A new study of women seeking abortions in Utah has found that the state’s 72-hour waiting period didn't dissuade the vast majority from going through with the procedure, though it did present them with additional financial and logistical difficulties.
Researchers from Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health at the University of California, San Francisco surveyed 500 women presenting for abortion information visits at four abortion providers in 2013 and 2014; 309 completed a follow-up survey three weeks later. In Utah, abortion-seekers must appear for an in-person counseling visit at least 72 hours before their procedure, necessitating two separate visits. Since Utah passed the first 72-hour waiting period law in 2012, four other states—Missouri, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and North Carolina—have also enacted them. In South Dakota, weekends and state holidays don’t count toward the 72-hour minimum.
The study, published Thursday in Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, reports that 86 percent of the women who took the researchers’ follow-up survey had gone through with an abortion. Eight percent were no longer seeking an abortion; 3 percent had miscarried or found out that they weren’t pregnant; 2 percent were still trying to get an abortion; and one woman had been forced to wait past her abortion provider’s gestational limit. Women who ended up having their abortions waited an average of eight days after their initial visit to have the procedure. Most who waited longer than 72 hours cited appointment availability and personal logistics as the reasons for their extended wait times.
Of the 8 percent who’d changed their minds about the procedure, the most common reason given was that they’d been conflicted about abortion from the start. One 19-year-old who’d had two previous births told the researchers, “I have always been against abortion. This would be my third child, which is why I considered it. [But] I just couldn’t find myself to do it.” A 37-year-old who’d had four previous births offered similar reasoning: “It was a hard decision for me to make in the first place, and once I made the appointment, it kind of hit home. About two days after the [information] appointment, I canceled the [abortion] appointment. I couldn’t do it. It’s something that I’ve always been against.”
The authors of the study cite previous research showing that between 1 and 13 percent of women who seek abortions in places with hourslong waiting periods or none at all end up changing their minds about the procedure. A couple of Utah women told the UCSF researchers that the informational visit was part of exploring all their options around their pregnancies. In a statement about the new research, lead author and UCSF assistant professor Sarah Roberts recommended abortion providers offer additional counseling for the minority of women who aren’t sure about their decision or feel personal conflict, rather than states imposing a mandatory waiting period for all women, the majority of whom have already made up their minds.
The second most common reason women didn’t go through with the procedure was financial. Women who did get abortions ended up paying an average of $44 extra for expenses related to their initial counseling session; for a quarter of the respondents, those extra expenses totaled more than 5 percent of their monthly income. “[I] get paid every week, but every time I think I have enough money, it all gets taken out in taxes, so I’m just under the amount I need,” one 20-year-old told researchers. “Every time I try to make an appointment, something else comes up that I have to pay.” Another woman said she would have been able to get the abortion earlier if not for the waiting period and the two mandatory visits. But she was forced to wait to schedule the first appointment, and once she’d secured the money, child care, and transportation she needed to make the second visit, she was too far along to feel comfortable with the procedure.
Reproductive justice advocates and anti-choice legislators alike have argued that waiting periods might keep women from accessing the procedure. The former worry that it will force women past the legal gestational limit, and that the double travel and time burden is too heavy for women in poverty to bear. Anti-choice activists contend that, in order to protect women, the state must force them to take extra time to reconsider their decision. This new study suggests that women who’ve made up their mind to get an abortion will not be dissuaded, though financial and time barriers will still prevent some from getting the care they need. As of 2011, 62 percent of Utah women lived in counties with no abortion provider. In states with even fewer options, or for women in truly isolated locations with few transportation options, having to make two trips would be an even bigger hurdle to clear.
But the most common waiting-related hardship the researchers identified in their study was emotional. One 39-year-old mother who’d given birth four times said she couldn’t sleep for three nights because she was stressed out about the procedure and wanted to get it over with. “Knowing that I had to wait after deciding what I wanted to do and not having control over my own life and my body made me mad,” said an 18-year-old respondent. For women who already know they want an abortion, the waiting period offers no protection, just an unnecessary tax on the wallet and the mind.