In 1966, 15-year-old Renee Chelian lay down, blindfolded, in the back seat of a stranger’s car and rode to a Detroit warehouse packed with other patients for a pre-Roe, illegal abortion. Her parents arranged it on the phone, using code words because they shared the line with neighboring houses and feared prosecution. It cost $3,000 — nearly $27,000 today — and she had to return home to pass the pregnancy, painfully, over many hours, into the toilet.
She was admonished by her parents never to speak of it and told no one would marry her if they knew. For two decades, she didn’t say a word.
Yet Chelian described her abortion as feeling like a second chance from God — a rescue from having to drop out of school, marry her 16-year-old boyfriend and abandon her career dreams. Today, she runs Northland Family Planning Center — a group of clinics in the Detroit and Ann Arbor suburbs — with her two daughters, and, like hundreds of abortion providers across the country, is waiting to learn whether a Supreme Court decision, expected in the coming weeks, will force her to close her doors.
“The idea that we’re going back to where we were when I started my career makes me sick to my stomach,” she told WEBICNEWS in the conference room of one of her clinics.
Chelian now is among the tens of thousands of providers, lawmakers and volunteers fighting to keep the state law that necessitated her covert abortion decades ago from once again taking effect should federal protections fall.
The uncertainty over Michigan’s 1931 law, which has no exceptions for rape or incest, has providers like her preparing for two scenarios: a near-total ban that could make them close their practices, or, if one of their strategies to block the 90-year-old law succeeds, and abortion is protected, a surge of patients from Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin and other nearby states that could overwhelm their resources.
At the same time, conservative officials, candidates and advocates who are fighting to preserve the state’s abortion ban in court, in the capitol in Lansing, and on the campaign trail are grappling with a different set of questions: should they enforce the 1931 ban if the Supreme Court gives a green light or pass an updated and possibly more moderate version? And how harshly should the state punish violators?
“I don’t know where we will land on that,” said Rep. Pam Hornberger, the Republican speaker pro-tempore of the Michigan state legislature. “None of us are thinking we’re going to let this 1931 law go back into effect and people are going to start getting arrested. Instead, we are fully prepared to have those difficult conversations with our colleagues.”
Republicans, many of whom are hesitant to discuss the potential ban, are also split over whether the state needs to boost health care or child care funding or make other preparations for either a ban or a surge in demand — even as health care workers across the state warn that patients could be in serious risk in just a matter of weeks.
“I’m worried we’re going to start seeing more patients from out of state, sicker patients, and patients who are further along in their pregnancies because they’ve had to figure out how to afford the trip,” Sarah Wallett, the chief medical officer of Planned Parenthood of Michigan, told WEBICNEWS. “I’m also afraid that if there’s a surge, something will have to give. Will that be birth control? STD screenings?”
Sitting in the lobby of the group’s Ann Arbor clinic in navy blue scrubs and a silver necklace reading “1973” — the year Roe was decided — Wallett explained that the clinic doubled its capacity at the end of last year. The group also has tried to recruit more doctors, nurses and medical assistants, but have struggled to do so as pandemic burnout plagues the health care workforce.
But Wallett, who is also the lead plaintiff in Planned Parenthood’s lawsuit against the state’s 1931 abortion ban, said despite a preliminary injunction the group recently won in that case, they’re also preparing for the ban taking effect.
“I get teary-eyed just thinking about it, but we have been developing a plan for if the Supreme Court decision comes down in the middle of the day when patients are here, and we have to look them in the eye and tell them: ‘I have the ability to help you, but I won’t because I’d be committing a felony,’” she said.
In Michigan, providers could face up to 15 years in prison for violating the state’s ban if the Supreme Court allows it to be enforced. And as Texas — which last September banned most abortions — demonstrated, few, if any, providers are willing to violate the bans given the threat of prosecution and lengthy prison sentences.
A decision overturning Roe v. Wade would almost immediately outlaw abortion in nearly half of states, leaving millions to choose among terminating their pregnancy with pills ordered online, carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term or employing the same underground and risky methods as Chelian turned to nearly 60 years ago.
“While my heart does break for what’s going to happen everywhere else, I’m not letting myself go there right now,” Chelian said. “I’m putting every bit of energy I have into keeping Michigan a safe state not just for the people who are from Michigan but for those people who are going to have to travel from other states.”
Chelian is preparing for Michigan’s ban to potentially take effect by putting away funds so her clinics can keep paying rent and for around-the-clock security guards even if they have to temporarily shut down while waiting for either the lawsuits or ballot initiative to restore abortion rights.
She’s also preparing for a potential patient surge, weighing the possibility of opening a new clinic that just provides abortion pills so that her existing clinics can handle more patients who need a surgical procedure. She’s also in touch with Ohio clinics that are less than an hour away, and may be forced to close if Roe falls, to discuss whether they can do an ultrasound and blood test on patients before sending them to Chelian’s clinic for the abortion itself.