Arkansas Advocates Ready an ‘Underground’ Network for a Post-‘Roe’ World

An abortion network official told Rewire.News her organization is “totally committed to continuing what we are doing. Period.”

[Photo: A notice of permanent closure is taped on the door of an abandoned Planned Parenthood building.]
All of Arkansas’ bordering states are at risk of outlawing abortion if Roe falls, according to the Center For Reproductive Rights, meaning everyone from neighboring states seeking abortion care would have to travel to the same out-of-state clinics. Barbara Kalbfleisch / Shutterstock.com

After Arkansas lawmakers passed a “trigger ban” that will criminalize abortion if the U.S. Supreme Court ever overrules the premise of Roe v. Wade “in whole or in part,” a local abortion fund remains committed to helping Arkansans access abortion care in a post-Roe future. 

Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) signed a GOP-backed law in February that would trigger a ban on abortion in the state except for in cases of medical emergencies. If Roe falls, anyone who performs an abortion or attempts to perform one would face up to ten years in prison and/or a fine of up to $100,000. Hutchinson’s office did not respond to Rewire.News’ requests for comment. The governor signed an 18-week abortion ban the following month. Abortion in Arkansas is already banned after 20 weeks of pregnancy, and anyone seeking an abortion must receive state-directed counseling—based on anti-choice propaganda—then wait 48 hours before having the procedure.

The so-called trigger ban takes the state’s abortion restrictions to a new extreme, making it one of five states with such a law on the books, though Tennessee lawmakers sent a similar bill to the governor’s desk this month.

“I’m enraged that somebody thinks they can tell me what I can do and not do with my own body,” Rosalind Creed, founder of the Arkansas Abortion Support Network (AASN), said. “I’ve been fighting this battle since I was in my 20s and I’m an old lady now, and it still makes me furious.”

As state lawmakers move to further restrict abortion access for Arkansans, AASN co-founder Karen Musick said her organization is “totally committed to continuing what we are doing. Period.”

Although AASN’s leadership plans to deal with the trigger ban “as it comes,” they would be forced to operate differently in a state where abortion was criminalized. For starters, the services of the group’s 60 clinic escorts wouldn’t be necessary if abortion—and therefore abortion clinics—were outlawed statewide. The help AASN offers to Arkansans traveling out of state for abortion care after 20 weeks would likely play a bigger role, however.

Arkansas has three abortion clinics, though a law outlawing medication abortion statewide that was temporarily blocked by a federal judge last year would shrink that number to one. In 2017, 3,249 abortions were provided in the state, according to a report from the state’s Department of Health.

AASN has fundraised for people to travel to Colorado, New Mexico, and New York for abortions, which can cost as much as $10,000. While less than 2 percent of abortions in the United States are performed at or after 21 weeks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Creed said these situations are “the most heartbreaking” because they usually involve a wanted pregnancy with a fetal anomaly.

Democratic state Rep. Megan Godfrey said the “trigger” ban being passed without exception for fetal anomalies proved the Republican-backed law lacked compassion, creating the possibility that more families dealing with the loss of a wanted pregnancy will have to travel out of state for an abortion.

“It’s a nightmare on top of a nightmare,” Godfrey said. “When you want to have a time of grief and bereavement, you’re also having to jump through these hoops that really just make a terrible situation even worse.”

State Rep. Dan Douglas, the only Republican to vote against the bill, agreed. While debating the so-called trigger ban before the state house, Douglas explained in a speech that went viral that his niece was pregnant last summer and found out that the fetus wouldn’t live more than two or three days after birth, due to fetal anomalies.

“By getting so strict, are we getting into the legislating of patient-physician issues—stuff that out to be left to them?” Douglas told Rewire.News. He explained that he’s against abortion rights, but this law “went too far” by not including exceptions for fetal anomalies, rape, or incest. He said after his speech about a dozen of his Republican colleagues told him they agreed, but would ultimately vote for the bill to avoid the ire of the powerful anti-choice movement and a possible primary challenge in the next election.

All of Arkansas’ bordering states are at risk of outlawing abortion if Roe falls, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights, meaning everyone from neighboring states seeking abortion care would have to travel to the same out-of-state clinics. For Arkansans, a clinic in southwestern Illinois would likely be the closest option.

Medication abortions will likely become more prevalent post-Roe, according to Musick. She said AASN will look into providing access to websites that it can verify are selling safe drugs for medication abortions, a two-pill regimen that has proven safe and reliable. “Whatever it takes,” she said.

The group’s three founders have talked about offering free Plan B, which can vary from $35 to $60. Arkansas law allows pharmacists to refuse a patient emergency contraception for religious or moral reasons. Shannon Cantrell, AASN’s assistant director of clinic escorts, said she once drove from pharmacy to pharmacy until she finally found a pharmacist who agreed to prescribe her Plan B.

When it comes to surgical abortions, members of AASN worry that the “trigger” law will force Arkansans to partner with allies in other states to form driving chains and safe houses for people seeking abortions to stay in. “It’s going to really turn into an underground railroad,” Creed said. “Whether Roe goes away or whether it becomes a states rights issue, we’re going to get there.”

For the 52 percent of families in Godfrey’s northwestern district who live in poverty, traveling to receive abortion care would be “a huge obstacle,” she said. Arkansas is ranked the third poorest state in the United States by 24/7 Wall Street.

Officials at the abortion care network believe the state’s strict abortion laws will only make Arkansas a worse place to call home. “Arkansas is going to stay the poorest state in the country with the worst outcome for pregnant mothers and the most hungry kids,” Creed said.