Reporter’s Notebook: Covering abortion from Illinois

When the Dobbs decision was handed down at the end of June 2022, reversing nearly 50 years of abortion access in this country, I was living in Richmond, Virginia working as a freelance photojournalist. I had recently accepted a new job back in my hometown of Carbondale, Illinois, and I knew Illinois – specifically southern Illinois – would become a major player in America’s new abortion access landscape because of its proximity to the South.  

For women in parts of Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas, Illinois became the closest place with abortion services. In the first six months of 2023, the Guttmacher Institute estimates that 45,080 abortions were performed in Illinois. During the six months in 2020 before Roe v. Wade was overturned, only 26,390 abortions were performed in the state. 

Guttmacher research found Illinois had the largest increase, “by far,” in the number of patients traveling from out of state for abortions.

Since summer of 2022, two abortion clinics have opened in Carbondale: Choices Center for Reproductive Health, which relocated from Tennessee, and Alamo Women’s Clinic from New Mexico. I sat in on an interview with Andrea Gallegos, Alamo’s clinic manager, in May 2023. She picked Carbondale to relocate her clinic and her family after Googling “most liberal town in southern Illinois.” The search results were unanimous in their pick.

International media came to Carbondale to cover the new role it would play as the closest abortion provider for millions. Stories were featured in the New York Times, in a documentary by CNN and on Reuters’ Wider Image  blog, to name a few.

The photographer’s perspective

Photographing abortion before Roe v. Wade fell was difficult. As abortion bans went into effect across the country, access to clinicians and patients was seemingly more in demand and harder to get.

On an assignment in Oklahoma City in October 2021, about six months before Oklahoma would ban abortion completely, a nurse at Trust Women expressed her frustration. Why should she be responsible for patient care and public relations? Telling journalists stories to show the public why access to safe, legal abortions is important was getting exhausting.

When a patient in Oklahoma agreed to talk to us and allowed me to photograph the abortion procedure, she wanted people to know why she was upset. She had driven eight hours from Texas, which had a six-week-abortion-ban. She had taken time off of work, saved money and arranged for childcare for her children in order to get the abortion she believed was her personal decision. If a photograph could tell that story, she would oblige. 

Back in Illinois, I struggled to find a unique way to tell a visual story about abortion access. Did we need to see any more photos of women with their legs splayed? 

I found references to Elevated Access, an Illinois-based nonprofit network of pilots helping women access abortion by volunteering to fly them from states without abortion clinics to states with services. But my access was limited. I could photograph pilots, but not patients. The photograph with impact, a woman traveling across state lines in a tiny plane to obtain an abortion, was out of reach.

In May, an editor I had worked with several times before at The New York Times reached out to me. She liked the pilot story I pitched, but said it couldn’t stand alone as a story. Now, with the one year anniversary of Dobbs approaching, The Times was working on a piece which would be headlined “Abortion Networks Adapt To a Post-Roe World” and the Elevated Access piece would be included.

Reporter Kate Kelly and I traveled to Minneapolis where we met pilots as they handed off Erica, a mother in her 30s coming from the Twin Cities area and heading to Maryland for an abortion. It was her first time on a plane. She had waited a month for an appointment in Minnesota, but when the time came doctors told her she was too far along to obtain a legal abortion. So on May 9 she took a cross-country trip that involved two planes and three pilots. We met her halfway.

Erica allowed Kate to interview her. She said she had drug addiction that would prevent her from having a healthy pregnancy. Erica allowed me to take photographs if I kept her identity hidden. I had the time it took her to smoke two cigarettes on a bench in front of the airport to make a picture that mattered. 

We flew back to the Twin Cities with Andy, the pilot who had brought Erica on the first leg of her journey. In his tiny Cessna 182 Skylane I could take photos, but I wasn’t allowed to capture Andy’s face or any other identifying information. 

Andy didn’t have an abortion story or moment of conversion where he became a champion for women’s rights. He had always seen things the way he does today, except now he was a pilot and in a position to make a difference.

He and the other two pilots that day were willing to invest hundreds of dollars and a full day in Erica’s right to choose, but they were cautious about letting the whole world know the details. They have bosses and clients who may fall on the other side of the political divide, an ever-widening chasm between the left and the right.

For the doctors, nurses, patients and now pilots involved in the patchwork pattern of abortion access in this country, legal uncertainty and the threat of violence come with the territory.

I was careful, but editors at The Times went through everything I filed with a fine-toothed comb. 

People trusted us, people who had been scared.

Julia Rendleman is an assistant professor of photojournalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

Share our journalism