Strain on Washington abortion clinics increase following Dobbs

People stand outside the Pullman Planned Parenthood building during 2016. The clinic has seen an increase in patients from Idaho seeking abortions in recent months, following the passage of laws that have curtailed abortion in Idaho. (Credit: The Lewiston Tribune)
People stand outside the Pullman Planned Parenthood building during 2016. The clinic has seen an increase in patients from Idaho seeking abortions in recent months, following the passage of laws that have curtailed abortion in Idaho. (Credit: The Lewiston Tribune)

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Washington is one of 21 states where abortion is protected. Following the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health decision, Governor Jay Inslee last April signed into law protections for out-of-state patients from criminal prosecution in their home state if they travel to Washington for an abortion. 

A report compiled by Senator Maria Cantwell’s office shows a 46% increase in Washington’s out-of-state abortion patients last year. The number of total abortions, including in-state and out-of-state, rose by 23%. Monthly, that comes out to 1,735 before Dobbs to 1,936 after.

The Senator has been proposing or co-sponsoring a number of bills to protect abortion access and choice for people across the country.

Patients are traveling long distances, sometimes across the country, to get abortions in Washington, said Karl Eastlund, the President and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Greater Washington and North Idaho.

That has contributed to a greater strain on abortion providers, staffing shortages and an increase in telehealth services.

Wait times at the Spokane clinic tend to be shorter than at clinics in other states, Eastlund said, many patients opt to travel to Washington, even if there is an abortion clinic in a neighboring state.

“It’s a common misconception that people are able to just go to the next closest state,” Eastlund said. “We’ve seen patients from places like Texas, Florida and others.”

The report also notes the strain on Washington providers is especially notable in Eastern Washington due to Idaho’s numerous abortion bans.

Eastlund said providers in Pullman and Spokane face in-person threats and harassment due to their close proximity with Idaho. The report also notes lingering anxieties among providers following a 2015 firebombing of the Pullman Planned Parenthood clinic.

Those threats are making clinics more difficult to staff, Eastlund said. Currently, Planned Parenthood pays to fly six nurse practitioners from other regions into Eastern Washington.

“To make sure we’re keeping up with increased demand for care in our state, we’re working with providers that are no longer comfortable practicing in the state they live,” Eastlund said. 

The Northwest Abortion Access Fund, which helps people get abortions in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska, reported that the number of callers who had to travel outside their state for abortions almost doubled since Dobbs. 

Between the third quarter of 2022 through the first quarter of 2023, 45% of the people served were traveling to Washington from other states for an abortion, according to NWAAF. The fund also reports its median grant size increased by median grant size to callers has increased by 27%, in part due to longer travel distances.

With the increase in patients, clinics are turning to telehealth for more appointments. Pre-Dobbs, about 8% of abortions in the state were prescribed through virtual clinics, according to the report. As of March 2023, that number had risen to 11.7%.

Washington providers are also expected to care for more pregnant Idahoans, according to the report. Several labor and delivery units in Idaho closed in the past year, with some citing the state’s political environment and hostility toward OB/GYNs. 

The report states Idaho doctors may be too afraid to provide lifesaving care for fear that “if the care they provide is deemed inappropriate by the state’s law enforcement officials.”

Idaho doctors who perform abortions can face up to five years in prison and loss of their medical license for performing an abortion. Though the state’s ban makes exceptions to save the life of the mother, doctors say the law is vague and difficult to interpret.

The Biden administration had issued a memorandum shortly after the Dobbs decision stating that the federal Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA), which requires hospitals to guarantee all patients emergency care, also applies to abortions needed to stabilize a patient. 

A lawsuit filed by the Justice Department against Idaho in August of 2022 claimed the state’s ban violated EMTALA by only making an exception to prevent a pregnant person’s death but not making an exception for their health. That was followed by a temporary, partial injunction on the Idaho bans before the Supreme Court ruled Idaho could continue to enforce its bans as written until the case is decided.