Abortion access just became more difficult for women living in West Virginia—as of January 17, there is only one abortion clinic left in the entire state.
According to the Charleston Gazette-Mail, Kanawha Surgicenter’s sole abortion provider traveled monthly from California to the West Virginia clinic. When he was no longer able to make the trip, Kanawha Surgicenter was forced to close. That makes Women’s Health Center of West Virginia, a private, non-profit reproductive health facility, the only in-state option for women who seek abortions.
Unfortunately, West Virginia isn’t the only state facing this problem. Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming also have only one abortion clinic each. Residents of these states who wish to terminate their pregnancies often face longer wait times for appointments due to high demand. Women living far from the cities where providers are located are routinely forced to travel long distances—sometimes hundreds of miles round-trip.
The closure of Kanawha Surgicenter reflects the changing landscape of abortion access nationwide. A 2016 Bloomberg report reveals that over 160 providers have either stopped offering abortion services or closed their clinics completely since 2011.
Anti-choice legislation is to blame for some of these closures. Regulations designed to make abortion access more difficult have popped up across the country in the past few years, effectively strong-arming clinics out of business. For example, smaller clinics in Texas struggled to come up with funding after legislation was passed requiring abortion clinics to upgrade their facilities and become outpatient surgical centers. Some of these restrictions have since been overturned, but the change comes too late for clinics that were forced to close their doors.
Another issue is the lack of physicians willing or able to perform abortions. Intimidation and threats of violence can make providers feel unwelcome, particularly in the small towns and rural areas where their services are needed most. Additionally, abortion training is no longer offered in many medical schools. The result? As older providers retire or move away, there is often no one to step in and take their place.
“The fact that West Virginia has only one clinic remaining is deeply concerning to advocates,” says Margaret Chapman Pomponio, executive director of the nonprofit reproductive justice group WV FREE. “The anti-choice movement has been incredibly effective at stigmatizing abortion, which has contributed to the shortage of providers.” Chapman Pomponio predicts that wait times at Women’s Health Center will increase due to Kanawha Surgicenter’s closure—often with dangerous consequences.
While Kanawha Surgicenter performed abortions up to 20 weeks’ gestation, Women’s Health Center only goes up to 16 weeks, which drastically decreases the window of opportunity for services. Chapman Pomponio worries that women who are unable to get appointments prior to the 16-week cutoff will increasingly have to travel out of state—or even be forced to carry unwanted pregnancies to term. Already, she says, at least one woman in her community has had to travel out of state due to the clinic’s closure. The woman was 18 weeks along; since West Virginia no longer has a clinic that performs abortions at that stage of pregnancy, she had no choice but to go to Pennsylvania for the procedure.
Though West Virginia has a population of 1.8 million, most areas are deeply rural, with little to no public transportation. In these communities, poverty is common. When money is tight, finding the funds to not only pay for an abortion, but also to take time off from work, arrange long-distance transportation and pay for lodging can be all but impossible. West Virginia is one of 17 states in which Medicaid provides abortion funding; the WV FREE Choice Fund is another option for low-income women who choose to terminate their pregnancies. Still, some women fall through the cracks. With no funds for medical care and nowhere to turn, desperate women may even resort to self-induced abortions, with potentially life-threatening results.
The barriers to access presented by the current climate of abortion care disproportionately affect women who are already vulnerable. Chapman Pomponio states that low-income women, women of color and those living in rural areas bear the heaviest burdens. “It’s not fair that a woman has to choose between putting food on the table or getting an abortion—which is basic healthcare.”
In addition to economic barriers, multiple bills have been introduced in West Virginia that are designed to take away access at the state level. Although West Virginia has a history of progressive family planning laws, Republicans have slowly been chipping away at these rights. Anti-choice lobbyists, including a fetal health specialist who presents himself as the “voice of the expert” in the field of obstetrics and gynecology, have been successful in putting pressure on local government to enact laws that restrict choice. WV FREE has conducted extensive surveys of residents in their area; the results show that many don’t support the regressive agenda pushed by elected officials.
At a time when abortion rights are heavily threatened from all angles, Chapman Pomponio recommends working to get progressive candidates into office at the local level. “We have a lot to lose,” says Chapman Pomponio. Collaboration between organization is another strategy she endorses: “We need to see a strong partnership between national and state-based advocacy.”
Supporting local pro-choice organizations that are working to keep the pressure on lawmakers is also essential to prevent further reproductive rights rollbacks, which pose real threats to the women who need these services the most. Pro-choice groups nationwide, including WV FREE, have experienced a surge in donations and membership since the election. Maintaining this momentum will be critical going forward as these groups struggle to protect access to choice.
Now more than ever, pro-choice advocates are called upon to translate our words into action by standing up for abortion rights, especially in states where access is rapidly declining. Otherwise, as Chapman Pomponio says, “The promise of Roe v. Wade is in danger of becoming a myth.”
Jen Bryant is a writer, coffee drinker and perennial student. Her work has been featured in Hipmama, MUTHA Magazine and 614 Now.