Health & Science

With Temporary Pandemic Restrictions Lifted, Houston Abortion Providers Prepare For a Surge

As patients rush to schedule delayed procedures, Houston clinics anticipate more abortions that are nearing the state’s legal time limit.

A Planned Parenthood clinic in Houston.

Houston abortion clinics are bracing for a possible influx of patients after a weeks-long legal battle prevented many people from making appointments.

In a March 22 executive, Gov. Greg Abbott postponed procedures "not medically necessary to correct a serious medical condition or to preserve the life of a patient," in what he said was an effort to avoid shortages of personal protective equipment. The order effectively banned abortions in the state.

After the order expired on Tuesday at midnight, Abbott issued a new proclamation loosening restrictions — appearing to clear the way for abortion clinics to resume operations. Under the new executive order, clinics must reserve at least 25% of capacity for treatment of COVID-19 patients and not request any personal protective equipment from any public source for the duration of the COVID-19 disaster.

Bridget Schilling, a board member with the Houston-based Clinic Access Support Network, said they're preparing for a surge in appointments.

"It's going to be a rush, we think, because it's going to be people who need practical support, funding especially," Schilling said. "People are also going to be much further along in their pregnancies when this big rush happens."

The organization's volunteer drivers take about 700 patients a year to clinics, in addition to providing child care vouchers, meals, and hotel arrangements. In the face of a stay-at-home order and a legal back-and-forth challenging Abbott's order, the group pivoted mainly to helping patients get transportation and funding to travel to out-of-state clinics. Now Houston-area clinics like Houston Women's Clinic and Planned Parenthood are once again performing surgical and medication abortions.

As the order made its way through the courts, patients trying to schedule abortions faced additional confusion on top of what is already an overwhelming process requiring multiple appointments, Schilling said.

"On a good day, when we're not in a pandemic, a lot of people don't find out about Texas' incredibly overburdensome abortion access restrictions until they try to make an appointment and find out about the 24-hour waiting period, about having to be there with the same physician both times," Schilling said.

Now that people have had to wait longer to access the procedure, Clinic Access Support Network is anticipating a high volume of appointments at the few Houston clinics that will accept patients later in their pregnancies.

"It's going to become a lot more expensive," Schilling said. "People are going to have to come in from farther. We provide tickets for buses or other forms of transportation for people to get to Houston if they live in an abortion desert, so it's going to be a lot more complicated for people who maybe live close to a clinic that has a lower time limit than one of the ones in Houston might."

Planned Parenthood's Gulf Freeway location is one of those clinics that will perform later abortions up to the state's legal limit and could face an influx of patients trying to schedule appointments. The clinic has resumed services, performing surgical and medication abortions, according to spokesperson Rochelle Tafolla.

"We do anticipate that there are going to be a lot of people calling us, trying to get the care that they've been trying to access for the past few weeks," Tafolla said. “It's very possible that because so many people have been forced to delay obtaining an abortion, there will likely be people who are going to be nearing the state limit."

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the number of patients assisted by the Clinic Access Support Network. There are 1,500 shifts a year, not 1,500 patients. Those shifts make up about 700 individual patient visits.

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