By Bob and Barbara Dreyfuss
Originally published to The Cape May Sentinel on June 29, 2021
When it comes to abortion, Cape May County – and, indeed, most of South Jersey – might as well be Mississippi.
In Mississippi, statewide, there is only a single clinic that performs abortions, and that one is threatened by increasingly onerous layers of state-imposed restrictions. But, while there are 41 clinics and 35 other facilities that provide abortion care in New Jersey, there are none in Cape May.
Planned Parenthood, which maintains a number of health centers that provide abortion around the state, does not have one in Cape May, and its clinic in Atlantic County closed several years ago. By all accounts, a woman who wants an abortion in Cape May County – especially if her pregnancy is past the first trimester – will likely have to travel long distances, to Cherry Hill, to Philadelphia, or to North Jersey.
“The whole region is pretty underserved,” said Roxanne Sutocky, director of communication for The Women’s Centers, which operates the Cherry Hill Women’s Center, along with facilities in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Georgia. “We’re probably the only facility in South Jersey that provides abortion care in both the first and second trimesters. And often I use Cape May County as an example of how inaccessible abortion care can be.”
The fact that facilities that perform abortions are distant creates barriers to access for many women, especially poor and less affluent women who might find it difficult to travel that far. “If you don't have a car, and have to take the bus, and buses run infrequently, it creates access problems for many women,” said Kaitlyn Wojtowicz, vice president for public affairs for the Planned Parenthood Action Fund of New Jersey. Even if a woman has a car, the gas and tolls can be expensive, and the travel requires taking significant time off work and away from home, she said.
The Cape May County Health Department is handcuffed when it comes to abortion, and none of the county’s clinics and health care facilities perform abortions. “There’s no place in Cape May County that does abortions,” said an official at the department.
Under a change to the federal rules governing government-supported family planning clinics and other facilities, made under the Trump administration in 2019, all of the 4,500 clinics supported by Title X “(“Title Ten”) funds – which serve four million women a year – cannot “perform, promote, refer to, or support abortion as a method of family planning.” The 2019 directive does permit staff to provide “nondirective counseling on abortion.”
However, according to Natalie Sendler, director of nurses for CMCHD, “We’re not allowed to discuss any details about abortion.”
“There is a lack of options for all reproductive health services in Cape May County, but abortion access here is nonexistent,” said Sandy Gatelein, a leader of Cape May County Indivisible, which has organized demonstrations in favor of abortion rights locally. “Cape May County residents seeking abortion services have to drive all the way to Cherry Hill, to the Cherry Hill Women's Center. Cape May County Indivisible has been calling for expanded reproductive health services in this area for the past four years.”
Not Mississippi yet
Of course, New Jersey is not Mississippi – not yet, anyway – when it comes to abortion. Whereas Mississippi, and many other states governed by conservative and Republican majorities, have enacted a wide-ranging series of restrictions on abortion, New Jersey has not done so.
About one in every twenty abortions in the United States takes place in New Jersey. According to the Guttmacher Institute, in 2017, the most recent year for which statistics are available, there were 48,110 abortions performed in New Jersey, though not all to state residents. (In Mississippi, with just over one-third of New Jersey’s population, there were just 2,550 abortions in 2017.) Nationwide, in 2017, there were 862,320 abortions.
In New Jersey, abortion rights supporters are backing a bill, S3030, in the New Jersey legislature that would enact a number of measures to strengthen the protection of a woman’s right to abortion care.
“Many people think New Jersey is this progressive state when it comes to abortion care, and in many ways our state is very supportive of general family planning services,” said Wojtowicz. “But we don't have a law that guarantees the right to an abortion.”
Instead, in New Jersey abortion rights rely on a series of court decisions by state courts that in turn rely on the U.S. Supreme Court abortion rulings, including Roe v. Wade. So, if the Roe decision were overturned by the current court, it would threaten abortion rights in New Jersey – and S3030, whose lead sponsor is Senator Loretta Weinberg of Bergen County, would codify abortion rights in the state.
In addition, S3030 would enact a series of related measures to help guarantee not only abortion rights but access to abortion care, including a mandate that health insurance polices cover abortion procedures and a measure that would allow nurse practitioners and physician’s assistants to perform the procedure, too, not just board-certified OB/GYNs. According to Sutocky, abortion care in New Jersey is governed by so-called TRAP (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers) measures, which control who is allowed to perform abortions and where. That makes it a lot harder for medical practitioners in Cape May to perform abortions, she said. “For example, after the first trimester, those requirements do mean that there needs to be an ambulatory surgical center facility setting for in-clinic procedures, which in fact has been determined not to be a medical necessity,” said Sutocky. With the backing of Governor Phil Murphy and most Democrats, S3030 has strong support in Trenton. However, Cape May’s state senator, Mike Testa, is a militant opponent of abortion and opposes the bill, and, according to Wojtowicz, there are currently no Republican co-sponsors of the bill. “Unfortunately, it’s solely Democrats who are on this legislation,” she said. Still, backers of S3030 like Planned Parenthood expect that the bill will be passed and become law by early 2022.
In May, the U.S. Supreme Court, with a solid, 6-3 conservative majority now with the addition of Justice Amy Coney Barrett replacing the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, agreed to hear a test case involving Mississippi’s statewide abortion ban. That ban, which was ruled unconstitutional by the 5thU.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based on the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision by the Supreme Court, is now subject to another Supreme Court review. And because the court is chock full of abortion opponents, it’s possible that Roe v. Wade could be overturned.
According to a March 2021 poll by Change Research, the vast majority of people in New Jersey support abortion rights, and fully 87 percent agree “that decisions about abortion should be made by pregnant people in consultation with their medical providers.” In addition, two-thirds of New Jerseyans support the proposed Reproductive Freedom Act and 68 percent say that abortion “should be legal in either all or most cases.” Those results are roughly in line with national polling on the subject.
Sutocky, of The Women’s Centers, said that one-third of New Jersey counties have no clinics or facilities that perform abortions, and that about a quarter of New Jersey residents live in those counties. “So, it shows how inaccessible abortion can be, even in a progressive state,” she said.
If you search online about abortions in Cape May, at or near the top of the search results will be the Hope Pregnancy Centers in North Cape May and Ocean City. Both facilities are operated by Options for Women, a church-supported organization, which also has centers in Cherry Hill and Trenton.
At least some women seeking an abortion might end up at one of the Hope Pregnancy Centers, where they’ll find themselves being counseled against abortion by the center’s staff. Chuck Swanson, the CEO of Options for Women, said that the centers do not perform abortions but, instead, counsel women who are pregnant about their options. “We want women to understand that they have choices,” he said. “We’re a faith-based organization. We come at this from the point of view that God wants every life to proceed, and we hope to counsel women who are newly pregnant and without resources. We try to counsel them to keep the baby or to adopt it out.”
He estimates that in 2019 about 600 women from Cape May County had abortions, based on an extrapolation of the number of births in the county, 2,124, and the fact that about 28 percent of pregnancies end in abortion.
Critics of organizations such as the Hope Pregnancy Centers say that in seeking to persuade women not to abort their pregnancy they provide misleading information about the consequences and side effects of abortion procedures and add graphic descriptions designed to scare women.
“They’re already scared about a lot of things,” said Swanson, referring to the women who make appointments at his centers. “The last thing they need is to have anyone scare them even more.”
Asked about facilities such as the Hope Pregnancy Centers, Planned Parenthood’s Wojtowicz said only, “There is a lot of misinformation out there about abortion care.”