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Opinion | Planned Parenthood urges repeal of Michigan abortion restrictions

When a woman in the Upper Peninsula recently found herself unexpectedly pregnant, she knew what she wanted to do, so she quickly called and scheduled an appointment for a medication abortion with a local health care provider. The health center was about an hour drive from home, which she could manage. She wouldn’t need to take substantial time off work or worry too much about childcare.

Dr. Sarah Wallett is chief medical officer at Planned Parenthood of Michigan.

Unfortunately, she ended up one of the rare folks for whom medication abortion fails. And days later, was not only shocked to find out she was still pregnant, but devastated to learn that completing her care was going to be far more difficult than it had been the week before. 

Now, because she was just beyond the limits of when medication abortion can be used, she was forced to make a 7-hour drive across Michigan and back, take multiple days off work and find a way to pay for travel expenses like gas and a hotel just to get the in-clinic care she needed.

For those of us who live in urban areas, it’s hard to conceptualize how big a barrier that distance is for folks and how many additional logistics it requires to make it happen. But for many of the patients we see at Planned Parenthood of Michigan, this unnecessary hardship is far too common.

We’ve had other patients who are forced to make roundtrip journeys all at once, racking up as many as 15 or 16 hours on the road in a single day, because they have no other choice. They can’t get that extra time off of work; they can’t secure needed childcare, or they can’t afford a hotel room for the night. In extreme circumstances, some patients have forgone sedation so they can drive themselves home after the appointment because they don’t have a trusted friend or loved one who can make the arduous trip with them.

No one should be forced to make these kinds of choices, yet it happens almost every day in Michigan because of unnecessary and harmful TRAP laws that are still on our books.

TRAP laws – Targeted Regulations of Abortion Providers – are laws that explicitly target sexual and reproductive health care providers with excessive and medically-unnecessary regulations designed to shut down health centers. To be clear: these laws do nothing to enhance safety or to protect patients. They were written by politicians to deliberately block or severely restrict access to abortion – and they’re working.

Michigan’s TRAP laws require abortion providers to essentially construct mini-hospitals, with regulations dictating everything from hallway widths, ceiling heights, restroom sizes and HVAC systems. These medically irrelevant regulations create inflated financial burdens and logistical hurdles that limit our ability to provide care to the people who rely on us and they intentionally make it difficult for providers to build new health centers and expand into areas where we are needed most. 

Because when the high costs caused by TRAP laws are combined with restrictions on federal funding and other revenue sources, abortion providers are forced to think strategically. And for decades, have had to make difficult decisions to prioritize investments in infrastructure and services in areas where they can make the greatest impact for as many people as possible. Unfortunately, that means rural and less-densely populated areas of the state, like the Upper Peninsula, remain underserved. Repealing these TRAP laws won’t immediately solve this problem – it will take years to fully build the system that Michiganders deserve – but it will finally allow us to get started.

In addition to these TRAP laws, Michigan’s law books are riddled with abortion restrictions that directly target patients. 

For instance, Michigan mandates a 24-hour delay for abortion appointments that requires patients to visit a specific website, print out and sign a form, and bring a copy with them to their appointment. And this form must be printed (and timestamped) within a very specific timeframe in order to be legally valid. Because of this excessively restrictive requirement, we are forced to turn away patients almost every single day. 

Sometimes the patient printed their form only a few hours too late or they printed it in advance of their appointment and it expired. Or they forgot the form at their hotel or their home – and their home is a 7-hour drive away. These simple mistakes can exponentially increase the cost of accessing care by forcing patients to take additional days off work, and to pay for hotel stays, childcare and more. 

Every day, Michiganders suffer the consequences of these cruel and unnecessary laws, forced to undergo experiences that are more difficult, logistically complicated and far more expensive than they should be.

This is in direct conflict with the will of Michigan voters who turned out in record numbers to enshrine the right to reproductive freedom in our state constitution. The state legislature must follow through on the mandate issued by Michigan voters by repealing Michigan’s outdated and unconstitutional laws restricting access to abortion and ensure that abortion is treated like all other health care, with regulations that reflect current medical standards. 

Voters overwhelmingly supported Prop 3 last year – now it’s time legislators finish the job.

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