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Michigan abortion clinics see record surge in calls, appointments

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Jodi Westrick
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Abortion supporters and opponents rally in Ann Arbor

There simply weren’t enough people to answer the roughly 1,000 calls that poured into Planned Parenthood of Michigan on Friday, as patients scrambled to see if their appointments were still on, ask for emergency birth control, or make an appointment for an abortion in the hours after the U.S. Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade. 

“We are seeing an increase in patients requesting abortions,” said Dr. Sarah Wallett, chief medical officer of PPMI, on Wednesday. “Just on Friday, we had a 50% increase in abortion appointment booking alone … and overall, including other services other than abortion, we had the most appointments booked that we’ve had this entire calendar year.” And on PPMI’s telemedicine app, requests for emergency contraception shot up 12%.

“Our patients needed that reassurance that we were going to keep seeing them, and we weren’t going to turn them away,” Wallet said. “And throughout the day, we got lots of questions from patients who were already in the health center, and hundreds of phone calls to our call center just asking: Are we still providing abortions? Can I still come to my appointment? It was a very overwhelming, emotional day.”

Wallett, who now has the word “dissent” temporarily inked on her finger with henna, has been running on adrenaline since Friday’s ruling. She spent most of her morning in staff meetings, trying to figure out how their clinics could expand to meet the growing demand, both from Michigan residents and out-of-state patients traveling from places like Ohio, and even Texas.

While solidly blue states like Illinois and New York knew they’d be drawing travelers seeking legal abortions in a post-Roe world, many Michigan providers assumed the state’s 1931 abortion ban meant they’d be trying to help get patients out of the state, not helping them come in. Instead, thanks to a court order temporarily blocking the 1931 law from going into effect, they’re trying to meet a surge in demand from both Michigan residents and those fleeing abortion bans in other states.

She said Ohio is the source of many of the calls because last week, just hours after the Supreme Court's ruling, the state's ban on abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy became law.

“Our call center is definitely getting tons of calls from Ohio, especially from patients who had appointments in Ohio already that were abruptly canceled,” said Dr. Audrey Lance, an OB-GYN at Northland Family Planning. “Understandably, many of them are pretty panicked to get an appointment. And it's only going to continue. We anticipate this need for patients in Ohio to be seen … will continue for the foreseeable future now.”

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Jodi Westrick
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Marchers at a Planned Parenthood rally in Ann Arbor this spring.

So far, Lance said, Northland’s clinics have been able to stretch their resources. “But at the end of the day, there are only so many patients that can be seen in a day. There are just limits to our human capacity to see a certain number of patients. And so we're trying to maximize that by streamlining our processes in the clinic… [but] our Michigan patients are impacted too by now having the same number of appointments available, but having to share those with patients from out of state.”

Planned Parenthood of Michigan is trying to add staff to be able to offer more abortion appointments, Wallett said, but that kind of expansion is going to take time. “Getting an abortion in Michigan already isn’t easy,” she said. “People just from Michigan often have to wait for an appointment one week, two weeks, sometimes three weeks. Those waits will just get longer as more people try to access care, in the same limited number of health centers that provide abortion.”

Since the Supreme Court’s ruling, Michigan regulators and Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel have assured healthcare providers that the state court’s injunction provides them full legal protection. But prosecutors in at least two counties have said they believe the injunction doesn’t apply to county prosecutors, and are fighting it in court. An attorney for Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker and Jackson County Prosecutor Jerry Jarzynka said both prosecutors believe they can currently prosecute doctors who perform abortions.

“It is absolutely terrifying,” Lance said. “And one of the counties that we work in, Macomb County, the prosecutor there has also, prior to that [Roe] decision, made suggestions that he would do similar things. … But I've spent my entire career dealing with scare tactics. I get hate mail in my mail. I get picketers outside our clinic... . And so when we know we are absolutely within our legal rights to be continuing to provide care, we're not going to let this stop us.”

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health and the COVID-19 pandemic.