Skip to Content

Volunteer pilot group transports its first passenger across state lines to get an abortion

By Michele Munz

Click here for updates on this story

    KANSAS CITY, Missouri (St. Louis Post-Dispatch) — The sky is now the limit for pregnant people unable to get abortions near where they live.

Late last month, the most restrictive abortion ban in the country went into effect in Oklahoma, banning the procedure at fertilization and leaving any provider who performs one open to lawsuits.

A week ago, a new volunteer squad of light aircraft pilots, Elevated Access, flew their first client needing an abortion from Oklahoma to Kansas City, Missouri, where the woman was able to complete the procedure at a nearby clinic in Kansas.

“I don’t even have the vocabulary to say how big this is,” said Alison Dreith, a client coordinator for Midwest Access Coalition, which assists people traveling within the Midwest for an abortion with transportation, lodging, child care, food and emotional support.

Elevated Access provides free transportation in light aircraft for people seeking access to services like abortion and gender-affirming care, which are restricted or are under threat of being restricted in many conservative states.

The idea for the organization has been in the works for over a year, said the executive director, Mike, who the Post-Dispatch agree to identify only by his first name to protect his safety.

Mike works in information technology. Over a year ago, he began volunteering with the Midwest Access Coalition, offering his computer skills.

He’s also been pilot for nearly 10 years. While volunteering, he began to see how he could also help the organization and others like it with his flying hobby.

Restrictive laws have shuttered clinics in many states, forcing patients to have to travel far from home. Missouri, which has just one remaining abortion provider, requires two visits 72 hours apart to get the procedure.

When a Texas law went into effect Sept. 1 that effectively banned all abortions up to about six weeks, Mike said he began to pursue the idea more seriously.

He sought advice through Air Care Alliance, which supports charitable flight organizations with resources and advice. Many flight organizations help with things like disaster relief, transporting animals or other medical needs.

Mike learned through the alliance that another pilot was also interested in helping patients seeking abortion. The two recruited a third member and formed a nonprofit based in Illinois.

They launched Elevated Access and its website just a few days before a draft of a Supreme Court majority opinion was leaked to the news, revealing the court could likely overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. The decision is expected late this month.

If Roe is overturned, 26 states are expected to outlaw abortion, forcing many people to drive hundreds of miles to access the procedure. Pregnant people in states like Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida would have to drive 430 to 630 miles more one-way, studies show.

Getting to a clinic would be the hardest for those without transportation or money to the cover the costs associated with traveling and missing work.

The leak of the draft set off a political firestorm, and it also spurred intense interest in Elevated Access, Mike said.

“It went from myself and another founder and third pilot to over 150 interested in helping by the end of May,” he said. Donations have totaled $40,000. “They are excited about the mission and wanting to help us.”

So far, 40 volunteer pilots from across the country have been vetted and are ready to help, Mike said. Volunteers must provide their pilot credentials, explain their beliefs about abortion and transgender care as well as provide two references.

“We want to make sure persons are really on board with the mission,” he said.

When a pilot provides a flight, the pilot covers all the expenses, including aircraft use, fuel and other fees, which can reach as high as $1,000, Mike said. The pilots usually own their own plane, use one as part of a club or rent one. The planes are small, typically seating about four people.

Mike said he is seeking more volunteers through elevatedaccess.org to help with things like pilot recruitment and vetting, marketing and technology support. He also hopes more pilots will volunteer, especially where the need is large in the Midwest.

“Ideally, I’d like to have a volunteer network big enough to help anyone who needs it,” he said.

Elevated Access receives and coordinates requests for flights from organized groups like the Midwest Access Coalition that assist people in paying for travel to receive abortion or gender-affirming care.

Dreith said for her clients without transportation, she calls on her organization’s fleet of volunteer drivers or covers the cost of an Uber or Lyft. But for those who have to travel long distances, she must turn to buses, trains or commercial flights.

Those options, especially for rural residents or those who don’t speak English, can be difficult to coordinate and take up to day or more with complicated transfers. Commercial flights are often too costly for the organization to cover. Having to navigate big cities like Chicago or big airports can also be daunting.

Small private airports, however, are plentiful and require few logistics. A passenger has to do nothing more than show up and deal only with the pilot.

“It feels like there is a lot of anonymity in that,” which puts clients at ease, Dreith said. “The pilot can come out and meet the client right there.”

The woman who was flown by Elevated Access was Dreith’s client.

The Oklahoma woman first relied on a friend to rent a car and drive her five hours away to the Kansas City area for her medication abortion appointment, Dreith said. When she got to the clinic, however, it was determined that she was not a candidate for medication abortion. No one was available to perform a surgical abortion.

When the friend failed to get her to her rescheduled appointment, the woman called Midwest Access for help, Dreith said. With a last-minute commercial flight too costly, Elevated Access was able to step in and make its first flight.

Dreith said it’s exasperating when she is unable to find a way to help a person struggling to get to an appointment, which are getting harder to schedule as Oklahoma and Texas residents seek care in other states.

Elevated Access is now another critical option she can turn to.

“We now have a way to support this person, and we don’t have to say, ‘I’m sorry we just don’t have a way to help you,’” Dreith said.

She fears, however, that state legislators will pass laws to make organizations like hers unable to help residents where abortion is banned or restricted.

“We are going to see more criminalization of not only abortion seekers, but folks like us who support these people,” Dreith said.

That would force support services to operate in secrecy.

“I don’t want the practical support that abortion seekers need to be underground like it was before Roe,” she said. “I don’t want it to be a privileged support system that only people in-the-know can access.”

Please note: This content carries a strict local market embargo. If you share the same market as the contributor of this article, you may not use it on any platform.

Article Topic Follows: CNN - Regional

Jump to comments ↓

CNN Newsource

BE PART OF THE CONVERSATION

KIFI Local News 8 is committed to providing a forum for civil and constructive conversation.

Please keep your comments respectful and relevant. You can review our Community Guidelines by clicking here

If you would like to share a story idea, please submit it here.

Skip to content