A ‘temporary pause’ at Trust Women, Wichita’s biggest abortion provider, adds to the load of other clinics

With women in nearby states still traveling for care, other providers are trying to fill the gap. They say a U.S. Supreme Court ruling keeping medication abortions intact will help.

By Suzanne King

In the three weeks since internal conflicts abruptly paused services at Wichita’s largest abortion provider, the two other places in the city providing abortion have scrambled to pick up the slack.

One of them, Aria Medical Clinic, a medication-only provider, has seen appointments double since Trust Women idled.

So on the day the U.S. Supreme Court could have — but didn’t  — place restrictions on medication abortions, the most common form of abortion in the United States, providers at Aria breathed a major sigh of relief.

“We are delighted that this got reinforced,” Dr. Kelly Pfeifer, the clinic’s founder and director, said of the court’s ruling, released Thursday. “These are safe medications and they should not be restricted.”

Pfeifer said in March, when the court heard arguments in the case —  Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine v. U.S. Food and Drug Administration — that Aria would brace for an influx of patients if justices took the side of the plaintiff. That would have limited medication abortions to the first seven weeks of a pregnancy and said they could only take place under the supervision of a certified physician.

But medication abortions, which made up 63% of U.S. abortions last year, have become commonly available through telemedicine. That’s offered women in states with abortion bans a way to get care without traveling. 

Challenges to medication abortions probably aren’t over, though. After the court released its unanimous ruling, which relied on its agreement that the doctors who brought the case lacked standing, Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach pledged to press ahead. He contends states have “standing that the doctors did not.”

Aria has been dealing with increased numbers of patients since Trust Women shut down. Had the court’s ruling gone another way, the clinic would have had to brace for an even greater surge, because women who had been getting medication abortions remotely would have needed to find in-person options. 

Pfeifer declined to comment directly about the disruption caused by Trust Women’s situation, but she said her clinic was committed to hold the waiting time for patients to seven days.

Wichita’s third clinic, Comprehensive Health of Planned Parenthood Great Plains, provides both medication and procedural abortions and is also working to fill the gap.

“Kansas providers are already strained to meet an overwhelming need,” Hanna Sumpter, director of communications and marketing for Planned Parenthood Great Plains, said in an emailed statement. “Any further disruption will affect patients’ ability to access critical and time-sensitive care.”

Trust Women’s pause

Trust Women has said little about why the clinic paused abortions. On May 23, the board of directors of Trust Women Foundation Inc., which operates clinics in Wichita and Oklahoma, released a statement, signed “In solidarity,” that said it was “making changes in its medical protocols that will bolster its operations and ensure its patients receive unparalleled care and attention.” 

The organization’s website gives that information to patients: “Our clinics are experiencing a temporary pause in scheduling that will bolster our patient care.”

Board President Sapphire Garcia, who was elected to lead the board in May, declined to say when the clinic would resume abortions.

“The only thing that I can say on the record is that there are no changes at this time to any previous statements that we’ve put out,” Garcia said.

The May 23 press release said the board’s decision “follows a transition in leadership that has required a reexamination of its patient scheduling and clinical care. Our organization has a long history of providing clinically sound abortion care to those we serve.”

Trust Women was founded in 2013 to reestablish abortion care in the clinic that had been operated by Dr. George Tiller, a Wichita doctor who was murdered by an anti-abortion extremist in 2009. The clinic has been the target of anti-abortion protests for decades.

In April, Trust Women’s board reportedly fired its co-chief executives and installed board member Keyla Harrison in that role. According to the reporting by Rewire News Group, Harrison then fired other top staff, including Chief Medical Director Dr. Christina Bourne. 

Those changes prompted a majority of the doctors who had contracts to provide abortions at Trust Women to resign, leaving it unable to continue the service. 

Former employees, who declined to be identified because of legal concerns, confirmed the reporting and said they believe a tussle over power between board members and the former chief executives, not issues surrounding care, led to the upheaval.

One former employee said patients get caught in the middle.

“Where do they go when you already have multiple layers and barriers to access?” the employee said. “And now another one is done because the doors have been shuttered. It becomes an unbelievable and unfair rat race to get care. The person who can find it the fastest, the quickest, wins. And that’s just not what health care should be about.”

Diminishing access

Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022, throwing out federal abortion-rights protections, abortion bans have multiplied. In states like Kansas, where the procedure is still legal, people travel from around the country to get care that’s no longer available in their home states.

The Guttmacher Institute, which supports abortion rights but is largely respected among researchers on reproductive statistics, says 69% of the 20,700 clinician-provided abortions in Kansas in 2023 were provided to non-Kansans. That’s compared to 52% of abortions in the state in 2020 — before the fall of Roe.

Trust Women became a major spoke in the region’s abortion access hub, tripling its patients to 5,000 last year, compared to before the court struck down federal protections. And 80%, according to an estimate the clinic provided in March, came from other states.

Sandy Brown, president of Kansas Abortion Fund, said her organization is increasing funding to Aria to help it meet growing demand she attributed to Trust Women’s closure.

“Aria is seeing at least a two-fold increase in the number of patients,” Brown said in an emailed statement. “We have increased our funding with Aria for Kansas residents to ensure no one slips through the cracks and that all Kansans will be able to fund abortion care.”

But neither Aria nor Comprehensive Health of Planned Parenthood Great Plains can fill the gap entirely. 

Aria only provides medication abortions. Comprehensive Health provides medication abortions up to 11 weeks of a pregnancy and procedural abortions up to 15 weeks. Trust Women is the only Wichita clinic that was providing abortions up to 21 weeks and six days — the limit in Kansas.

This article was republished here with the permission of: The Beacon