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Illinois hospitals face an influx of patients traveling for complex abortion care

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Most abortions in the U.S. still happen in clinics, but some patients must be treated in a hospital because their medical conditions put them at high risk. Now that more than a dozen states ban abortions, some of those high-risk patients are crossing state lines for care. From member station WBEZ in Chicago, Kristen Schorsch explains what's at stake for both these patients and the hospitals they visit.

KRISTEN SCHORSCH, BYLINE: The patient was about 22 weeks pregnant when she learned her baby boy was in grave danger. He didn't have kidneys, and his lungs wouldn't develop. If he survived birth, he would struggle to breathe and die within hours. She says when she found out, she didn't stop crying for weeks.

UNIDENTIFIED PATIENT: Whole world felt heavy. You don't think straight. You don't understand. Not something anybody should have to go through. It's not easy losing somebody you love.

SCHORSCH: This patient lives in Missouri, which has one of the strictest abortion bans in the nation. We're not using her name because she's afraid of repercussions in her community or being harmed if anyone were to find out. After the diagnosis, doctors told this patient her life was not in immediate danger. But they also pointed out the risks of staying pregnant. And in her family, there's a history of hemorrhaging while giving birth.

UNIDENTIFIED PATIENT: They said if I start having heavy bleeding, that they would have to remove my uterus. And that scared me a lot because I want to have more kids.

SCHORSCH: She decided to end the pregnancy. Her doctors in Missouri told her it was the safest option, but they would not do it. Doctors in states with bans are afraid of losing their licenses or going to jail. That's despite the fact that all of the state abortion bans have exceptions to save the life of the mother, including Missouri's. Still, doctors are sending patients with life threatening complications out of state. Many end up at hospitals in Illinois. Dr. Laura Laursen works at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

LAURA LAURSEN: I'm constantly hearing stories from my partners across the country of trying to figure out, like, what counts as imminent danger - right? - 'cause our job is do no harm, and we're trying to prevent danger. We're not trying to get to the point where someone's, you know, an emergency.

SCHORSCH: Compared to a year ago, her hospital now provides four times as many abortions for out-of-state patients. Laursen treated the patient from Missouri.

LAURSEN: You know, she told me that she was very frustrated about all the hoops that she had to go through to get care here. The cost of the procedure was extremely stressful to her.

SCHORSCH: For one, there's the travel, and health insurance doesn't always pay. An abortion in a clinic can cost $500, but it's much more expensive at a hospital. For the Missouri patient, it was 6,000. Abortion funds stepped in and covered her bills. But Dr. Laursen worries how long these funds can help.

LAURSEN: I think we can sit there and ask, why aren't the hospitals picking up the cost? But why aren't the insurance companies from the out-of-state picking up the cost either? It's like, whose responsibility is this, right?

SCHORSCH: Chicago OB-GYN Dr. Jonah Fleisher has another worry - the high-risk patients he will never see, the ones who live in banned states but never make it to his hospital

JONAH FLEISHER: More than the stress of somebody who's actually making it to see me - that's the thing that causes me more stress.

SCHORSCH: He knows if some of those patients don't have an abortion, there's a greater chance they could die giving birth or afterwards.

FLEISHER: I won't know who they are, but statistically, I know that it's going to happen.

SCHORSCH: The Missouri patient is now back home and still mourning her loss. But she's also angry.

UNIDENTIFIED PATIENT: There's a lot of good people out there who go through a lot of unfortunate situations like me who need abortion care. And to have that taken away by the government - it just doesn't feel right.

SCHORSCH: For NPR News, I'm Kristen Schorsch in Chicago.

CHANG: This story comes from NPR's partnership with WBEZ and KFF Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kristen Schorsch
Kristen Schorsch is a reporter on WBEZ’s government and politics team, covering Cook County. Previously, she covered health care, government, crime, courts and news of the weird (think coffin parties) for Crain’s Chicago Business, the Chicago Tribune, the Daily Southtown and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Kristen is a longtime board member of the Chicago Headline Club and helps organize the club’s annual FOIAFest about public information and transparency. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Illinois and is a proud Daily Illini alumna.