Women in Southern Illinois must travel longer distances to abortion clinics

By Sofi LaLonde
Medill Reports

Women in southern Illinois are disadvantaged when seeking an abortion, according to data on distances to abortion clinics from the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health research and policy group, published in early October.

Residents in Illinois have more access to abortion than in other states in the Midwest region, both in distance to clinics and when factoring in state laws, the institute found. However, residents of counties in southern Illinois are farther away from abortion clinics, which can increase the financial burden placed on women seeking abortions.

While many of these southern counties are rural, around 65,000 women of reproductive age would need to travel between 90 and 179 miles to an abortion clinic, the Guttmacher Institute found.

Their nationwide map of data from 2014 shows the median and 80th percentile travel distances to the nearest abortion clinics for women age 15-44, both at the state and county levels.

Graphic via Guttmacher Institute

Illinois has a statewide median travel distance of 10.4 miles to the nearest abortion clinic, and is one of 23 states with an overall distance under 15 miles, the lowest distance range in the data. When looking at the 80th percentile of women, however, the distance is around 32.6 miles.

The median distance measure equals the distance that 50 percent of women or fewer must travel to a clinic, while the 80th percentile means the distance, or further, that 20 percent of women must travel.

This means that on average, about half of the women in Illinois only need to travel about 10 miles to an abortion provider, but 20 percent of women need to travel three times that distance.

Meanwhile, 92 percent of counties in Illinois do not have an abortion clinic.

Every three years, the Guttmacher Institute surveys all known abortion providers in the United States, including hospitals, physician’s offices and clinics, said Rachel Jones, principal research scientist at the institute.

Jones said the analysis focused on clinics, either Planned Parenthood facilities that did at least one abortion, or facilities that did 400 or more abortions, either surgically, medically induced, or both.

The next report is expected to be published in 2019.

Illinois counties by distances to abortion clinics
Graph by Sofi LaLonde

The individual county breakdown of Guttmacher’s data shows that in Illinois, Champaign County had the shortest median distance of 2.5 miles and Hardin County had the longest median distance of 157.6 miles.

Cook County had the sixth shortest median distance at 5.8 miles.

There are 41 counties in Illinois that have a median distance of under 30 miles, and 41 that range between 30 to 89 miles.

The remaining 20 counties have a median distance of 90-179 miles to an abortion clinic, the second highest mile range in the Guttmacher data. All 20 counties are located in southern Illinois.

According to 2015 U.S. Census data, about 65,000 women of reproductive age, 15-44, live in these 20 counties, and would need to travel between 90 and 179 miles to an abortion clinic.

Women of reproductive age in 20 counties in southern Illinois
Graph by Sofi LaLonde

About 63 percent of all Illinois counties are classified as “non-metropolitan,” or rural, and 58 percent of rural counties are in the southern part of the state.

“Poor and low-income women and those who live in rural areas are often hit hardest by state restrictions that exacerbate long-standing inequalities in abortion access,” said Megan Donovan, Guttmacher Institute policy expert, in an October news release.

In the United States, 75 percent of women seeking an abortion are poor or low-income.

For some women in southern Illinois, the shortest distance to an abortion clinic could mean crossing state lines. But a woman going to a different state may face other state regulations that she wouldn’t face in Illinois, such as mandatory delays and what reproductive rights groups call biased-counseling, which often includes irrelevant or misleading information about risks of abortion and mental health effects.

For example, the nearest clinic might be in Missouri or Indiana, but both states have mandatory delays between state-mandated counseling and the actual procedure. Missouri has a 72-hour delay and Indiana has an 18-hour delay.

“Poor and low-income women and those who live in rural areas are often hit hardest by state restrictions that exacerbate long-standing inequalities in abortion access” –Megan Donovan, Guttmacher Institute policy expert

While Planned Parenthood clinics are not the only abortion providers in the state, the state-wide locations closely match up with the counties that have the shortest median travel distances.

Planned Parenthood has 16 clinic locations across Illinois, nine of which are located in Chicago. There are no Planned Parenthood clinics in the southern portion of the state.

Jones said it is worth acknowledging that people in rural areas need to travel for other necessities like groceries and other basic health care, and that abortion may not be the only health reason for women to travel. But the financial burdens of travel can make it extremely difficult for some women to get an abortion.

“Not only do they have to come up with money for the procedure, but now they’re gonna have to come up with money to cover gas, or transportation costs, or maybe staying overnight, so that is something that can make abortion inaccessible,” said Jones.