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Some Californians are prepping to host visitors who seek abortion access


California plans to welcome more than a million people from states where abortion care is being banned or restricted. The state may even help cover some of their travel costs. From member station KQED in San Francisco, April Dembosky reports.

APRIL DEMBOSKY, BYLINE: After the Supreme Court's draft decision was leaked in May, Lee Mitchell, a former educator, wanted to do something - anything - to help.

LEE MITCHELL: I was just furious. What I did was I fueled myself in looking for ways to help others.

DEMBOSKY: She posted a message on Facebook written in code. It said, if you are a person who suddenly finds yourself with a need to go camping in another state that is friendly towards camping, I will happily drive you and support you. Mitchell imagined she could pick women up at the airport in San Francisco, drive them to the clinic for their abortion, then offer them a place to sleep on her couch and really a hand to hold - something she did not have when she flew to California for an abortion in 1970.

MITCHELL: I lived in Minneapolis. You know, I looked and looked. And back then, it was - there were no sources, so I had to pay the money to fly to California.

DEMBOSKY: It was one of three abortions Mitchell had before Roe v. Wade. It was before birth control and sex education were commonplace. Each procedure felt isolating.

MITCHELL: There was no counseling. There was zero. I mean, we - I went in there to that back room and had the abortion and came out.

DEMBOSKY: Mitchell is 75 now and can hardly believe this is happening again. California is expecting a nearly 3,000% increase in the number of people coming from out of state for abortion care. For months now, Tricia Gray has been working to recruit and train wannabe volunteers like Mitchell.

TRICIA GRAY: I am amazed at people coming together and supporting and showing up for people that they don't even know - in droves.

DEMBOSKY: Gray works with the nonprofit Access Reproductive Justice. She says she has about 60 volunteers now, but is working to bring that up to 250 statewide.

GRAY: Part of what I'm doing is recruiting near Westchester and LAX as a basis because they're close to the airport.

DEMBOSKY: Patients are already traveling to California from Texas, Arizona and New Mexico for abortion care. With the pandemic, volunteers are still giving rides, but home stays have been put on pause. Volunteers help pay for and book hotel rooms instead.

GRAY: It's a boom, boom, boom, you're ready to go type of deal.

DEMBOSKY: A hotel stay can run about $400 or $500. Add to that the cost of a plane ticket, a cab and child care, and the total logistical cost of getting an abortion can surpass a couple thousand dollars. Nonprofits can't keep up, and they're asking California lawmakers to direct state money their way to help them hire more staff and pay travel costs for in- and out-of-state women. Anti-abortion activists don't like this.

GREG BURT: We're calling it, you know, abortion tourism.

DEMBOSKY: Greg Burt is with the California Family Council.

BURT: Come to California, go to the beach, get your abortion done, and we'll pay for it by the taxpayer.

DEMBOSKY: California's governor agreed to give $20 million to the nonprofits in next year's budget, but with limitations on some travel expenses for people from out of state. He seems OK spending public money on things like a hotel for a woman from Texas once she's in California, just not the plane ticket to get here. Many Californians say they're fine with their tax dollars being used this way.

CAROLINE FONG: I definitely agree with that.

DEMBOSKY: In the fall, Caroline Fong will leave for college in Missouri, one of multiple states that immediately banned abortion after the Supreme Court decision.

FONG: Setting aside taxpayer money is really important to ensure safe abortions for women.

CLAUDIA SANCHEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

DEMBOSKY: But hotel worker Claudia Sanchez says, "there are better things we could be investing in than that." For NPR News, I'm April Dembosky in San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

April Dembosky is the health reporter for The California Report and KQED News. She covers health policy and public health, and has reported extensively on the economics of health care, the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act in California, mental health and end-of-life issues. Her work is regularly rebroadcast on NPR and has been recognized with awards from the Society for Professional Journalists (for sports reporting), and the Association of Health Care Journalists (for a story about pediatric hospice). Her hour-long radio documentary about home funeralswon the Best New Artist award from the Third Coast International Audio Festival in 2009. April occasionally moonlights on the arts beat, covering music and dance. Her story about the first symphony orchestra at Burning Man won the award for Best Use of Sound from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. Before joining KQED in 2013, April covered technology and Silicon Valley for The Financial Times, and freelanced for Marketplace and The New York Times. She is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and Smith College.