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Friday, Dec 1, 2023

Student volunteers call abortion centers for FiveThirtyEight study on wait times

A group of 17 Middlebury student volunteers, led by Professor of Economics Caitlin Myers, called 737 abortion clinics across the U.S. to ask the date of the next appointment for an abortion.
A group of 17 Middlebury student volunteers, led by Professor of Economics Caitlin Myers, called 737 abortion clinics across the U.S. to ask the date of the next appointment for an abortion.

A group of 17 Middlebury students volunteered this past March for a FiveThirtyEight Research Project on abortion wait times for clinics across the U.S . The team, which was led by Professor of Economics Caitlin Myers, dedicated upwards of 10 hours each over the course of two Mondays in order to call 737 abortion clinics in 46 states, as well as the District of Columbia, to ask the date of the next appointment for an abortion. 

On April 18, FiveThirtyEight published the article, titled “It Can Already Take Weeks To Get An Abortion,” and credited the Middlebury students by name. Prior to the calls, students went to a required training session, in which they learned during which hours to call the abortion centers, and were given a script that included what date would make them six weeks pregnant on the day they called. They also set up fake phone numbers through Google Voice and were given the option to create a fake name in order to protect their identities throughout the process. 

As the students called the centers on Monday March 7 and 14, they entered the data into a Google Sheet, as well as taking notes on paper. Anthony Marinello ’22 was tasked with cross checking the information.  

Last September, the Supreme Court upheld legislation in Texas that highly restricted abortion access. Ever since, clinics in the surrounding states have been overwhelmed by the demand for abortions. 

Elsa Korpi ’22, one of the researchers, spoke about a particularly disheartening experience with the lone abortion clinic in Missouri. At first, she was on hold with them for 20 minutes. After that attempt, she called the clinic once more. 

“Professor Myers told me that she really wanted that data point, so I gave it another try. I was on hold again for 45 minutes,” Korpi said. When she finally got through to the clinic, they told her to try a clinic in a nearby state such as Illinois. 

While Korpi’s call was only for research purposes, she emphasized how this can be a real scenario for many women. For many women, especially those of lower socioeconomic status, it can be unrealistic to travel long distances for an abortion.

“Imagine doing that when you’re actually pregnant and you know this might be your only option,” Korpi said. 

Attention has recently focused on Texas and its neighboring states, but clinics all over the country had long wait times. Audrey Peiker ’24, expressed her surprise when historically “blue” states without heavy restrictions on abortions had long wait times. For example, the data showed that wait times of a week or more are fairly common even in California. 

“I learned to stop going off my biases,” Pieker said. “Calling a Southern state doesn’t always mean longer wait times and calling a state like California doesn’t guarantee an appointment.” 

The Supreme Court is preparing to rule on a challenge to Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court case that legalized abortion in the U.S., in June 2022. The article in FiveThirtyEight explains that clinics are already overwhelmed with abortions and are seeing out-of-state patients at unprecedented levels; overturning Roe would further exacerbate the already long wait times. 

“What I hope this [study] helps people realize is that the abortion landscape across the U.S. could change rapidly,” Frieda Violet Thaveethu ’22, one of the student researchers and an economics major writing her thesis about abortion legislation. 

She also mentioned “trigger bans,” which are laws that would automatically ban first- and second-trimester abortions in certain states if Roe v. Wade is overturned. Thirteen states already have trigger bans passed, and several more bans are up for consideration in state legislatures.

Myers hopes to continue researching abortion waittimes following the June 2022 decision. 

“Abortion access has the potential to change rapidly” she said. “This research crucially depends on Middlebury students being interested in participating.” 

For more information about future research and women’s rights issues, students can sign up for the Chellis House mailing list.

Editor’s Note: Katie Futterman ’24, one of the student volunteers, is a news editor for The Campus.

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