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Large numbers of people may travel to other areas if Roe v. Wade is overturned

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Some abortion providers worry that if Roe v. Wade is overturned, they will be overrun with patients coming from states where abortion will become illegal. As many as 26 states are certain or likely to ban abortion if the court strikes Roe down. Here's NPR's Will Stone.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: There's no precedent for millions suddenly being unable to get an abortion in so many parts of the country so quickly. But clinics already have a hint of what's to come ever since Texas put in place its six-week abortion ban last year.

AMY HAGSTROM MILLER: Already, 30% of the patients we're seeing in our clinic in Minnesota are coming from Texas.

STONE: Amy Hagstrom Miller runs Whole Woman's Health, which has clinics in five states that offer abortion.

MILLER: We had a patient last week who drove all the way from McAllen, Texas, which is on the Texas-Mexico border, all the way to our clinic in Alexandria, Va.

STONE: Across the country, other clinics are feeling the ripple effects. Dr. Kristina Tocce is the medical director of a Planned Parenthood affiliate which operates in Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico.

KRISTINA TOCCE: And we have seen our wait times get longer as a result. Sometimes, patients need to wait two to three weeks.

STONE: So what happens when it's not just Texas but 25 more states? In fact, about a third of all abortions in the U.S. in 2017 were done in those states that are expected to ban abortion. That's more than 300,000 abortions.

TOCCE: So we are going to be faced with a tremendous influx of patients.

STONE: She says her Rocky Mountain affiliate is opening new locations, extending their hours, hiring more staff.

TOCCE: This is like a full-court press. Everyone is needed.

STONE: The National Abortion Federation represents clinics across the U.S. Melissa Fowler helps lead that group.

MELISSA FOWLER: We have been preparing for this worst-case scenario for many years.

STONE: Clinics have been training more doctors, identifying those willing to travel or even move. Building a telehealth platform for abortion care.

FOWLER: So while we're doing all of that and that will help, current infrastructure at the clinics don't have the capacity to absorb all of these patients.

STONE: The increased demand will be felt most in the places that end up surrounded by abortion bans. In Illinois, the Hope Clinic for Women is right across the river from St. Louis. The executive director, Dr. Erin King, says the majority of their patients already come from states where existing laws have made it harder to get abortions, that means Missouri because it's so close. But now she sees patients from Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi every day.

ERIN KING: Those are not states that you really think of as very close to Missouri. But, I mean, they're closer than a lot of other options and, really, one of the last options some of these folks have.

STONE: In the past few years, her clinic has doubled the number of doctors to keep up. King says now they're trying to hire even more. But recruitment is tough.

KING: A lot of our expansion plans really didn't factor in the pandemic. And what's actually happening is we are scrambling to try to find qualified people.

STONE: If Roe falls, they expect demand to increase by 40%.

KING: The number of patients that will need abortion care that we could see is going to far outweigh who we can see. We're going to be saying no to a lot of patients.

STONE: As women have to travel farther for abortions, wait times at the remaining U.S. clinics could get longer. That could force more women to delay procedures, sometimes into the second trimester. That worries OB-GYN Charlie Brown (ph) in Seattle.

CHARLIE BROWN: As time is going by, there are going to be less and less places where those patients can be seen.

STONE: Only about 10% of abortions in the U.S. are done in the second trimester. And there aren't as many doctors like Brown who do them. Second-trimester abortions are needed when a pregnancy fails later on or a dangerous health issue comes up. But they can be complicated and expensive.

BROWN: Those are the cases I see on a weekly basis. It's going to be that much more difficult for those patients to seek out places where they can get those services.

STONE: In blue states, they're shoring up abortion rights and prepping for more patients. Dr. Laura Dalton is medical director of Planned Parenthood Mar Monte. It has more than 30 clinics in California and Nevada. Dalton says they feel ready to step up.

LAURA DALTON: When women come to California for care, we will be able to take care of them. Absolutely. I think we can be confident about that.

STONE: But she's not confident that everyone who needs an abortion will be able to get to California in the first place.

Will Stone, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Will Stone