Volunteer pilots fly patients seeking abortions to states where it's legal
The pilot, clad in a blue windbreaker, recently pulled his single-engine, four-seater prop plane onto the tarmac of a small municipal airport.
The airport sits in a state where abortion is now banned in virtually all cases. But a short flight away in Kansas, abortion remains legal. That has launched a wave of travel from across the South and Midwest in pursuit of pills and procedures that used to be legal all across the U.S..
Michael is part of a growing group of pilots of small private planes who have begun ferrying people across state lines to get abortions and gender-affirming medical care, even if it means flouting local restrictions. They're volunteers with Elevated Access, an Illinois-based group that coordinates the flights. NPR agreed to use his first name only due to the potential for harassment and legal action.
The flights, which are free to passengers, spare people seeking this medical care from the delays and costs that go along with commercial flights or travel by bus or car. And it allows them to travel anonymously and leave no paper trail, by skipping security at commercial airports.
"There are tons of little airports like this dotted all over," Michael said. "I try to avoid the big airports. Usually, we fly into one that's closer to where they live."
The pilots donate their time and the use of their planes. Most also cover the cost of fuel, because private pilots can't legally be compensated for flying. (Elevated Access is trying to get an exemption that would allow the organization to reimburse fuel costs.)
Help during difficult moments
Recently, Michael took a woman back home to the Deep South after an appointment at a Kansas clinic. He loves to fly — he also does volunteer flights for an animal rescue group and he jumps at the chance to take his family and friends up in the sky. But an Elevated Access flight feels different, Michael said.
"It's maybe not the best time in a particular person's life, or they're going through a sensitive thing," he said. "So I treat that with a lot of reverence."
Only a handful of people in Michael's life know he's part of the budding network of people helping women get abortions that have suddenly become illegal in their home states. He says some members of his family and some of his pilot friends oppose abortion. That's, perhaps, not surprising — pilots tend to be more conservative than Americans generally. Fewer than 10% are women.
Soon after Roe v. Wade was overturned last summer and Elevated Access was launched, Michael posted a link to the organization in an online pilot forum. The blowback came immediately.
"It was obviously a polarizing thing to have shared," he said. "I'm glad I made quite a few pilots aware of it, even if it raised some ire." Still, the angry response has made him less likely to talk about his involvement with the group, he said.
For pilots like Michael, most of whom have day jobs, the flights offer a chance to keep their flying skills sharp while supporting a cause they believe in.
But for people trying to get to an abortion appointment several states away — maybe with just a few days' notice — the private flights can be life-changing.
They can turn a multi-day drive into just a couple of hours, or make flying much simpler by cutting out a trip to the nearest commercial airport which could be hours away.
And Elevated Access lets the passengers remain virtually anonymous. Pilots are only given the passenger's first name and weight (to avoid exceeding a small aircraft's weight limits).
"We don't check ID because that's not part of private aviation," said the founder of Elevated Access, who goes by Mike, and also asked that we not use his last name because he's concerned about possible legal risk or online harassment. "There's no ticketing or TSA or anything like that. If somebody feels like they need to use a fake first name, they can definitely do that."
Skirting a gray area in state laws
Pilots are instructed not to ask passengers why they're traveling. That relieves passengers of any pressure to explain or justify the services they're seeking, and also gives the pilots plausible deniability in the face of potential legal threats. Some states are considering prosecuting those who help people get abortions, and Texas has already made them liable to lawsuits.
No existing laws specifically target interstate travel, although Idaho could soon make it a crime to help a minor travel out of state for an abortion without parental consent. Still, legal experts say flying for Elevated Access could involve some legal risk.
"You could see an aggressive prosecutor trying to say, under the current laws, that, 'We are going to charge this pilot with being an accessory to murder or an accessory to abortion,' " said David Cohen, a law professor at Drexel University. "We haven't seen prosecutors try that yet. But there's good reason to believe that's on the horizon."
Rachel Rebouché, dean of the Temple University Beasley School of Law, said there's also a possibility that federal officials could place restrictions on abortion-related travel in U.S. airspace.
"This current administration would not try to use federal aviation powers to penalize people who are flying rather than driving," she said. "But in years to come, depending on who's elected, an anti-abortion administration could try to do that."
Elevated Access has completed "dozens and dozens" of flights and is growing rapidly, Mike said. More than 200 pilots have been vetted and more than 1,000 have expressed interest.
"We don't share our full numbers because we don't want to become a target," Mike, the group's founder said.
The flights represent only a tiny part of the abortion-related travel that has accelerated since last summer, when some states began enforcing abortion bans.
However, it's a window into the increasingly unconventional tactics of the underground groups that are working to keep abortion accessible to people across the country.
Abortion rights organizations are striving to be nimble in the face of legal uncertainty, Rebouché said.
"The threat of passing a law can itself chill behavior — or incite people to organize in different ways," she said. "It's an interesting dynamic, how this push-pull of potential policy is shaping both care [and] advocacy strategies."
Elevated Access typically works with partner groups to coordinate flights, usually after other options have been exhausted — if a patient isn't old enough to rent a car, for example, or if their commercial flight was canceled.
Escaping an abusive situation and seeking care
Mike says the idea for Elevated Access arose out of his experience volunteering with another organization, Midwest Access Coalition, which helps people coordinate and pay for abortion-related travel.
"I wanted to learn about abortion access because I thought pilots might be able to help," Mike said.
Alison Dreith, Midwest Action Coalition's director of strategic partnerships, said she's connected several clients with Elevated Access. Most have low incomes and some have never flown before.
The organization's first official passenger flew from Oklahoma to get an abortion in Kansas City, Kan., last summer.
"She was a bit nervous about flying," said Dreith. "But the pilot was able to walk out into the parking lot and walk her directly onto the airfield. It really feels like a V.I.P. experience."
Dreith said the flights prove particularly useful for people who don't have the documents needed to fly commercially. That group could include undocumented immigrants — or people escaping abuse, such as one of her recent clients, who contacted Midwest Access Coalition in December for help getting an abortion.
"She was in a domestic violence situation where her abusive partner had destroyed her ID and birth certificate," Dreith said.
Dreith initially traveled to North Carolina to help the woman get safely away from the abusive partner and to a nearby clinic that provides abortions. The woman thought she was around 16 weeks pregnant — so still legally eligible for an abortion under the state's 20-week limit — but wasn't certain because her partner hadn't allowed her to get an ultrasound or any prenatal care.
When she got to the clinic, the woman learned she was just past the state's limit. That's when Dreith contacted the staff at Elevated Access, who organized a flight to the St. Louis area, where the woman was originally from.
After crossing the Missouri state line into Illinois, the woman was able to get an abortion. She also sought help from a domestic violence group and is now living on her own.
"She had been suicidal because she thought she was never going to get out of her situation," Dreith said. "I don't even have the superlatives to describe how thankful she was."
Rose Conlon reports on health for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. She's on Twitter at @rosebconlon.
This story was produced by the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, KMUW, Kansas Public Radio and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.
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