Abortions increase in state since Roe overturned; Virginia border city remains a refuge
- Written by Sahara Sriraman | Capital News Service
- Category: Local News
- Published: 30 November 2023
Video by Brigette Kelly/VCU InSight
The twin Bristol cities share a name and a state line, but abortion accessibility changes just over a 1 mile span.
Abortion is illegal in Bristol, Tennessee, but down the road in Virginia, a clinic provides abortions. The Bristol Women’s Health Clinic relocated to Virginia after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn an almost 50-year decision that protected a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion.
This story was reported and written by our media partner Capital News Service
The number of abortions administered in Virginia has increased since Roe v. Wade was overturned in June 2022, according to analysis of data from the state health department and the Society of Family Planning.
“It was started because of the need,” said the clinic’s administrative director Karolina Ogorek. “It wasn’t anything other than the fact that a mile and a half down the road the services we provide are illegal.
The majority of the clinic's patients are from out of state. All of the states that touch Virginia have completely banned or restricted abortion except Maryland, which drove travel to the last Southern state where access remains.
Reproductive choice also drove voters to the polls in Virginia and other states. Turnout was high in Virginia at almost 40%, though not as high as the last time in 2019 when all the Virginia General Assembly seats were on the ballot.
Kentucky and Ohio voters also signaled strong support for abortion access. Kentucky re-elected a Democratic governor whose opponent strongly opposed abortion, and Ohio voters supported a referendum to enshrine access in the state’s constitution.
Virginia Democrats picked up a slim majority they will have for the next two years. They delivered on their campaign promise and pre-filed an amendment to the state’s constitution on Nov. 20 that would secure reproductive freedom and protection — but it has a long, procedural way to go.
For now, Virginia remains a refuge for women whose choice has been restricted in other states.
The ‘hardship’ of travel for medical help
Tennessee had a trigger law to ban abortion, meaning they had a law in place to completely ban abortion weeks after Roe was overturned. It slipped through a budget negotiation late at night.
That led to an influx of patients from Southern states. People visit the clinic from as far away as Louisiana, according to Ogorek.
“There is not a single person that ever thinks they are ever going to make this decision, until you have to,” Ogorek said.
She wishes more people understood the hardship of such a journey.
“Not just for the women but for their entire family,” Ogorek said. “It has such a big effect on more than just one person.”
About 55% of women at Ogorke’s clinic are at or below the poverty line, she said.
“The decision to terminate a pregnancy is not for everyone and we recognize and we support that,” Ogorek said. “Unfortunately, people who are anti-choice will never support a choice.”
She said that abortion restrictions are not a good idea because a 12 or 15-week restriction usually turns into an outright ban.
Protesters outside of Ogorek’s work are nothing new. The office provides patient escorts and security to help women get into their clinic.
Other help offered
Anti-abortion protesters who gather almost every day outside of Bristol Women’s Health Clinic hope to connect women with other resources.
David Gerrells lives in Tennessee. He considers abortions a murder that goes against God's will. His church hopes to convince women that they are already a parent, and not to go through with the procedure.
“It makes us angry and sad and hurt for the ones that are lost – not just the babies but for the mothers, the fathers,” Gerrells said.
His church, Christ Bible Church, and other groups, want to help through various ministries and organizations. They provide money, homes, support and community to women, according to Gerrells.
“We want these people to raise their own children, but we’re very big on walking alongside them,” Gerrells said. “But, more importantly, they need to understand what it is to walk with Christ.”
Orville Fisher has spoken against abortion for about 15 years. He works with the international organization 40 Days for Life. An abortion ban would be positive for Virginia and its citizens, he said.
Fisher recommended the Pathways Pregnancy Resource Center just across the Tennessee border that helps pregnant women.
The resource center was contacted multiple times and multiple ways, but they said they were unable to do an interview until next year.
Enshrining abortion into the state constitution
Del. Rodney Willett, D-Henrico, is “absolutely in favor of choice of” and access to abortion.
“Anecdotally, we also know women are flying into Virginia or driving long distances into the state to get these services,” Willett said.
The option for medical services in Virginia is fortunate, he said, although anything but convenient.
“For a lot of women, it’s an absolute hurdle they can’t clear because of the expense,” Willett said.
They have to pay for transportation, take off time for work, and find someone to travel with them, he said.
Willett voiced concerns about the state losing doctors and women’s health care providers if the 15-week restriction proposed by state Republicans went into effect.
“What you're seeing in other states where abortion is heavily restricted or outright banned, a lot of the states are also putting criminal penalties in place for the providers,” he said.
Ogorek recalled how health care providers were “cautiously optimistic” before the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case that overturned Roe.
“After Roe fell, we were devastated,” Ogorek said. “Clinics closed.”
She shut down her Knoxville practice, which she said was “flourishing.”
“I think what is sad is that, just we've lost a lot more lately than we won,” Ogorek said. “That's the hard part.”
Ogorek will keep her eyes on the General Assembly and continue to encourage people to vote.
“If they impose a 15-week ban, I will do whatever I have to do to keep us open for as long as we can stay open,” Ogorek said. It's just not a question. Until that very last minute that somebody tells me I have to shut my doors, I won't.”
VCU InSight journalist Brigette Kelly contributed to this report.
Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia. VCU InSight is the capstone broadcast news program.