The stark divides and murky legalities of how U.S. states handle abortion rights may be most intense at the northwest corner of the country.
Less than two months before a leaked Supreme Court document signaled the imminent demise of Roe v. Wade, the governors of Washington and Idaho signed diametrically opposite abortion bills. Washington aimed to boost access and shore up protections for providers. Next door, Idaho banned the procedure after a fetal heartbeat is detected and said it would allow individuals to sue providers they believe violated the law.
Now, Washington is preparing for a flood of Idahoans seeking care — a move that could overwhelm clinics and possibly expose providers to legal liability from its neighboring state.
It’s a scenario set to play out across the country as the nationwide standard from Roe unravels to an array of laws that vary greatly across state lines. The strict abortions limits likely to be imposed in conservative areas — from bans to a Missouri proposal to criminalize out-of-state travel for the procedure — set the stage for interstate clashes and threaten to sow confusion for women seeking care.
“These are issues that are very complicated and the battleground is going to be severe, because pro-choice states feel so strongly about their position and anti-abortion states feel so strongly about theirs,” said Sital Kalantry, associate professor at Seattle University School of Law.
Liberal states such as California and New York are setting themselves up to be abortion havens. Illinois is set to be the lone abortion refuge in the Midwest. Washington, meanwhile, is facing a fight right at its border.
The diverging laws raise many questions about seeking care in another state or aiding in out-of-state abortions, and there are “no very clear answers,” according to Kalantry. For instance, she said, what happens if an Idaho resident sues a Washington provider for abortion care given to an Idahoan in that state? Could a Planned Parenthood in Idaho be liable for actions of a Planned Parenthood in Washington? What if a Washington clinic prescribes abortion pills to an Idaho resident and the pregnancy is terminated in Idaho? Those types of uncertainties could have a chilling effect on providers and abortion seekers.
Washington is set to bear the brunt of Idaho abortion demand. Oregon, the other blue state on the border, has no clinics performing the procedure on its eastern side, with the closest one in the more central city of Bend. U.S. citizens can travel to Canada to obtain abortions but the border is almost 500 miles (805 kilometers) from Idaho’s main population centers in the Boise area. If half the country loses access to abortion care — a likely outcome if Roe is overturned — Washington state health centers would see a 385% increase in patients seeking access from out of state, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a nonpartisan think tank that studies abortion access.
“That number is staggering,” said Paul Dillon, the Spokane-based vice president of public affairs for Planned Parenthood of Greater Washington and North Idaho. “We have been preparing for this moment. It just got more real once we discovered the leak and it confirmed our deepest fears.”
The burden is likely to fall hardest on Planned Parenthood clinics in Pullman, less than 8 miles from the Idaho border, and Spokane Valley, about 11 miles away. Both have faced violence from anti-abortion forces in the past decade — the Pullman clinic was firebombed in 2015. There are only a handful of clinics in eastern Washington, compared with more than two dozen on the west side of the state.