Well before Roe v. Wade was overturned by the Supreme Court, Planned Parenthood saw the writing on the wall. “We have been preparing for this for several years,” said Jenna Tosh, CEO of the organization’s California Central Coast chapter. “We’ve been hearing from anti-abortion policy makers for decades that this was their goal. And of course, with the Supreme Court makeup and [Trump], we very much believed we were on this path.”
So far, 17 states have enacted abortion bans, with at least nine more expected to follow suit. As our region’s primary provider of abortion care ― with six health clinics spread between Santa Barbara, Ventura, and San Luis Obispo counties that collectively perform between 3,000 to 4,000 procedures a year ― Planned Parenthood has girded its operations for the inevitable increase in need as patients living in newly created “abortion deserts” travel hundreds of miles for the first appointment they can find.
We spoke with Tosh earlier this month about the steps her organization has taken to handle the uptick and what local impacts of the Supreme Court decision it has already seen. What follows is an edited version of our conversation.
Please walk us through the preparations Planned Parenthood has made. A couple of years ago, moving toward this new reality and recognizing the need for an expert in complex abortion care and family planning, we hired a new chief medical officer. She’s able to care for patients in complex circumstances, patients who may experience a fetal anomaly later in pregnancy. In the past, those patients would leave our region. They would go to Los Angeles or San Francisco. Now we’re able to make sure they can stay in our community. We also made the decision to hire a second staff physician, who will be joining our team next month.
We have invested in “abortion navigation,” as well, which is really a way of saying case management. It’s understanding that patients often call us in crisis and are facing barriers to getting an appointment ― patients from out of the state or out of the region who need childcare, help coordinating medical records, buying a plane ticket, finding a place to stay, and so on. We have hired staff who can work with them individually to come up with an itinerary and figure out what it’s going to take to get them here.
And to support our abortion navigation program, we have created a Justice Fund to pay not only the cost of the procedure if the patient requires financial assistance but also the cost of travel and lodging when needed.
How have your predictions played out so far? We anticipated that Arizona was going to be a big driver, and that’s turned out to be true. In the first weeks after the [Supreme Court’s] Dobbs decision, we saw five patients from out of state, and most of those were from Arizona.
We also know that 10 percent of the people with the capacity to become pregnant in this country live in Texas, and that Texas patients are likely to be seen everywhere. That’s also turned out to be true. We’ve seen a lot of Texas patients here. We had a patient not long ago from San Antonio, who drove. Another patient drove through the night from Arizona, kids in the backseat. We were their next available appointment. This was their nearest care.
It’s also important to remember the domino effect ― when patients from banned states travel to Los Angeles, San Francisco, or other major metropolitan areas, residents in those areas may be impacted. So we’re also seeing an increase in patients coming to Central California from outside our region.
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What kinds of things are you hearing from out-state patients? What’s been their experience? In the immediate aftermath of Dobbs, there was just a lot of shock. These were people who had appointments, who very much expected that they were going to be able to get the care they needed, who may not have been following the politics of the Supreme Court, and who were confronted with the reality that their state had taken away their rights. That was very much the sentiment ― “I can’t believe that this happened, that they took my choice away, that I had to come here.”
We’ve also had patients come to this region because they know someone here. Maybe it feels more comfortable. Maybe you’re somebody who lives in Texas, but you have a cousin in Ventura, and you say, “Okay, I’m going to book some time in California and just take care of myself there.” We have also seen patients who might be in California on business. That’s happening pretty regularly, actually.
What are the age demographics of your patients, where are the procedures actually performed, and do any other local providers perform abortions? The vast majority of our abortion patients are between the ages of 18 and 34 ― 82 percent. Less than 3 percent are younger than 18, and just over 15 percent are 35 or older.
We provide abortion services at all six of our health centers, so medical and surgical abortions are available almost every day of the week, depending on our clinic schedules.
It is possible that an OB/GYN could choose to provide an abortion, but most of our local providers refer patients to Planned Parenthood. We are not aware of any other abortion providers in the Santa Barbara region.
What kind of support has the community shown you since the Supreme Court delivered its decision? Big picture ― last year was our best fundraising year in history; we had over 200 volunteer applications, which is unprecedented; the book sale was our most successful ever. Our donors really understand what’s at stake, have stood with us, and have asked us what more they can do. In terms of the opposition, we recognize that protestors have the freedom of speech. So we also know that we have to invest in training and security, because what we really care about is making sure that our patients feel safe and secure when they come to our health centers.
Given your mission and what’s happened, how do you not get so angry that you just want to scream? That’s a really good question. Many of us have been doing this work for a long time, and there’s really a feeling that we’re all in this together, that we share these values of reproductive health and freedom and safety. And the fact that we know we are part of a larger movement, a movement that actually has the majority of Americans on our side.
Because I think that’s very important to remember ― there is not a state in the country where people support abortion bans. Not one. Every time the issue goes directly to the voters, reproductive freedom wins. We saw that in Kansas over the summer.
We don’t believe this is where we’ll be long-term, because we know that the American people reject the politics of hatred and division and cruelty. During this interim period, we have the responsibility of mitigating as much damage as we possibly can, knowing that people’s health and safety are on the line.
To book an appointment at Planned Parenthood’s Santa Barbara Center (518 Garden St.) or one of its other Central Coast clinics, call 1 (888) 898-3806 or visit plannedparenthood.org/planned-parenthood-california-central-coast.