Rovner: And ever was. Well, Congress hasn’t been able to do very much, but state legislatures have been really busy, right? I mean, and it’s more than just, you know, bans, working on different variations of bans. We’ve seen some very, sort of, creative ideas, right?
Luthra: It’s been fascinating to see what’s happening on the state level. One thread I actually thought of during Sandhya’s remarks was the expansion of crisis pregnancy centers, in particular in states with abortion bans, right? Putting more state funding to support them, which, for a reminder, they not only don’t support abortion; many of them don’t actually employ qualified medical personnel and are not bound by HIPAA [Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act]. We have that lawsuit from this week where the woman said she went to a crisis pregnancy center, and they missed her ectopic pregnancy. So, quite dangerous. But beyond that, what’s really interesting is Republicans in state legislatures seem like they are really trying to figure out how to navigate these tricky abortion politics, and they’re not quite sure how to go about doing it, which is why we saw the six-week abortion ban pass in Florida and in South Carolina. And then we saw differences in other states, right? North Carolina did the 12-week ban, which is being litigated right now. And what clinics are actually more concerned about there is a requirement for two in-person visits separated by three days, which they say will just make the procedure unaffordable. We saw Nebraska do a 12-week ban as well, sort of concerned that six weeks appears too extreme now that voters are responding to abortion bans. And the other thing that is just really, really interesting is: We saw at the beginning of the year some pre-filing of bills around the fetal personhood movement, around ways to try and criminalize the morning-after pill or IUDs [intrauterine devices], trying to consider whether you make the person who gets an abortion liable herself. None of those have really taken off yet, and it seems that it’s because that is a bridge that, for many in the movement, is still too far — just this concern that then they would really have to say it is not just that we are trying to quote-unquote “protect the pregnant person,” but we actually think abortion is murder itself. And so I think that will be a really interesting battle within anti-abortion lawmakers, to see how that ends up in the coming years.
Rovner: And that’s a battle that goes back like a decade and a half now. They still aren’t quite there. I think the other thing that we saw a lot of that hasn’t really come to pass are bills to try to ban travel, to try to ban pregnant women from going to other states to obtain abortions, which strikes me as something — strikes many people as something that seems probably not constitutional, but not to say that they won’t try.
Ollstein: Yeah, I think we’ve seen Idaho go the furthest down this road. Missouri was also sort of exploring it, putting a toe in the water, but it never really went anywhere. But I totally agree, Julie. I think there was so much anxiety over this past year about red states trying to reach across their borders in different ways to police abortion, whether it’s suing doctors or trying to ban travel or obtaining people’s medical records or — there was just a lot of anxiety, and you saw that reflected in what blue states passed. Blue states passed a lot of protections to stop those sort of cross-border prosecutions. But we haven’t seen the cross-border prosecutions. That hasn’t really come to fruition yet and may or may not going forward. So it’s interesting because a lot of fears of what would happen when Roe fell have played out exactly as predicted and this is one that kind of hasn’t. Two other really quick state-level things that I wanted to flag that I just think are interesting and are examples of conservatives trying to get very creative and not do just a straightforward ban. I would flag Utah is trying to ban abortion by banning abortion clinics and saying it has to only take place in hospitals. Twist: No hospital in the state will do abortions because they’re religiously affiliated. So that’s sort of a total ban in practicality, if not in name. That’s been enjoined in court. And then in Wyoming, they’ve tried to ban the pills. And pills are what people use because there are no facilities that perform abortions. And so these are ways they’re trying to get creative and do it in different ways. That has been enjoined, too. So we’ll see. But it’s very like, throw everything at the wall and see what sticks.
Rovner: And I would add to that, although I think we haven’t really talked about it on the podcast — is some cities now trying to create bans. So even within blue states there would be bans in red cities, which is another complicated legal thing.
Raman: I looked up some Guttmacher Institute data and we had fewer abortion laws adopted last year compared to the year before. It was 50 last year versus 108 the year before. And, you know, the Dobbs decision dropped after some of these states had gone out of session. But the one thing that I thought — that resonated with me because, you know, A) a lot of these states, maybe they’ve implemented wider bans or they were able to bring back older laws, but it was a drop in the number that we were seeing. And the thing that I have kind of taken away from this year is that the states that we’ve been talking about before — you know, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Florida — that are implementing these, or trying to, much stronger abortion bans are the ones that have been kind of the safe havens, quote-unquote, since the news dropped, where if you live elsewhere in the South, you are trying to go to one of these states to get an abortion. So it’s kind of like a whack-a-mole and that these are the places that have been seeing an influx of patients, especially Florida, that, you know, these are — the cracking-down there to kind of minimize that.
Rovner: So, and to go back to what we said at the beginning, that just makes abortion more expensive for people who have to leave their own state to go somewhere else. Well, we’ve been kind of dancing around this a little bit. But one of the reasons that states have not done some of the things that we thought they might do is that voters have not reacted the way we expected or, I don’t know, the way some people expected. I mean, it’s been surprising. Somebody summarize for us what voters have done on this issue in the last year.
Ollstein: Every time voters have been able to weigh in directly, they have weighed in directly against restrictions and for protections — you know, broadly. Because of that, you have a lot more activists in states trying to set up these votes for later this year, next year, the following years. Every state has different rules around this, and some states don’t allow it at all. But because of just the sweep of the pro-abortion rights side last year in six states —
Rovner: Including some pretty red states like Kentucky and Kansas.
Ollstein: Including some very red states. Yeah, although, you know, it’s a good reminder that, you know, we think in terms of red state, blue state. But, you know, it’s really nuanced. I mean, Kansas has a Democratic governor. Kentucky has a Democratic governor. But, yes, these are states that voted for Trump, have an overwhelmingly Republican state legislature. So it’s how you look at things. But, yes, very conservative, very religious. And both the vote results, but also reporting, polling, focus groups, show that even people who self-identify as very conservative and even personally anti-abortion, a lot of them are not supportive of laws that are this restrictive and think that this should be someone’s personal choice. So I think that’s why these campaigns that really had a conservative-friendly message of getting the government out of your personal business were so successful.
Luthra: And what’s been striking has been seeing the polling just in general around abortion rights. It’s been fairly stagnant up until last year. And basically every big polling organization has seen a shift, and voters are more supportive now of abortion rights than they were before, more opposed in some cases, even to, like, the second-trimester bans, which in the past were a bit more popular, and also in some cases more likely to place this as a high priority for voting. And that will be really interesting to see, especially next year, when we have more abortion rights ballot initiatives, as Alice mentioned, but also more candidates, including the president, running on abortion specifically, and seeing whether this particular issue does influence voters to become, in particular, more Democratic than they otherwise might have been.
Rovner: Yeah, it’s funny; abortion has been a big voting issue for the anti-abortion movement for years, which is how they got to this point basically. It has not been a huge issue for those who support abortion rights because a lot of people thought Roe would never go away, so they didn’t need to vote on it. And I think that’s going to be sort of a big realization. And next year is going to be the first presidential election since Roe went away. Before we leave the states, I would flag, though, the fact that, Alice, you were saying that because of the success of some of these state ballot initiatives, there are other states that are trying to do it, but there are also efforts to stop states that are trying to do it. I’m thinking mostly of Ohio and Missouri, in particular, which has a bizarre fight going on.
Ollstein: Yeah, absolutely. And those are the most immediate ones. But lots of red states took up bills this year to make direct ballot initiatives harder in lots of different ways — either, you know, raising the number of signatures that need to be collected, having weird geographical requirements for where the signatures are collected, and then the main one, which is in play in Ohio, is this question of requiring a supermajority vote to pass instead of just a bare majority. And so Ohio Republican legislators are setting up this August special vote on whether to raise the threshold from 50 to 60% to approve a ballot initiative. And they have been on the record about this specifically aimed at making sure the vote to restore abortion access in the state can’t pass in the fall. And then in Missouri, there’s all sorts of different things in play, some weird stuff, but —
Rovner: I think I can explain Missouri. The state attorney general is trying to make the state auditor change his estimate of how much it would cost if they were to pass this ballot measure expanding abortion access. And I think that the state auditor has said it would cost something like $51,000 or $51 million and that the state attorney general wants to make him increase that by a factor of 10 or a hundred. I mean, there’s just this huge fight. And of course, that would have to go on the ballot measure. So if the anti-abortion attorney general thinks if people go to the polls and see that this is going to cost millions or hundreds of millions or billions of dollars, they’re less likely to vote for it. And so that fight sort of continues. And I believe it has not been resolved yet.
Raman: And they’re both from the same party, which I think just makes it more interesting.
Rovner: Yeah. But you know, this is the first time I can remember a fight, a big important fight, between a state auditor and a state attorney general. I want to talk a little bit about what’s happened to doctors and other health professionals, because they’re kind of caught in the middle here. I mean, they had not been — I’ve written at length about the AMA [American Medical Association]’s sort of checkered history of trying to be on every single side of this issue over the years. But now we’re seeing doctors put in some pretty hairy positions, right?
Luthra: One thing I’ve been really struck by is talking to a lot of — and this is especially doctors, but true probably of all health professionals, is this idea that they didn’t have to take a position on abortion before, so many of them simply didn’t. They were happy to sort of think of it in a silo separate from the rest of their jobs. And that was because, like you said, Julie, they weren’t concerned about losing Roe. And now that we’re in this world, many of them have been really stunned to see what the consequences are, and a lot have described to me this feeling of being sort of called to political activism that they did not expect, did not train for, it’s not the job that they have — but being really pushed to talk about abortion in a way they otherwise wouldn’t have. And what we’ve also seen, of course, is many moving from states that have bans on abortion. Many of those states that have bans on abortion are also passing bans on gender-affirming care for minors, which puts even more doctors, nurses, med students, residents in a bind. We should also note that the health care workforce is a majority woman workforce, and so many of them feel personally affected by these laws as well and are factoring that in their decisions as to whether to practice. And it’s still quite early to say what the implications will be. But there is a lot of real concern in these states that already were these, you know, lower-health-care-access states, especially in rural areas, losing even more health care professionals because of the bans they’ve put in place.
Ollstein: Doctors are becoming more vocal. I think a lot of players in the medical space that haven’t been as vocal about this are weighing in, telling state legislatures, “You’re putting our members in danger.” And so I completely agree. And I think that a lot of this anxiety seems to be from the medical community, like, If we accept this intrusion into our work, what’s next? What else will state legislators who are not doctors try to dictate that we can and can’t do? And so there’s sort of a sense of, If we don’t stand up to this, we’re sort of opening the door to a lot more intrusion into the patient-provider relationship.
Raman: So I have done a lot of looking at the long-term. I’ve been following, since last year, kind of the steps with workforce because I think, for context, we’re expected in a few years to have a shortage of obstetrics providers already, given a higher percentage of women of reproductive age and a lot of folks just leaving that workforce altogether. And I have been kind of curious how this is going to affect that. And I think some of the takeaways, I think, to echo Shefali, is A) it’s early. So it’s hard to go through the data and see what is because of this, what’s because of that. But I think one thing that I’ve noticed is that it hasn’t been just obstetrics or just emergency room or family medicine. I’ve been hearing from folks in all sorts of specialties, even if they aren’t even related to this, because wherever you do your training, it might affect your family or yourself. And that is something that I’ve heard come up — you know, harassment and is there options for themselves? And I think also just unclarity in the laws. I’ve heard multiple either folks training to be physicians or who have just become them say that they didn’t go to school to become a lawyer; they went to school to become a health care provider. And having to have that intermediary and consult the legal team of the hospital in between is just very difficult for them to do their care. But datawise, I think that we had, according to the AMA, a drop in residency apps for obstetrics and gynecology, and it was higher in the more restrictive states, but it also dropped some in the states that are more progressive on abortion, like it dropped in California. So it’s kind of hard to tell so soon what that could mean. But I think if you look at what happened in Texas, which had pretty flat numbers before SB 8, and then they had a huge drop after that law was implemented and who was applying to go there, and they have the third most programs in the country — like, that can provide some clues that we could see kind of further on as we keep looking. But yeah, a lot of it’s not going to be felt for a while.
Rovner: I think two really important points there, though, is one is that it’s not just restricted to the specialties that we would think because, as you point out, health care, particularly graduating medical students, are now majority women and they are mostly of childbearing age, so they are concerned about themselves and their families. And if they’re men, they likely have partners, so they’re still considered worried about themselves and their families. So it can be kind of a big deal. And the other one, of course, is that where medical students train after medical school, where they do their residencies, is very, very indicative of where they’re going to end up practicing. So if you don’t have people training in those states, you’re going to have fewer people practicing in those states. And that we do know from way, way, way back. So I think that’s also going to be an issue going forward. Well, we are running out of time, but I wanted to go around the table once really quickly and say you’ve all been obviously very steeped in this for the last year. I want everybody to tell us sort of the one thing that’s going to stick with you most from reporting over the course of this first year without Roe. Shefali, why don’t you start?
Luthra: I think the thing that will stick with me this year and probably the rest of my life is hearing from the people who have tried to get abortions in states where they cannot, whether that was because of a wanted pregnancy that went wrong, whether that was to save their own lives, whether that was because they already had two kids and didn’t want another or they didn’t want any kids. And just the themes that you keep hearing from them, right? The anger; the betrayal; the feeling like they are less of a person because they can’t get this in their home state; the financial distress that they go through; and, in many cases, the isolation, because they have no one they can talk to about this. It’s really, really striking to hear those stories. And I think they’re some of the most important things that we as reporters can hear about and that our readers can see and internalize and think about when they conceive of what abortion bans mean.
Raman: I think the thing that sticks with me is just really how far the reverberations from this decision have gone. You know, what really comes to mind is last year when I was at an international family planning conference, this woman from a Kenyan nonprofit said to me, “You know, when the U.S. sneezes, the rest of the countries catch a cold.” And I think that was really striking and just seeing how far a U.S. court case can be felt around the world, whether it is countries that have made more progressive abortion laws or more restrictive abortion laws, kind of in the light of something the U.S. does, and just kind of how something that I think is easy to think of as just here, how that can have an effect on other leaders and the people there, or just countries that rely on the U.S. for a variety of things. So that, that really sticks with me.
Ollstein: Yeah. In traveling, it’s just been really striking to see how abortion bans have had these knock-on effects and limited the availability of other kinds of health care, whether that’s by putting clinics out of business or causing an exodus of doctors and residents and medical students from particular parts of the country that already were experiencing shortages and really just making these medical deserts, and particularly maternal health deserts, that were already there even worse, and just meeting people who were telling me, “I was told it would be, you know, a four-month wait just to get an IUD.” You know, these are people who are trying to prevent an unwanted pregnancy. And there’s just nowhere for them to go in a lot of places in the country, more than we think. And so just looking at people who are not pregnant, are not seeking an abortion, are also being hit by these legal changes.
Rovner: I’ve been struck just by how accurate a lot of the predictions were about what would happen if Roe went down. I mean, there were things that were unexpected. But I think most of the things, particularly the red state, blue state, have and have-not, have been exactly what people predicted would happen. All right. It is time for our extra credit segment. That’s normally when we each recommend a story we read this week that we think you should read too. This week, though, I’ve asked the panelists to choose their favorite story about reproductive health that they have written in this past year. As always, don’t worry if you miss it. We will post the links on the podcast page at kffhealthnews.org and in our show notes on your phone or other mobile device. Sandhya, why don’t you go first this week?
Raman: So the story I picked is called “Conservatives Use Abortion Strategies in Fight Over Trans Care,” and I wrote this for Roll Call in February. What I did was kind of take a look at how we got to the Dobbs decision in the first place, is after the passing of legislation and the litigation and a number of state abortion laws and how those parallels are pretty striking to what’s been happening with trans health right now that has been really ramping up as a political messaging issue. And so, you know, in some cases it’s been very clear, where they’ve been putting language about abortion and gender-affirming care in the same bill, or restrictions there. But I think there are a lot of parallels that I was kind of finding in that, you know, starting with minors and then scaling up in restrictions or looking at science that’s odds with major medical organizations or messaging on safety or looking to penalize doctors or just, like, amplifying very rare cases of regret — that kind of thing. And so looking forward, that’s something that just keeps resonating with me as something to watch, that the abortion blueprint is not unique. It’s going to be there for other things.
Ollstein: So I chose the piece I did from the ground in Kansas when they voted. They were the first state where voters could weigh in directly on abortion access post-Roe, and it just revealed so many things that continue to be true for the states that are voting on this. It was just such a clear preview of what was to come. It was the flood of out-of-state money and staff on both sides. It was just how heated it got on the ground. It was the attempts by Republican state legislatures to structurally make it harder for folks to vote and more likely for things to go their way. And yet it was a blowout vote for the pro-abortion rights side in the end. And that was just such a preview of what was to come on both sides, and just being there on the ground and being able to see this and to see how people were feeling when the Dobbs decision was so fresh will really stay with me.
Luthra: My story published in May at the anniversary of the Dobbs leak. It’s called “93 Days: The Summer America Lost Roe v. Wade.” And for this, it was an oral history that my editor and I had talked about. And we spent a few months working on it, talking to a dozen different folks about what it was like to live through last summer, from the Dobbs leak to the Dobbs decision up to the Kansas election. And there are stories from doctors; from politicians; from activists; people who organized on the Kansas abortion rights initiative; lawmakers who talked about their experience of learning of the decision; Kristan Hawkins, the head of Students for Life. But the people whose stories I think are most worth reading are the, I think it was three women I spoke to, who talked about their experiences navigating abortion, including one woman who was trying to schedule her abortion. She was in line at Disney when the decision came out and she found out her appointment had been canceled. She was never able to get another one and she had a baby soon afterward. There was another who was taking her medication abortion pills at home when the decision was revealed, and she wasn’t sure if she was breaking the law by taking misoprostol in her bathtub. And I think these stories just — they really cemented for me that this is not only the world that we live in, but that these are the real-life implications on the people who are affected. And I just always really love getting a chance to tell those stories.
Rovner: Well, my story is a piece that I wrote last July, so almost a year ago, called “Three Things About the Abortion Debate That Many People Get Wrong.” And one myth, of course, is that abortion bans and restrictions would only affect people seeking abortions, which we now know in sometimes horrifying detail is not true. Women with very wanted pregnancies gone wrong are also caught in the crossfire, and, as we said, forced to travel long distances or wait until they are literally at death’s door to get needed care. But it’s worth reminding people about the other two myths. One is that Congress could have codified abortion rights at any time since Roe but never really tried very hard, and the other one that Congress could have acted in 2022 — the end of last year — when Democrats still had majorities, albeit very tiny ones, in the House and Senate. In fact, Congress never had the votes to enshrine abortion rights for the entire life of Roe. There were several attempts to do that, many of which I personally covered. And to those who think Congress could have done something last year, I ask, “Have you met Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema?” That wasn’t going to happen either. All right. Well, that is our show for this week. As always, if you enjoy the podcast, you can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. We’d appreciate it if you left us a review; that helps other people find us, too. Special thanks, as always, to our producer, Francis Ying. Also as always, you can email us your comments or questions. We’re at email@example.com. Or you can tweet me. I’m @jrovner.
Luthra: I’m @shefalil.
Raman: I’m @SandhyaWrites.
Rovner: We are taking next week off for the Fourth of July holiday, so we will be back in your feed with our regular news update on July 13. Until then, be healthy.
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