The Emotional Toll of Traveling for an Abortion

Getting an abortion has long been difficult. Since at least the 1960s, people in the U.S. have had to travel across state and national boundaries to access abortion services. But since the Supreme Court’s ruling to strike down Roe v. Wade last June, the need to travel to seek care has only grown more widespread and more extreme: Today, a third of reproductive-aged women in the U.S. live more than an hour away from their nearest abortion clinic.

The cost of travel and missing work adds to the already-high financial burden of receiving abortion care. (According to Planned Parenthood, a first-trimester in-clinic abortion typically costs around $600, while second-trimester abortions can cost up to $2,000.) And a recent study conducted by the Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health at the University of California, San Francisco, has shed light on the emotional toll of traveling for an abortion.

“There has been research over the years that has attended to some of the challenges for people who have to travel, and that’s really helped flesh out the understanding of financial costs, and also the logistical costs,” study author Katrina Kimport, PhD, tells Well+Good. “There’s always been this nod to the emotional costs. But there hasn’t been a lot of literature that’s really dug into that.”

Kimport’s study interviewed 30 women who crossed state lines to receive abortion services. They shared that they had experienced a range of negative emotions, including distress, stress, anxiety, and shame. Of course, many of these emotions are associated with having an abortion at all—but the complications of travel heightens them.

“More people will know about what you’re doing and you’ll also maybe need to rely on some of those people for help,” explains Dr. Kimport. “Maybe you’ll need to borrow a car. Maybe you’ll need help with pet sitting. Maybe you need support in childcare. All these things mean disclosing your abortion which can already be shrouded in so much stigma.” Even if someone is supportive and willing to help, Dr. Kimport points out that being forced to share what you’re going through before you’re ready can create anxiety.

The other option: Concocting elaborate lies to protect your loved ones, which comes with its own mental health burden. (In some states, it’s illegal to assist those seeking an abortion, including in Idaho where a new law makes it a crime to help a minor get an abortion without parental consent.)

Dr. Kimport says that there are also social costs associated with going to an unfamiliar place, far from one’s home. “Some of the people we interviewed had never left their home state,” she says. Not only were they now somewhere unfamiliar under circumstances they didn’t plan, but “for some people who came from smaller population areas, this can be really intimidating to go to a place that was more like a city than anything they were really familiar with.”

Then there’s also the fact of being away from your customary network of support and familiar surroundings, which Dr. Kimport says additionally contributes to overall stress: You’re separated from loved ones, familiar comforts such as your own bed, and the security of your home environment.

The fact of legal restrictions themselves also add to the emotional toll. “We found that the circumstances under which people were compelled to travel were very specific to legal restrictions,” says Dr. Kimport. “That itself could cause feelings of shame, seclusion, or being—as one woman mentioned—‘feeling cast out from her own community.’ So knowing that the circumstances that force this travel were based in judgment of people having abortions, that also can contribute to feeling negatively. It made individuals feel as if what they were doing was abnormal or wrong.”

What’s more, abortion data reveals that approximately 75 percent of patients are low-income, in their twenties, and already parenting—groups that are often the least equipped to tackle the significant logistical and financial barriers imposed by abortion bans. “So many of the things that make abortion more difficult to access can be overcome with financial resources. But for people who do not have financial resources, what could be an obstacle for one person is now actually a barrier,” says Dr. Kimport. “That prevents them from accessing the care they need and want.”

Although the researchers haven’t since followed up with the study’s subjects, it’s not a stretch to imagine that restrictions on access to safe and legal abortion can have lasting effects on a person’s mental and emotional well-being. Geographical barriers are a cruel added burden to an already emotionally fraught experience. Unfortunately, in our post-Roe America, right now, burdens and barriers, not compassion and care, are the reality.