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People from states with less access to abortion are flocking to Kansas' clinics

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Kansas has a litany of abortion regulations. Even so, it has become an unlikely sanctuary for women across the Midwest and the South who find themselves with even less access to abortion. That could soon change. As Abigail Censky of the Kansas News Service reports, the future of legal abortion in Kansas could shift in the coming year.

ABIGAIL CENSKY, BYLINE: It had been nearly 50 years since more than half of the abortions in Kansas were performed on women from out of state. But that changed last year, when women from Texas and Oklahoma, facing new restrictions there, flooded the state's clinics. That happened when the governors of Texas and Oklahoma first deemed abortion an elective medical procedure. Now with new restrictions in those states, the phones are ringing off the hook again at this Wichita clinic.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: How can I help you?

CENSKY: Trust Women is one of just two surgical abortion clinics in Kansas.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Medication and surgical procedures...

ASHLEY BRINK: Right on September 1, it was like the floodgates opened. And we just - every - almost every line on our phone system was lit up.

CENSKY: That's Ashley Brink, who heads the Wichita clinic location. She says they started seeing a dramatic jump after Texas enacted a ban on abortion after six weeks. Oklahoma patients were also getting pushed out of their own state as women fleeing Texas filled up appointments in Oklahoma.

BRINK: There was a lot of urgency, I would say. Like, a lot of the patients calling were just like, I don't know what to do. I don't know where to go. This is the first thing that came up that was closest to me. So some people were like, I'm driving five hours. You know, I don't want to drive back the same day. Are there hotels local to you?

CENSKY: The number of Texans who got abortions at the Wichita clinic jumped from just one in August to 51 in September. Kailey Voellinger operates Trust Women's other clinic in Oklahoma City, where appointments are now booked a month in advance. That often means that patients who could have ended their pregnancy with pills must now have a more invasive procedure.

KAILEY VOELLINGER: We had a patient here in Wichita yesterday that lives 15 minutes from the Oklahoma City clinic, where I typically work at. Like, she drove all the way, you know, here when we have a clinic that's 15 minutes from her house.

CENSKY: Whether Voellinger can send her patients to Kansas depends largely on what voters here in Kansas do next summer. That's when they'll vote on whether to change the state's constitution to say there's no legal right to an abortion. Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana and West Virginia have passed similar anti-abortion constitutional amendments. If Kansans pass the constitutional amendment and the U.S. Supreme Court overturns or weakens the landmark Roe v. Wade case next year, 21 states are poised to restrict or outright ban abortions. That includes many states near Kansas.

The clinic in Wichita is already making plans in case that happens. Rebecca Tong is the co-executive director of the Trust Women nonprofit. She says they're brainstorming on ways for patients to get access to abortions even if those become severely restricted in Kansas and Oklahoma.

REBECCA TONG: We've also discussed, you know, becoming more of a, you know, support network to help people travel to receive this care, to help them access the funding. You know, maybe everyone get a commercial driver's license.

CENSKY: That might allow clinic workers to ferry patients across state lines to get an abortion. But Voellinger says losing Kansas as a sanctuary would complicate things for women seeking abortions all across the Midwest and South.

VOELLINGER: It's really scary to think about Kansas because it is a safe haven.

CENSKY: At least it is for now for those seeking abortions. If Kansas restricts access, she says, then her patients might have to travel to Colorado, New Mexico or Illinois.

For NPR News, I'm Abigail Censky in Wichita.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYCHO'S "DAYDREAM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Abigail Censky is the Politics & Government reporter at WKAR. She started in December 2018.