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Abortion access expands in Grand Rapids, after clinic restrictions repealed

The Planned Parenthood in Ann Arbor
Beth Weiler/Michigan Radio
Planned Parenthood's Power Family Health Center of Ann Arbor, one of just three (out of 14) Planned Parenthood clinics in Michigan that offered both procedural and medication abortion. Grand Rapids is now the fourth, due to the repeal of state restrictions on facilities providing more than 120 procedural abortions per year.

Grand Rapids patients once again have access to procedural abortions in their city, for the first time since the only clinic offering them there closed in September.

For months, West Michigan patients have had to travel to the Planned Parenthood in Kalamazoo (and sometimes to southeast Michigan or Chicago) where the waitlist was up to three weeks long. That’s after the Heritage Clinic for Women, the only procedural abortion clinic in Grand Rapids, closed following the death of its medical director.

But now Planned Parenthood of Michigan says it’s begun offering procedural abortions at its Grand Rapids health center, thanks to the repeal of clinic restrictions they say were intended to limit abortion access.

“Although we could offer medication abortions at our Grand Rapid health center, because of TRAP (Targeted Regulations of Abortion Providers) laws that were in effect … we were just unable to offer that service to our patients,” said Dr. Sarah Wallett, the chief medical operating officer of Planned Parenthood of Michigan.

“So when Heritage closed and we knew this was a possibility, we made a commitment to addressing what had become an abortion access crisis in West Michigan.”

The changing abortion landscape

Those restrictions were struck down as part of the Reproductive Health Act, which went into effect 90 days after Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, signed it in November. The legislation repealed some (but not all) abortion restrictions that remained on the books in Michigan after voters passed Proposal 3 in 2022. One of those was a requirement that then-Governor Rick Snyder, a Republican, enacted in 2012, requiring clinics providing 120 or more procedural abortions a year to be licensed as freestanding surgical outpatient facilities.

(Procedural abortions are provided in-clinic, unlike medication abortions, commonly called the "abortion pill." While medication abortions are safe and effective, they aren’t available after 11 weeks gestation. Procedural abortions are also quicker, involve shorter periods of pain, and have a slightly lower risk of being incomplete.)

Abortion providers have long argued the extensive facility requirements (which include creating a medical audit process for the state regulatory agency to review; submitting building construction plans or changes to the department for approval; and minimum ceiling heights and clearance width for certain doors) were medically unnecessary and politically motivated.

But abortion opponents say they helped ensure patient safety.

“We are concerned about the health and safety of women seeking abortions,” Genevieve Marnon, legislative director for Right to Life of Michigan, said via email Monday. “Women in the Grand Rapids area need to be on notice that their local Planned Parenthood started offering surgical abortions only after long-standing, common-sense health and safety regulations were removed from abortion clinics.

“Women are savvy enough to see the writing on the wall. There is no question that women are now at even greater risk when undergoing an abortion. For example, hallways in these clinics won’t even need to be wide enough for EMS workers and a stretcher to get through should emergency care be needed, and there will no longer be periodic inspections and oversight by the state. Women have Governor Whitmer and the Democrats in our state Legislature to blame for the heightened risks they now face in these clinics.”

But providers say those are scare tactics that simply aren’t borne out by the evidence. They point to the overwhelming medical consensus that legal abortion is a safe, common practice, in which fewer than 1% of cases involve significant complications (a much lower rate than childbirth.)

“Procedural abortion care is no different than miscarriage care, something that we could always provide in that building, but on a smaller scale,” Wallett said.

Accessing care

Instead, she said, the restrictions meant only a few of Planned Parenthood of Michigan’s 14 clinics could offer procedural abortions (Ann Arbor, Flint, Kalamazoo, and now Grand Rapids.)

The farther you have to travel and the longer you have to wait, the more expensive and stressful it is for patients, said Trési Ingram-Jolley, a patient navigator with PPMI. For instance, she said, patients who have to drive several hours may opt to stay overnight near the clinic, rather than endure a long ride home after the procedure.

“But then if you stay overnight, who's going to watch your kids? And then if someone's watching kids, are you paying [them?] And then it can all snowball. And I think that's the part that could be really frustrating, what some people don't anticipate. Because like when it's closer to you, you could just take the day off, take a half day, it's done.”

Planned Parenthood of Michigan is now considering whether — and how — to offer procedural abortion at additional clinics, spokesperson Erica Shekell said via email Monday.

“Facility space, staffing, training and equipment are the main factors we’re considering when we’re evaluating which health clinics to expand procedural abortion services to,” she said. “Current laws still require physicians to provide abortions. We want to expand access to abortion without decreasing access to other health services we provide.”

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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