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Blue state alert at ACOG: Abortion seekers will head your way


AT ACOG 2022

SAN DIEGO – The end of the legal standards set by Roe v. Wade will likely lead to bans in as many as 26 states and send a flood of abortion seekers to the remaining states that still allow the procedure, an obstetrician-gynecologist warned colleagues at the annual clinical and scientific meeting of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

“The blue states neighboring those states will likely see an outpouring of patients among those who can travel,” Kristyn Brandi, MD, of New Jersey Medical School, Newark, said in a presentation about legal threats to abortion rights. “These will likely flood the health care systems and delay care for everyone. Make no mistake: Virtually all ob.gyns. across the country have the potential to be impacted.”

Indeed, research suggests that thousands more Texans than usual are heading out of state for abortions each month in the wake of a new, strict antiabortion law there.

Only three sessions at the 3-day ACOG meeting directly addressed abortion. But the topic was clearly on the minds of attendees in the wake of the release of a leaked draft of a Supreme Court ruling that would eliminate federal protection for abortion rights.

The 57,000-member ACOG organization firmly supports abortion rights and declares on its website that “Abortion Is Healthcare.”

In a workshop on challenges to abortion, ACOG chief of staff Dorothea Calvano Lindquist said “we remain your steadfast partner in advocacy and guidance on all levels.”

Ivana S. Thompson, MD, an ob.gyn. at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tenn., explained in a presentation that Roe v. Wade established a framework for regulations around abortion; they may not be regulated during the first trimester, but states may impose rules in the second semester that are related to health. “And then in the third trimester, once the fetus reaches viability, the state may regulate abortions or even prohibit them entirely, so long as there are exceptions for medical emergencies,” she said.

The Supreme Court ruling in the 1992 case of Planned Parenthood v. Casey did away with the trimester framework, Dr. Thompson said, and declared that abortion regulations could not place an “undue burden” on women.

This change allowed laws that “are purposely designed to trap providers and clinics and to restrict their ability to provide abortions, not due to health concerns but really just to prevent pregnant people from accessing care,” she said.

In 2018, Mississippi passed a law – which never went into effect and is now challenged before the Supreme Court – that makes most abortions illegal after 15 weeks. And in September 2021, a Texas law went into effect that outlaws abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected.

What happens if Roe is overturned and laws that ban or severely limit abortion go into effect in states across the country? In Nashville, Dr. Thompson said, patients will have to travel to Illinois – more than 300 miles away – to reach the nearest abortion clinic.

“When I think about my own clinical practice over the last year, [if the law were in place] I would not have been able to offer an abortion to a developmentally delayed, nonverbal patient who was raped by her brother,” she said. “I would not have been able to offer an abortion to the service person who was sexually assaulted by a coworker in the field. I would not have been able to offer an abortion to a person with a pregnancy complicated by a hypoplastic left heart, congenital diaphragmatic hernias with the stomach in the thorax, an unformed lumbar spine, and other anomalies.”

Bhavik Kumar, MD, a family medicine physician and medical director for primary and trans care at Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast in Houston, said the effects of the new law in Texas are already apparent. As he told ABC News last fall, he used to perform 20-30 abortions per day, but the number dwindled immediately the day the law went into effect.

At the ACOG presentation, Dr. Kumar highlighted a March 2022 research brief that reported that abortions in Texas fell by half in the month after the law was implemented compared with the previous year. And the average number of abortions performed on Texans who left the state grew by more than 10-fold from the period of September-December 2019 (514) to September-December 2021 (5,574).

Once the law went into effect, Dr. Kumar said, “we began to see longer waiting times at clinics in nearby states, wait times that started out as short as a day go to an average of 2-3 weeks to get an initial appointment. And some of these states also have mandatory delays of up to 72 hours.”

Dr. Kumar added that he’s “heard from emergency-room physicians and nurses who call and ask me what they can and cannot say when providing care for pregnant people in Texas and how they should be counseling their patients who may need emergency or urgent care after returning to Texas.”

Dr. Brandi cautioned colleagues that even ob.gyns. who don’t perform abortions will still be affected by the overturning of Roe. In some states, they’ll have to understand the rules about treating women with early ruptured membranes when cardiac motion is detected or with atopic pregnancies with cardiac activity at risk of potential tubal rupture.

The speakers urged colleagues to take action at the ballot box and their own clinics to protect patients. “While the recent leak is a truly scary moment for our country and for our practices, I’m hopeful that it will help galvanize our communities,” Dr. Brandi said. Regardless of where you live, regardless of where you practice, this ruling impacts all ob.gyns., everyone in this room. Each of us needs to go home after this conference and figure out what you are going to do to make sure that our patients can still get the care that they need.”

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