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Birthright examining effects of 72-hour waiting period for abortion

by | Nov 17, 2015

By Jennifer Brinker

Editor’s note. This is excerpted from a story in The St. Louis Review, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Louis.

Helen Pennington, a counselor at  Birthright in St. Louis, stopped at the facility's "hope wall." Pennington reportes a 21 percent increase in cases at Birthright since the 72-hour waiting period for abortions was made into law in Missouri. (Photo credit: Lisa Johnston.)

Helen Pennington, a counselor at Birthright in St. Louis, stopped at the facility’s “hope wall.” Pennington reportes a 21 percent increase in cases at Birthright since the 72-hour waiting period for abortions was made into law in Missouri. (Photo credit: Lisa Johnston.)

Last week, a woman came to Birthright seeking help. A friend was with her for moral support.

The woman already took a pregnancy test at Planned Parenthood. It was positive. She was told she had to wait 72 hours before she could have an abortion; the Missouri law went into effect a little over a year ago.

Birthright counselor Helen Pennington said the woman immediately went into “acute-reactive mode.” How was she going to care for this child? Would the father be involved? Should she have an abortion? The woman sat down and made a list of the pros and cons. Even though she made a follow-up appointment to have an abortion, she knew she couldn’t make a decision right away.

At the end of the 72-hour waiting period, the woman had calmed down and made the decision to have her baby. “I am so proud how that worked for me, and I am so thankful,” she told Pennington. “I am very happy.”

Earlier this month, Sen. Kurt Schaefer, chair of a Senate committee investigating Planned Parenthood’s practices in Missouri, revealed that a University of Missouri student is conducting a survey on the 72-hour waiting period for abortion. (Read related story here.) The student also is an employee of Planned Parenthood in St. Louis.

A consent form for the survey notes that the purpose of the study is to “better understand why a significant number of women sign the 72-hour consent form to have an abortion, but then never return to the clinic to have the abortion procedure.”

Birthright St. Louis, a nonprofit organization that provides free counseling to abortion-minded women, has seen an increase in visits at its four locations in the past 14 months, noted executive director Maureen Zink. Based on anecdotal stories, social workers believe there is a correlation between the increase in clients and the law that went into effect in October 2014, although it’s impossible to know for sure, Zink said.

In the past year, Birthright’s Midtown office has seen a 21 percent increase in clients, said licensed counselor Helen Pennington. The office is less than a mile’s walking distance from Planned Parenthood on Forest Park Avenue.

About 91 percent of women come to Birthright prior to 24 weeks pregnancy, said Zink. (The cutoff for obtaining an abortion in Missouri is 21 weeks, six days gestation).

Of the 2,074 pregnant women the organization has seen to date in 2015, 94 percent have chosen life for their babies. Women generally are seen in the early stages of their pregnancies, with the initial visit focused on taking a free pregnancy test.

Clients generally make the decision to carry their baby an average of three times during the first 24 weeks of an unintended pregnancy, Zink said.

“She can be accepting of the pregnancy and later break up with the baby’s father, lose her income or have a concerning genetic test,” she said. “Women need ongoing care. I believe Birthright is so successful due to our ongoing emotional and in-kind support.

“The 72-hour wait is such a gift to women as it frees them from making a reactive and fear-based decision,” Zink said. “At Birthright, women can find their strength and embrace the joy of their pregnancy. They can make their decision from a position of confidence and hope.”

In October 2014, Missouri joined South Dakota and Utah in establishing a 72-hour waiting period. North Carolina and Oklahoma passed a 72-hour waiting period this year.

All states require patient consent before undergoing a medical treatment; the consent must be “informed,” meaning they must have the capacity to make decisions about their care; participating must be voluntary and they must be provided adequate and appropriate information.

In addition to abortion counseling requirements, many states require at least a 24-hour waiting period between counseling and the abortion. Several states mandate when and how an ultrasound is performed prior to an abortion; six states, including Missouri, require that women seeking an abortion are told that life begins at conception.

Pennington, who has worked as a Birthright counselor for 16 years, said the 72-hour waiting period gives a woman time for her body, mind and emotions to calm down. The woman sometimes first sees the pregnancy as the perceived threat, but in reality, it’s the circumstances surrounding her life — economic status, education or work, relationship with the father or other family members — that play a bigger part.

After an initial visit, a counselor will follow up with a phone call a few days to a week later. By then, she might still be scared, but she’s no longer in a panicked state, said Pennington. “Her problem-solving skills have naturally increased,” she said.