Roe v. Wade reversal leads to 'heartbreaking' scenes at U.S. abortion clinics

Thirteen states have trigger laws — bans on abortion that would come into effect if Roe v. Wade was ever overturned. For some of those states, Friday's U.S. Supreme Court decision to set aside the landmark ruling from 1973 had the immediate effect of ceasing all abortion services.

Many scheduled for procedures in state of shock, forced to scramble for alternatives

A woman is shown entering the Alamo Women's Reproductive Services clinic in San Antonio, Texas, in October 2021. The clinic was forced to stop providing abortion services after Friday's U.S. Supreme Court decision that overturned the 1973 landmark ruling in Roe v. Wade. (Eric Gay/The Associated Press)

Shortly after 9 a.m. local time on Friday at Little Rock Family Planning Services, staff at the abortion clinic in Little Rock, Ark., began the task of telling patients — some of whom had travelled hundreds of kilometres — that their scheduled appointments were cancelled.

"It was heartbreaking," said clinic director Lori Williams, her voice full of emotion. "I've done this work for 22 years, and  none of us have really ever thought that it would come to this point."

Arkansas is one of 13 U.S. states with trigger laws — bans on abortion that would come into effect if Roe v. Wade was ever overturned. For some of those states, Friday's U.S. Supreme Court decision to set aside the landmark ruling from 1973 had the immediate effect of ceasing all abortion services — leaving many patients scheduled for procedures in a state of shock and forced to scramble for alternatives.

Abortions were immediately halted in nine states, according to The Associated Press. Providers in two other states, Oklahoma and South Dakota, had already stopped performing the procedure in the past month. About 73 million people live in the 11 states where the procedure is no longer available — more than a fifth of the U.S. population.

On the morning of the Supreme Court ruling, there were six patients in the waiting area, 17 procedures scheduled and more than 30 people scheduled for their first visit at Little Rock Family Planning Services, one of two clinics that provide abortion services in the state, Williams said.

She said when the decision came down, staff met with each patient individually in a private area "to give them the courtesy of their emotional reaction being private."

'Tears in our eyes'

Williams said staff then explained "with tears in our eyes that the law simply changed with this ruling and that there was no longer a federal protection, which means Arkansas would immediately make abortion illegal and we weren't able to care for them."

Some of the patients were "extraordinarily shocked" and didn't really understand why or how this could happen, she said.

"Most were just extremely upset and emotional and just didn't know what to do next," Williams said. "These patients are already in a vulnerable state of mind, trying to deal with everything that goes along with making a decision regarding their pregnancy."

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Dr. DeShawn Taylor, an obstetrician and gynecologist who owns an independent abortion clinic in Phoenix, Ariz., says Friday's U.S. Supreme Court decision has forced a pause in abortions in the state as health-care providers are left uncertain about what they're legally permitted to do.

Because Arkansas has a waiting period, all of the patients who were expecting to have a procedure that day had been at the clinic once before at least three days prior, had already had an ultrasound and had received the state-mandated information, she said.

"Some were on their second visit as far away as Texas and Oklahoma. And we still had to tell them that they couldn't be seen — that now Illinois was probably their next closest option."

Williams said that since abortion is the primary service the clinic offers, it will likely have to shut its doors.

"We've had conversations with the staff. But it's still very heartbreaking for most of them who are losing their job and income," she said.

A similar scene was taking place a little under 1,000 kilometres away at the Alamo Women's Reproductive Services clinic in San Antonio, Texas, where a distraught Dr. Alan Braid walked into the waiting area to tell the nine patients that were scheduled with appointments that they had to go home.

"It was a very emotional moment for him, because he's been doing this for so so long," said Kristina Hernandez, director of nursing staff at the clinic. "He's been doing this for so, so long. It's hard to tell patients that he can't help them."

Although Texas's own trigger law is set to come into effect 30 days after the top court's decision, the state's attorney general said a ban that was in place before Roe v. Wade meant that "abortion providers could be criminally liable for providing abortions starting [Friday]."

'Very desperate for services'

"Patients had come from Oklahoma and then others, you know, still just being very desperate for services and just very sad and worried about what to do next," Hernandez said.

Some patients had driven nine and a half hours from Oklahoma, she said.

"We even had some patients that we were unable to reach by phone. So they were still coming into the clinic."

Hernandez explained how difficult it was telling patients in person that the clinic couldn't provide services and the reaction of "them begging — like, 'Please, please, please, please help me. Please, just give me the pill. You know, I did everything right.'"

She said all staff could do was provide information on what clinics are available outside of the state. 

Wisconsin's 173-year-old ban

Although Texas has a trigger law, it's also an example of a state that has older laws on the books that ban abortions. In Wisconsin, for example, abortions were halted on Friday as questions remained about the enforceability of a 173-year-old state ban.

Wisconsin has an 1849 law that bans abortion, except to save the life of the mother, but whether that law is enforceable is expected to be challenged in court.

Abortion laws exist in many states where the state had a law that was overturned or significantly modified in 1973 when Roe v. Wade was decided, said James J. Sample, a law professor at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.

Many of those states didn't take steps to repeal those laws, he said.

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"Now that Roe is no longer the law, states are going to be fighting — and advocates on both sides will be fighting in those states — arguing in both legislatures and in courts that those laws are either now in effect again or no longer valid," Sample said.

"So that's going to be a state-by-state question."

Sample said he believes that clarity will come swiftly and decisively in almost all of the states because of the urgency and the motivation on all sides.

But in the handful of states where there's a lack of clarity, "the pitch and intensity of the battles over the coming weeks and months is going to be of an intensity that most Americans have probably never experienced."


Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

With files from The Associated Press