A year later, uncertainty from Dobbs lingers over Arizona abortion care

(Video by Alexandria Cullen/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – The clinics are open, the law is clearer and the number of Arizona abortions is climbing back to levels of one year ago, before the Supreme Court up-ended 50 years of law and reversed the constitutional right to an abortion.

Things appear to be returning to normal, but Arizona abortion providers say there is “an environment of fear.”

After a year of uncertainty, staffers are leaving for other states, making it difficult to schedule abortions. Even some patients are going to other states, advocates say, because of the restrictions in place in Arizona.

“An unfortunate side effect of overturning Roe v. Wade is that in a state like Arizona, where there are such strict regulations, there is a brain-drain that is happening,” said Brittany Fonteno, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Arizona.

“You have nurses and doctors who have left the state to go to friendlier environments like California, New York, where they are able to practice in peace and without the fear of prosecution,” Fonteno said during a press call Thursday to discuss the first anniversary of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health.

That June 24, 2022, ruling from the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the court’s 1973 ruling that recognized a constitutional right to an abortion. The Dobbs opinion said abortion is not referenced in the Constitution and that it was “time to return the issue of abortion to the people’s elected representatives.”

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Reversing Roe sent shock waves across the country, where laws that had been bound by the landmark ruling were suddenly unbound. That left patients, providers and policy makers scrambling to determine where the law on abortion stood.

Over the course of the year, providers had to abruptly stop and restart abortion services as ruling were released.

Abortions were immediately halted in Arizona after Dobbs threatened to give new life to a 2021 “personhood” law that gave legal rights to fetuses. It had been on hold because of Roe, but the federal judge in the case blocked the personhood law on other grounds three weeks later, ruling on July 11 that it was so vague that it would be impossible for providers to do their jobs without fear of prosecution.

Planned Parenthood waited until late August to resume abortion services at one of its clinics, but Camelback Family Planning began calling patients as soon as the “personhood” law was blocked, said Dr. Gabrielle Goodrick, the clinic’s founder and medical director.

A Society of Family Planning report said an estimated 230 abortions were performed in Arizona in July 2022, a 81% decrease from the previous month.

The reopenings were short-lived. On Sept. 23, a Pima County judge lifted the Roe-era injunction on an 1864 law, a near-total ban that had never been taken off the books. Abortion services were once again illegal in Arizona while Planned Parenthood appealed the decision.

The Arizona Court of Appeals temporarily blocked the Pima County ruling on Oct. 7, and made the stay permanent on Dec. 30 when it said the 15-week law passed in 2022 is the law governing abortion in the state now.

Despite that ruling, Planned Parenthood Arizona Medical Director Dr. Jill Gibson said many patients still don’t feel confident that abortion is allowed in Arizona.

“Even those who are in the know, are choosing to drive to California to have abortion services because they just don’t want to have to jump through all the hoops and all the restrictions and regulations that are put in front of them just to access basic abortion services in Arizona,” Gibson said.

Goodrick said that during those times in the last year when her clinic was not providing abortions, it helped patients arrange travel to California to get a prescription for a medication abortion or to schedule a surgical abortion. Her clinic still helps women get to other states for an abortion if they are beyond Arizona’s 15-week limit.

Before Dobbs, Planned Parenthood provided abortions at four of its seven Arizona health centers. Today, only its Glendale and Tucson offices provide abortions.

Gibson said the Flagstaff clinic – which has not offered abortions since Dobbs – has been unable to resume “providing abortion services … due to staff availability.” The Tempe location resumed abortions for a month last year, but has since been closed for renovations. It is set to reopen at the end of August.

Fonteno said Planned Parenthood is “not able to meet the immense need that people have for this essential health care right now.”

“I think that what we’re seeing is exactly what anti-abortion advocates and politicians always wanted,” she said. “Even if abortion is not completely banned, which we know is their ultimate goal, what they want to do is make it as hard as possible to access this healthcare.”

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She points to Arizona’s two-appointment requirement, which was in-place before Dobbs, that requires patients to have a consultation appointment at least 24 hours before getting an abortion. Other hurdles include “unnecessary ultrasounds, stigmatized and medically inaccurate information given to patients.”

Those hurdles have not stopped abortions in Arizona.

The most recent abortion statistics from the Arizona Department of Health Services are for 2021. But the Society of Family Planning report estimates that 1,340 abortions were legally provided at clinics in Arizona in March 2023, compared to 1,570 in May 2022.

Goodrick, who participated in the study, said the reported numbers do not paint the full picture.
“It is missing the self-managed abortions and patients that traveled to other states for their abortions,” she said in an email. “So, it has limited relevance really. Arizona patients got care out of state mostly.”

Goodrick said the past year has been traumatic for her and her staff. She thinks they are experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder from the constant uncertainty and fear caused by the constant legal and legislative challenges to Arizona abortion access.

“We definitely, I think, had some trauma from last year that we didn’t really appreciate until the spring and then the relief, and then just recovery,” Goodrick said. “I think, now, we’re finally feeling like we’re back, you know, and it’s been a year.”

Lillie Boudreaux lihl-iy boo-droh (she/her/hers)
News Reporter, Washington, D.C.

Lillie Boudreaux expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in global studies. She was a social justice reporter at the Cronkite News Washington, D.C., bureau and a 2023 White House Correspondents’ Association scholarship recipient. She has interned at Al Arabiya News and the Phoenix Committee on Foreign Relations. She also worked as a reporter for ASU News and on the Arizona PBS digital team.

Lauren Irwin law-rin er-win (she/ her/ hers)
News Reporter, Washington, D.C.

Lauren Irwin expects to graduate in August 2023 with a master’s degree in mass communication. Irwin has worked as a graduate research fellow for the Donald W. Reynolds Center for Business Journalism. She graduated with a bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Colorado Boulder in May 2022 after leading the student newspaper as editor-in-chief and participating in two newspaper internships in Denver.

Alexandria Cullen ah-le-xan-dree-ah cul-len (she/her/hers)
News Broadcast Reporter, Washington, D.C.

Alexandria Cullen expects to graduate in December 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communication. Cullen has interned as a reporter at Ability360 and was news director and a reporter for CTV at Colorado State University.