Climate change, too, is coming for abortion access

Before Hurricane Ian made landfall in the U.S., all 210 staffers of Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida had gathered in Bradenton, Fla. for a day of staff training. An hour in, Stephanie Fraim felt a tap on her shoulder. She knew it was bad news.

The county needed to use the venue as an evacuation center. The storm was drawing closer, and it was growing stronger. Fraim, the organization’s CEO, first thought that she must have misunderstood what she was being told. Later, she looked around and saw a flurry of activity as black hurricane screens were being affixed over windows. She knew, then, that the next week would be a very long one, and she insisted that everyone be given their boxed lunch before they left.

It was a good call.

As the employees gathered their belongings, Fraim joked wryly, “The state of Florida has tried to shut us down, and we’re still hanging in there, but I guess Hurricane Ian’s gonna do it for today.” The rest of the day and some of the next were spent rushing to prepare for the storm—making sure medication was properly stored in case electricity was lost, going through the hurricane protocols step-by-step.

Florida is a key access point for pregnant people seeking abortion care in the Southeast. To the north, Georgia has banned abortions after six weeks, and Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee all have total bans. This is not to say that Florida is a haven for abortion rights—the state bans abortion after 15 weeks and has a 24-hour waiting period between an initial appointment and an abortion procedure, necessitating two trips to a clinic per patient. The 15-week ban has been caught in a legal back-and-forth since it was signed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis in the spring—it was blocked just before it took effect, was reinstated by a federal judge not long after that, and is now headed to the state supreme court. North Carolina and South Carolina have slightly less restrictive abortion cutoffs, at 20 weeks and 22 weeks respectively.

More and more, climate change, too, is posing a barrier to abortion access, as extreme weather events become a common part of life on a warming planet. Clinics and abortion funds are having to take that into consideration, building out protocols and getting creative when the weather adds another complication for their patients.

In preparation for clinics reopening, staff members scrambled to triage needs. For abortion care specifically, that meant looking at which patients had the least amount of time before they would have to travel outside Florida for care, while also accounting for the 24-hour waiting period, and trying to estimate when which clinics would be able to reopen and at what capacity. Communication, too, was tricky. The storm knocked out electricity and large swaths of the state lost cell phone reception, which meant building out a complex, ever-changing phone tree between staff and patients.

As clinics have reopened, patients have shown up for their appointments at a nearly 100 percent rate—the rate under normal circumstances is closer to 60, 70 at most. The stakes feel even higher than usual, and it’s harder to meet the needs of patients when the staff is also still dealing with the fallout. Fraim told Reckon that earlier that day, she had tried to console a health center manager who had cried frustrated tears over being unable to get enough staff in to serve the number of patients who needed care.

All in all, the clinics themselves incurred little damage. There was some flooding, but no serious wind damage. Still, all 22 health centers in central and southwest Florida were closed, and some have only had electricity restored in the past couple days. Staff members, however, did not fare so well. “We didn’t lose any staff members or any families of staff members, and by Friday, late afternoon, we had 100 percent contact with staff and we knew everyone was safe,” Fraim says. “But we have people whose houses were seriously impacted. And just life right now down in Lee County in Naples is very difficult because there’s no infrastructure. For days, we couldn’t even get to them.” On Tuesday morning, Planned Parenthood was finally able to send aid in the form of a truck filled with water, food, gasoline, and other supplies. Fraim’s neighbor made the trip.

Of course, none of this has fazed the dedicated huddle of protesters. They have been back at it, outside Fraim’s door at work since Saturday.

Becca Andrews

Becca Andrews | bandrews@reckonmedia.com

Becca Andrews is a reporter at Reckon News and the author of "No Choice: The Destruction of Roe v. Wade and the Fight to Protect a Fundamental American Right."

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