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Idaho could make getting an abortion harder, and Washington is preparing for more patients

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee is seen in Olympia on Thursday before signing a measure that prohibits legal action against both people seeking an abortion and those who aid them. Inslee’s signature comes days after the Legislature in neighboring Idaho approved a bill modeled on a law in Texas that allows lawsuits to enforce a ban on abortions performed after six weeks of pregnancy.  (Associated Press)

It takes Aspynn Owsley and her friends about 15 minutes to drive across the Idaho-Washington state line to the Planned Parenthood clinic in Pullman for birth control, STI testing or pill abortions. But if a person is further than 10 weeks into their pregnancy, they will be in for a longer drive.

Owsley has a friend who had to make the hour-and-a-half drive to Spokane to receive an abortion.

And while the drive and procedure was taxing on her friend, Owsley said many other women in Idaho do not have the same access.

“While me and my friends can breathe a sigh of relief being so close to Washington, there are so many Idahoans that will not be able to seek those services,” Owsley said.

That’s in large part due to restricted abortion access in the Gem State. There are only three Planned Parenthood clinics in Idaho, all in the southern part of the state.

Anyone seeking abortion services north of Boise looks west to Washington.

On top of that, Gov. Brad Little could sign Senate Bill 1309 this week, which would codify the state’s modified six-week abortion ban. Abortion rights groups are considering legal challenges to the legislation, and the state’s own attorney general wrote that it would likely violate the Constitution.

It adds language similar to, but slightly different from, Senate Bill 8, the Texas six-week abortion ban that so far appears to still be in effect after the U.S. Supreme Court did not block the measure entirely and subsequent rulings have narrowed how the bill can be challenged in court.

Currently, no surgical abortions are offered in Planned Parenthood clinics in Idaho due to stringent state laws already restricting the procedure .

In 2021, when Idaho passed a six-week abortion ban for the first time, the number of Idaho patients seeking care in Eastern Washington increased, particularly for those trying to get just across the state line. Before 2021, Idaho patients made up 36% of those seeking pill abortions from the Pullman Planned Parenthood clinic. In 2021, that figure edged up to 43%.

At the Spokane Valley Clinic in 2020, 35% of patients seeking a pill abortion were from Idaho; by 2021, that figure had increased to 43%, according to data from Planned Parenthood.

Even if there are legal challenges or little clarity about whether a state law is constitutional, the result is more people seeking abortions across the state line in Washington, said Paul Dillon, vice president of public affairs for Planned Parenthood of Greater Washington and North Idaho.

“Patients are still unclear about whether they can access abortion, so we expect that number to rise,” Dillon said.

If the Idaho six-week abortion ban becomes law, it deputizes relatives of a person who has an abortion after a fetal heartbeat can be detected to bring civil legal action against the medical providers who performed it. They can seek at least $20,000 in damages. This is separate from the part of the state law that criminalizes abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected, a procedure that could risk a physician their license and land them in prison for two to five years.

The legislation is slightly different from Texas’ because it absolves all state entities from legal action surrounding abortion, sidestepping what has tied the Texas measure up in federal and state court. Abortion-rights groups will likely challenge the measure in court if it becomes state law.

Little’s office did not return requests for comment by press time, but the bill could become law in the coming weeks even without his signature if the Legislature supports the measure.

As Idaho tightens its abortion restrictions, Washington state is broadening its access and codifying an expanded scope of practice for providers who offer abortion care in Washington.

On Thursday, Gov. Jay Inslee signed House Bill 1851, which changed the language in state law to be more inclusive, using “pregnant individual” instead of “woman.” Additionally, it codified what two previous attorney general opinions have affirmed, that advanced registered nurse practitioners and physician assistants can provide abortion care within their respective scopes of practice.

Washington also will not prosecute or penalize people based on their pregnancy outcomes, and the state cannot take action against someone for aiding someone getting an abortion.

The current abortion landscape

Access to abortion services is scattered throughout Eastern Washington. There are three clinics that provide abortions after 10 weeks: Planned Parenthood in Spokane, Kennewick and Yakima. All Planned Parenthood clinics offer pill abortions, which are a feasible option before a person is 10 weeks pregnant.

Fetal heartbeat abortion bans effectively outlaw the procedure at about six weeks of pregnancy.

Many women do not even know they are pregnant at six weeks; unless you are testing yourself regularly, it would not be until missing a period at four weeks that this would become obvious.

Dillon said it is rare for people to seek abortions before the six-week mark of their pregnancy.

Washington state has been a haven for abortion services for people living in neighboring states with limited services or stringent laws. After Texas passed SB 8, clinics in Seattle and even occasionally Eastern Washington began to see patients coming up to the Pacific Northwest for care.

Dillon said one patient this year traveled all the way from Texas to the Yakima clinic to receive an abortion, after trying in several states. Similarly, doctors in the Seattle area told reporters this week that they’ve seen an increase in patients from Texas and elsewhere in the country seeking abortions in Washington state.

This trend is expected to continue as more states look to pass legislation similar to Idaho and Texas.

“We’re already seeing people from Texas, so yes we’ll start seeing people from Idaho,” Dr. Erin Berry, the medical director at Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest, told reporters.

The costs

Whether you can afford an abortion depends on the state in which you live. Idaho does not allow health insurance companies operating in the state to cover abortion, including its Medicaid program, unless it is a medical emergency.

That means people in Idaho seeking abortions must come up with funds for the procedure. An abortion at Planned Parenthood costs about $700, although there are payment plan options. The Northwest Abortion Access Fund helps people seeking abortion services cover these costs, often paying for the expenses of travel, lodging or child care.

The fund operates with a small staff and lots of volunteers raising money and answering phones. The fund can assist people seeking abortion services in Alaska, Washington, Oregon and Idaho.

More than half of these calls are from women in Idaho, said Iris Alatorre, program manager at the fund.

Since 2020, demand has been higher than ever.

“I don’t even know how to describe how inundated we are with people calling,” Alatorre said.

Typically, the fund does not have to prioritize or pick and choose who gets financial support. If you need help and you call, you will be helped. But Alatorre worries that if demand keeps growing at its current pace, they might have to start triaging patients based on the most need.

What about Roe?

In 2017, 67% of Idaho women lived in counties where there were no abortion services offered. These people travel long distances to get an abortion, and they often are the ones who call the Fund for help. Alatorre said that, despite the right to abortion in Roe v. Wade being challenged and potentially changed or overturned later this year, many parts of the Inland Northwest already are similar to what a post-Roe world would be like.

“Even with abortion being legal, it’s still largely inaccessible to people because of these barriers, like access to clinics in your county, not having the money to pay for a procedure, not having the money to take time off work or buy a plane ticket,” Alatorre said.

Before women can get an abortion in Idaho, they have to wait 24 hours between appointments at the clinic, meaning they either have to spend the night in the town they traveled to for services or make two drives instead of one.

Idaho is one of 26 states that has passed a “trigger law,” according to the Guttmacher Institute, which will make abortions illegal in the state as soon as the Supreme Court strikes Roe down.

Washington state has taken the opposite approach, expanding access for more providers to offer procedures, something Inslee is proud of.

“To the citizens of Idaho, if Idaho won’t stand up for your constitutional rights, we will,” Inslee said before signing the bill last week.

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is primarily funded by the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, with additional support from Report for America and members of the Spokane community. These stories can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.