Iowa ban means border-hopping patients and DIY abortions

Iowa's restrictions are so tight that some women won't even realize they're pregnant before they've lost their right to choose.

Iowa's restrictions are so tight that some women won't even realize they're pregnant before they've lost their right to choose. Star Tribune

Last Friday, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds sat surrounded by pro-life advocates and their young children as she signed the most restrictive abortion ban in the United States, to booming applause.

The new law makes abortion illegal in Iowa as soon as a fetus has a heartbeat -- around six weeks. That may be shorter than the time it takes to miss a period, take a pregnancy test, schedule a doctor’s appointment, or get time off work in order to confirm a positive result.

Some women might not even suspect they’re pregnant by then.

There are exceptions -- namely rape, incest, and medical emergency -- but that still leaves a lot of Iowa women with little control over their own reproductive choices. 

“Every time we see a bill like this passed in another state, women are forced to travel out of state to get services,” Planned Parenthood spokesperson Jen Aulwes says. She wouldn’t be surprised to see more Iowans showing up at the group’s St. Paul clinic. 

It’s happened in other states. Aulwes cites a rash of clinic closures in Texas after the state required clinics to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. It also held clinics to hospital building standards, right down to hallway widths and janitors’ closets.

More than half of the state’s 41 clinics couldn’t meet the requirements and closed their doors. The Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional in 2016, on the grounds that it restricted access to abortion under the guise of making it safer.

But the closures resulted in 14 percent fewer abortions in Texas, and 11 percent more Texans seeking abortions across state lines, according to data released by the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Yet the reality is that when abortion becomes less accessible, those states tend to see a sharp rise in attempted DIY abortions, Aulwes says.

The New York Times looked into the number of Google searches for phrases like “how to self abort” and “how to have a miscarriage” between 2011 and 2015. There were more than 700,000 of these searches in 2015 alone. The state with the most was Mississippi, which had one clinic. Eight of the 10 states with the highest search rates were considered “hostile” or “very hostile” toward abortion, based on the number of abortion restrictions enacted.

Aulwes isn’t as worried about the patients who cross the border for help. She’s more worried about the people who can’t. Some of the methodologies people searched for included getting abortion pills through unofficial channels (160,000 searches), using a coat hanger (4,000 searches), and a few hundred about bleaching one’s uterus and getting punched in the stomach.

Pro-choice Iowa isn’t taking this lying down. Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, Iowa’s branch, say they’ll sue. Some advocates are mobilizing to clear a path for Iowans who need safe abortions after six weeks.