As abortion facilities have closed down in many parts of the country, travel distances to abortion clinics have become an increasingly salient public policy issue. While there are many media accounts of women who travelled long distances to obtain an abortion, much of the evidence about travel has been largely anecdotal. However, earlier this month, three researchers affiliated with the Guttmacher Institute published an article in The Lancet that provides actual data on this topic.
Using population data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the study provides state level data on the median distance that a woman of childbearing age would have to travel to the nearest abortion facility. The study has been covered by a number of media outlets including Forbes, CNN.com, The New York Daily News, CBSNews.com, and Vox.com.
Unfortunately, the media’s coverage of this study has provided more heat than light.
The stories emphasize the fact that some women have to travel hundreds of miles to obtain an abortion. However, a closer look at the findings reveals a far more nuanced picture. According to the study, in 2014 the median distance between a woman of childbearing age and the nearest abortion facility was 10.79 miles. Furthermore, while there exists regional variation in travel distances, relatively few women face exceptionally long travel times. For instance, among the 16 U.S. states the study classifies as Southern, the median distance to an abortion facility was just over 27 miles. Additionally, in Texas, where recent abortion clinic closures have received national media attention, the median distance in 2014 was only 17.23 miles.
The Guttmacher study also provides state by state data for the median distance travelled in both 2011 and 2014. Interestingly, there has been little change during this three year timespan in the median distance a woman of childbearing age would have to travel to obtain an abortion. According to the study, between 2011 and 2014 the median distance increased by only two tenths of a mile. Furthermore, in 26 U.S. States the median distance travelled to obtain an abortion actually decreased during this three year timespan. Similarly, in the South, where pro-lifers have been especially active in passing pro-life laws, the median distance decreased by a tenth of a mile. Furthermore, only one state, Montana, saw the median distance increase by over 15 miles between 2011 and 2014.
In recent years that pro-life movement has enjoyed a considerable amount of success enacting protective legislation at the state level – especially in Southern states. Groups supporting legal abortion have frequently challenged these laws in court. One of their main legal arguments is that the closure of abortion facilities would pose an undue burden to women seeking abortions. Judicial rulings on pro-life laws enacted in Texas and Mississippi indicate that some judges find this argument persuasive. However, this study provides some much-needed context. There are some areas in Alaska, the Deep South, and the Midwest where women seeking abortions face extensive travel distances. However, contrary to media spin, abortion remains accessible for a vast majority of women in the United States.