Abortion accessibility in Missouri continues to decline

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COLUMBIA - When Robin Utz and her husband came in for their 20-week ultrasound, they were ready to see the first pictures of their baby girl. They had been waiting for this moment for years -as a couple, they had endured numerous exhaustive and expensive fertility treatments in an attempt to become pregnant.

When the doctor came into the room to tell them that their daughter had no working kidneys and no working lungs, confirming a 100% fatality rate, their lives changed in the length of the spoken diagnosis.

“If she did make it to birth, she would have a very short time to live,” Utz said. “And for us, we were just like there’s no way that we can let her be born into a life of agony.”

What came next were desperate medical consultations, hoping that someone would have another answer.

But the second doctor said the same thing. And the third doctor. And the fourth.

Utz and her husband visited eight clinics in the St. Louis area, hoping to receive some sort of hope but instead only receiving confirmation of their worst fear -that their baby was going to die. At just over 20 weeks, Utz and her husband made the decision to have an abortion.

Utz received thorough medical consultations and opinions from various doctors, allowing her to make a fully informed decision. However, for women that don’t live in the St. Louis area, abortion services are not always easily accessible.

“In St. Louis, I got my second opinion within an hour-and-a-half of my original diagnosis,” Utz said. “What if I lived in Springfield or Joplin or some rural part of Missouri where I couldn’t get to these doctors as quickly?”

Her concerns about Missouri women’s access to reproductive care are not unfounded. As of 2018, the state of Missouri has only one abortion clinic, located in St. Louis. Missouri now finds itself in company with eight other states that have a single facility to serve the state’s population.

While her husband was calling relatives, communicating the sad news, Utz was frantically calling her medical providers.

“We had no time,” Utz said. “We just had to get those consents signed the very next day, in order to get the care that we deserve in the state that we've always lived in, where we pay taxes, where we vote, where we're active participants in our community.”

The source of the Utz’s panic comes from a 72-hour ban placed on abortion services. Missouri is one of six states that require a woman to wait a 72-hour period between the request for an abortion and the abortion itself, according to a report from the Guttmacher Institute. In Missouri, women seeking an abortion are required to attend counseling services and are provided a pamphlet, informing them of additional information about the procedure. While these steps are enforced to allow a woman to think through their decision fully, some women have expressed their frustration with the waiting periods.

One of these women is St. Louis resident, Jeni Box.

“That waiting period isn't set up to help people really think over their decision, that waiting period is set up to create a roadblock to activating how health care,” Box said.

Box, similarly to Utz, made the decision to have an abortion after receiving a bleak diagnosis about the health of her baby. For Box, support from her family and her job allowed her to work with the 72-hour ban.

“So we had access to childcare, we had time off work, we didn't have to drive all the way from across the state,” Box said. “But imagine doing all those things and then having to wait 72 hours.”

However, for women that aren’t equipped with the same privileges as Utz and Box, they have to look for options outside of their home state. One state frequently visited for women in these situations is Illinois. Unlike Missouri, Illinois doesn’t mandate a waiting period or counseling.

Alison Dreith, the deputy director of Hope Clinic for Women in Granite City, Illinois, has taken notice of the influx of out-of-state women looking for services.

Dreith makes daily trips across the Mississippi River in an attempt to provide both Illinois and out-of-state women with access to an abortion facility.

“For about 10 years, at least 55% of the patients at Hope Clinic for Women come from Missouri,” Dreith said. “That's more than even Illinois residents.”

In addition to those traveling from Missouri, Dreith said a large number of women come from additional neighboring states, including Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee. As of 2017, Illinois had 40 abortion facilities, according to a report from the Guttmacher Institute, providing greater access in comparison to states like Missouri. However, Hope Clinic for Women is currently the only full-service provider south of Illinois’ capital Springfield.

“It’s a real challenge because their laws are so restrictive or they only have one clinic,” Dreith said. “It’s a real challenge everywhere, unfortunately.”

Access to reproductive services in the Midwest is anticipated to increase following an announcement from Planned Parenthood on Oct. 2 with plans to open a second facility in Southern Illinois, just 13 miles from St. Louis’ sole abortion clinic.

While clinics in neighboring states continue to provide abortion services, some believe they shouldn’t have to cross state lines to receive a procedure that they consider basic health care. Although Box had her abortion in Missouri, she expressed sympathies for women that have crossed state lines for the procedure.

“You don’t want to feel like you should have to leave your home state to access health care,” Box said. “We made a medical decision for our daughter as her parents.”

While the initial decision for the Utz family was difficult, the two have taken their experience and publicized it in an attempt to help families in similar situations. Utz runs a blog called Defending Grace, which is a collection of intimate entries about her experience before, during and after the abortion.

The two now have a baby, named Hannah, and have finally been granted the chance to be parents. For the couple, the name Hannah holds an extra ounce of meaning.

“Hannah means Grace in Hebrew,” Utz explained. “It's one of those things, that, you know, if we had Grace, we wouldn't have Hannah. So we really soak up every moment we have with her.”

This story was a semester-long project produced through the Missouri School of Journalism Convergence program.

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