Oregon abortion advocates expect rise in patients, threats
Abortion has been a constitutional right for nearly half a century under the Roe v. Wade decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.
But following the leak of a draft majority opinion by Associate Justice Samuel Alito that would categorically overturn Roe, ending the federal right to choose an abortion, reproductive health providers in Washington County and Oregon are bracing for an influx of patients — as well as emboldened right-wing opposition to abortion rights.
Iris Alatorre, program manager for Northwest Abortion Access Fund which pays for healthcare costs as well as transportation for women seeking an abortion in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska, said the organization anticipates the number of people turning to Oregon for abortion care will increase substantially if the court overturns Roe.
"Idaho is one of the states that will lose access to abortion if Roe is overturned, and since Oregon is an Idaho neighbor, we will likely be supporting most Idahoans in traveling to Oregon for abortion care," Alatorre said. "For context, in 2021, we supported 627 people in Idaho in paying for their abortions. We could anticipate around that same number of folks, if not more, from Idaho going into Oregon or Washington for abortion care every year if Roe falls."
Abortion providers are already scarcer on Portland's Westside than advocates would like.
Planned Parenthood Columbia Willamette operates a health center in Beaverton that provides abortions and emergency contraceptives, among other reproductive health services. Chief of affiliate operations Kenji Nozaki said the Beaverton center sees between 12,000 and 13,000 patients each year — over 33 per day on average.
The facility also provides birth control, HIV services, pregnancy testing, and testing and treatment for sexually transmitted infections.
"Demand has historically been high at that location, because there aren't a ton of options. You can travel elsewhere to different counties, but if you're talking about Beaverton and Washington County, there aren't many options," Nozaki said.
"There aren't enough access points. We just need more access points so that transportation issues aren't such a large barrier," added Laura Byerly, chief medical officer for Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center, which does not provide abortion services due to federal funding.
Nozaki added over three-quarters of patients at the Beaverton Health Center are women and girls between 15 and 34. Some 46% of patients are on Medicaid. Only about three in 10 have private insurance, and a quarter pay out of pocket.
Nozaki said the facility is not fully staffed due to shortages of administrators and nurses and receives nearly constant threats and protests from right wingers and fanatical religious groups.
"Even in a sort of bluer or more supportive state, safety and security issues are still a constant. We have seen an increase in aggression and the amount of hostility at our health centers in recent years," Nozaki said. "We see violent words and signs on a weekly and daily basis at any one of our health centers, including Beaverton, whether it's a protester saying something or someone trying to block the entrance of our parking lot, sometimes there are some encounters that look like they can be potentially physical."
In the United States, infant and maternal mortality rates are significantly higher than in other wealthy nations.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the maternal mortality rate for 2020 was 23.8 deaths per 100,000, more than double Canada and most European nations.
In 2020, the infant mortality rate in the United States was 5.6 deaths per 1,000 live births, again about twice the rate of most European nations.
With 169 infant deaths in 2020, Oregon had the sixth-lowest infant mortality rate among states, with 4.02 per 1,000 live births.
High schools in Beaverton and Forest Grove partner with Virginia Garcia for contraceptive healthcare and education. Byerly said student health centers on campus in recent years gained the ability to prescribe birth control.
"We're talking about abortion rights, but it progresses quickly to, 'Oh, we're going to restrict contraceptives' as well,'" Byerly said. "We can't have equality for women if we don't let women choose."
While the future of federal protections is uncertain — some congressional Republicans have suggested they could seek to pass a nationwide abortion ban if they regain control of the House and Senate, — Oregon has done its part as a state to legally protect abortion access.
While Democrats in Washington, D.C., never wielded their power to codify the abortion protections guaranteed by Roe into law, Oregon Democrats did take advantage of their legislative majorities in Salem, passing the Reproductive Health Equity Act in 2017.
The law ensures that people with Oregon private health insurance plans, including employee-sponsored coverage, have access to reproductive health and related preventive services with no cost sharing regardless of the Affordable Care Act. The law also requires Oregon private health insurance plans to cover abortions with no out-of-pocket costs, and it covers abortion services for individuals who would otherwise be eligible for medical assistance if not for their immigration status.
Despite legal protections, abortion advocates are preparing for further intimidation, threats and action from abortion opponents.
"This fight is shifting from courts and federal level to a state-by-state fight. Really, it is all on state and local leaders moving forward," said Christel Allen, executive director of political action committee Pro-Choice Oregon. "There are literally efforts afoot to pass a nationwide abortion ban. We're also seeing other states' anti-abortion politicians target Oregon providers and people in Oregon who may be supporting folks. As we speak, we're seeing laws that are meant to intimidate individuals who may be pregnant and what they think their options are, and that has a dramatic effect on whether or not they seek abortion funds."
She continued, "That's the reason why we cannot rest on our laurels just because of what is on the books in Oregon. The threats remain at every single level. Anti-abortion politicians are (devising) new and innovative ways to intimidate people."
In Roe v. Wade, Henry Wade was the district attorney for Dallas County in Texas, where abortion was illegal before Roe's challenge.
In the Washington County district attorney's race, Pro-Choice Oregon endorsed Brian Decker, and the challenger has touted that endorsement in text messages and other campaign literature ahead of Tuesday, May 17, when ballots are due.
"I will never prosecute women for having an abortion. I will never prosecute doctors for performing an abortion. I will never prosecute any friends or family for assisting somebody access an abortion," Decker said. "Being DA has everything to do with reproductive rights. The DA is the ultimate line of defense in protecting them. People need to feel safe in their homes and neighborhoods and own bodies. Now there are real threats happening in the present. This fight over reproductive rights is not part of some hypothetical future world. It's right here."
Decker also mentioned the district attorney's potential to prosecute violent protesters at abortion clinics. Last summer, one man was arrested for assault and another for disorderly conduct outside of a Planned Parenthood facility in Salem.
When posed with the same question — if federal and state law changed, would you prosecute women for seeking or having an abortion? — incumbent Kevin Barton was less direct.
"Under Oregon law, the DA is not involved and cannot be involved in abortion issues," Barton said. "The focus of the DA is on public safety for everyone, including sexual assault victims. I have spent my career prosecuting sex crimes committed against women and children."
He added, "As DA, I am committed to protecting the right to fully access both the justice system and the healthcare system. This will not change as long as I am the DA."
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