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Opinion: This abortion provider's mission was inspired by her illegal abortion at 16

ChelianRenee
Mandi Wright
/
Detroit Free Press
Renee Chelian, executive director and founder of Northland Planning Centers, poses Friday, June 24, 2022.

It was quiet at Northland Family Planning, so quiet that it was hard to believe anything unusual had happened.

The day's patients were gone. A staff member worked alone at the front desk. Renee Chelian, the abortion clinic's founder and executive director, couldn't stop crying.

It was Friday, June 24, in the clinic Chelian built, a place where women and girls can find the care and compassion she couldn't, and it had been just hours since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned its 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade, the decision that affirmed American women's constitutional right to abortion.

For five decades, Renee, now 71, has been the woman she wishes had been there for her in the summer of 1966, when she was a scared, pregnant teenager: The woman who holds your hand and tells you everything will be all right. Who makes sure her clinic is clean, and safe, and comfortable; that the lighting in the exam rooms is gentle, that the soap in the washroom smells nice, anything that could make the hardest day of your life just a little bit easier. Who cares enough to say no, when she sees that a patient isn't sure whether to end a pregnancy. The woman who can't quit, and who knows she cannot fail.

It has been 49 years since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states could not bar American women from access to abortion, granting women the full citizenship a person can only claim when she has the right to control her own body.

AbortionRightsPatch
Mandi Wright
/
Detroit Free Press
Renee Chelian started Northland Planning Centers in 1976.

On June 24, the court's six-justice conservative majority determined that Roe had been wrongly decided, that the right to privacy first identified in 1965 in Griswold v. Connecticut, a ruling that barred states from restricting access to birth control, did not exist, and that the right to abortion was not rooted in our nation's history and traditions.

In Michigan, that means abortion might become a crime again, like it was in 1966 when 15-year-old Renee got an illegal abortion in a Detroit warehouse, a procedure that would have killed her if not for antibiotics and a doctor who was willing to prescribe them.

The high court's 1973 ruling rendered a 1931 law criminalizing abortion unenforceable, so Michigan's Legislature never repealed it. With Roe out of the way, abortion would be a crime here, if not for two lawsuits asking state courts to declare that the old law violates Michigan's constitution, and a state judge who issued an injunction barring enforcement of the law while the cases are pending.

So for now, abortion is legal in Michigan. Abortion rights advocates are also collecting signatures for a petition drive to place a constitutional amendment before voters this fall that would enshrine not just abortion rights but access to contraception. If the amendment passes, Northland Family Planning won't have to close.

1966

Renee Chelian was 15, and she had just finished her sophomore year of high school. She knew she was pregnant, and she was terrified.

Her 16-year-old boyfriend had been trying to talk her into having sex, and she'd said no, over and over. He had broken up with Renee, started dating her friend. They lived in the small community of Highland Park, where everyone knew each other's business, and everyone said that the friend was sleeping with him. When he asked Renee to get back together, she knew what she was agreeing to. The boyfriend tried to buy condoms. No one would sell them to him, but her boyfriend thought he could pull out. Renee figured, later, that she got pregnant the first time.

Trying to hide her condition, she wrapped up pristine maxi pads and tossed them in the bathroom trash. She thought about ending her life. One night, she found a razor, and filled the bathtub with hot water. She cut her thumb, and realized she couldn't do it — she couldn't let her parents find her this way.

Finally, her mother figured it out. In 1966, there weren't a lot of options, so Renee was packing a suitcase, preparing to marry her boyfriend and move to Ohio to live with his relatives — this would mean leaving high school to become a wife and mother — the night her parents came into her bedroom. The boyfriend's politically connected father had found a doctor who would perform an abortion.

Renee didn't know what an abortion was, but she knew it was a lifeline.

"I said to my mom, 'I would do anything not to be pregnant,' " she said. "I really felt like God had given me a second chance at my life."

The boyfriend's father paid for the procedure, more than $22,000 in today's dollars; Renee's family didn't have that kind of money.

On the appointed day, she and her father met another man in a nearby parking lot. He blindfolded them, and took Renee and her father to what seemed like a warehouse. It was packed with women and girls, and it wasn't very clean. Renee was afraid to look at anyone, fearful that if she violated some unwritten rule she'd be denied the abortion.

She doesn't remember a lot about that day. She was put under, and when she woke up, someone was telling her father that she had been farther along than they thought. They'd packed her uterus with gauze. In a few days, they explained, she would go into labor. The family's doctor had referred her parents to another gynecologist, newly arrived from South America, who had lost a family member to an illegal abortion. He prescribed antibiotics.

It took more than a week, and a trip to another warehouse.

A few days after the second visit, she went into labor. It was hot that day, probably a hundred degrees, but the windows at home were closed, so no one could hear her scream. When it was over, the boyfriend's father paid another $200 — nearly $2,000, in today's dollars — and someone came by to dispose of the evidence.

Renee's father spoke to her very seriously that night.

"'You can never tell anyone, because no man will ever marry you if he knows that this has happened. You're going to be OK. We're going to take care of you. After this conversation, we'll never discuss it again.'"

1976

Renee had been working in abortion clinics for three years, since Roe made the procedure legal in Michigan. Before that, she'd booked flights for Michigan women to Buffalo, where abortions could be legally performed.

She worked, at first, with that South American doctor who had saved her life, but Renee had grown frustrated with his rigid approach to medicine.

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Patricia Beck
/
Detroit Free Press
Renee Chelian at her clinic in 1992.

The clinics she'd worked in were clean, but she wanted spotless. Anyone who walked in should feel so safe that they'd bring their own daughter there. She wanted the clinic to be pretty, so patients would feel valued, that they would know Renee and her staff had considered what might please them. She wanted to give them information without an office visit, a formality most doctors insisted on. She wanted to offer counseling, to help patients reach the decision that felt right, whether that meant having an abortion, or keeping the baby.

What Renee wanted was a refuge, and she knew that no physician could create it. It was compassionate care, a new model built by Renee and that first generation of abortion providers.

She and her husband had been saving for a house, and they'd saved $100,000. Renee asked him, "What if I use this money to open a clinic?

"He said, 'Do you think you can succeed?' I said, 'Well, I don't think I can fail.' And that was that."

1982

Renee had never told anyone her story, just as her father had instructed, not even her husband. But it was 1982. NARAL, the National Abortion Rights Action League, was calling for a "speak out," and Renee knew it was time.

First, she talked to her parents. Her mother understood. Her father ... he didn't approve, but he trusted her instincts.

When she told her husband, he shared his own experience with her: A former Highland Park police officer, before Roe, part of his job had been to go to the local emergency rooms and interrogate women who'd been admitted for complications from illegal abortions. Feverish, bleeding, they looked sick, and Renee's husband was supposed to badger them about who'd performed the procedure. He'd hated it, he told her. He did everything he could to avoid it.

Renee wanted to tell her mother-in-law, too. They shared a last name, and it only seemed fair.

"We told her in the car driving to Frankenmuth. My mother-in-law was born in Syria, and she was very old country. I was in the back seat, and I leaned forward, and I started telling her, and she told me, 'Good for you. I almost died of an illegal abortion in Syria.' My husband took the car off the road, back on the road, I thought he was going to have a heart attack. And she's like, 'I'm really proud of you. Because nobody should have to risk their life.' That was the first time somebody else told me their abortion story."

She also told her ex-boyfriend.

"Anybody who knew us was going to know who I was pregnant by. I met with him for lunch. He told me that his father sent him away to camp, because his father was worried that he would not stay away from my house. While he was at camp, he said he wanted to kill himself, because he thought I was going die, and he was cut off from everything. He didn't have anybody to talk to. When he came to visit me when he came home, I kept him in an arm's length, because we couldn't talk about this."

After high school, he joined the army, and served in Vietnam. He'd volunteered for the most dangerous missions, the suicide missions, and got hooked on painkillers because of injuries he sustained. He later died of a drug overdose.

He has helped Renee to understand that men, too, have a role in this process. "If the patient is OK with us talking to them, we try to include them. Because from my own personal experience, they're just as scared."

Now

In 1980, and 1983, Renee had opened two more clinics. Everything she hoped has come to pass: Northland is a quiet, helpful place. A refuge.

Except for the protesters.

Most Saturdays, anti-abortion protesters throng the road leading to the Westland clinic, intent on harassing Northland's patients.

Signs at the turnoff direct patients not to lower their windows, not to stop. Escorts wait in the parking lot to help patients inside, shielding them with umbrellas. There are armed security guards, at least two, every Saturday. When Renee had a wall of trees planted around Northland's parking lot, protesters started bringing ladders. One man would climb his ladder, leaning over the tree line to point his AK-47 at the clinic, until Renee called the police, and the police told the man to knock it off. Now, he carries the weapon in a duffel bag.

Open carry is his right, he has explained to Renee, protected by the U.S. Constitution.

Renee doesn't really like to talk about the protesters; the women her clinic treats have been through enough. They're tired, they're worried, and they're scared, and knowing that someone with an AK-47 might be waiting at the end of this long, unwelcome journey might be just too much. Of course, that's what the protesters want.

And now, they've kind of won. The Saturday after the court ruled, they didn't show up. Probably celebrating somewhere, Renee figured.

That Friday morning, Renee was putting on makeup, the U.S. Supreme Court news site SCOTUSblog up on her phone. She didn't think the ruling would land that day, and when it did, she started to sob.

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Mandi Wright
/
Detroit Free Press
Renee Chelian at one of her Northland Family Planning clinics on June 24, 2022.

"My daughters both called me right away. Then the people in the management team at the clinic. Family members (of patients waiting at the clinic) had called and told their daughters, and everybody was crying. We had something that was going up on our Facebook to let patients know that abortion was legal, that we were operating under a court order, and they didn't have to rush in. It's reassuring staff, reassuring patients, that we would never do anything illegal. I texted with our attorneys. To be perfectly honest, I don't even know how many text messages I got. There was media, and also former employees who wanted to come back, or who want to know, what can I do? And lots of condolences."

She was heartbroken. She was also angry.

She still is.

Northland is open. Renee believes — and polling suggests — that the constitutional amendment will pass this fall, and that abortion rights will be safe here in Michigan. But Renee worries about women who live in deep red states. Like Mississippi, where Illinois is now the closest place for legal abortion. Or Ohio, where a six-week abortion ban passed before the day was out.

No exception for rape or incest or the life of the pregnant person can account for the totality of a woman's experience, of the moments that brought her here, to this clinic. To Renee.

"The patient comes here, because in her life situation, she can't have another baby. Women are not stupid. The decision about bringing new life into the world is not one that I have ever seen a patient take lightly."

Patients, she said, don't skirt around the word "baby."

"They don't come in and say, 'I'm exercising my constitutional right.' They come in and say, 'I can't have a baby right now.' The other side would have us believe that they didn't think about this. Nothing could be farther from the truth."

That is what Renee has learned, in five decades of service: Everybody's story means everything, to them.

But she’s not going to quit. She can’t quit.

Nancy Kaffer is a columnist and member of the Detroit Free Press Editorial Board. She writes about politics, policy and the complicated relationship between the two. Kaffer covers state, local and national politics. She joined the Free Press in 2012, and previously worked at Crain's Detroit Business, the Hattiesburg (Miss.) American, Metro Times and the Dearborn Press & Guide.
Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Radio in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
Rachel Ishikawa joined Michigan Radio in 2020 as a podcast producer. She produced Kids These Days, a limited-run series that launched in the Summer of 2020.
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