By HOPE O’DELL
Capital News Service
LANSING – The average distance to an abortion provider near Detroit or Grand Rapids is less than 15 miles.
But in other areas of Michigan, it can range up to more than 180 miles in the Eastern Upper Peninsula, according to a study in the journal Lancet Public Health.
“The further you are from a clinic, the less likely you are to obtain an abortion or services if you seek them,” said Joelle Abramowitz, an assistant research scientist at the University of Michigan’s Survey Research Center.
Abortion providers are sparse in rural Michigan, which makes it more difficult for those who want an abortion to get one, Abramowitz said.
If the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, it may become even tougher, according to Abramowitz.
While the Lancet study was published in 2017, distance still inhibits access to general health care –– including reproductive health care –– in rural Michigan, Abramowitz said. That means those seeking abortions or other reproductive services, like birth control, must travel farther to get them, and often don’t make the drive.
“If you have less access to those kinds of services, to be able to get really reliable contraception, it makes it more likely that you could have an unplanned pregnancy,” she said.
In 2017, 87% of Michigan counties had no clinics that provided abortions, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research institution advocating for reproductive rights.
Those clinics accounted for 89.3% of abortions performed in Michigan in 2020, according to a Department of Health and Human Services report. Planned Parenthood has three clinics in Northern Michigan and the U.P. –– Petoskey, Traverse City and Marquette.
A January statewide poll by the Lansing survey research firm EPIC-MRA found significant support for abortion rights. Of those surveyed, 56% described themselves as pro-choice, 34% pro-life except to save a mother’s life and 10% said they were undecided or declined to answer that question.
The lack of providers is exacerbated by a state law that allows only physicians to provide abortions, not other clinicians like nurse practitioners, said Merissa Kovach, a policy strategist for ACLU Michigan.
Planned Parenthood uses remote providers throughout Michigan, which can provide those who live farther from clinics with access to abortions and other reproductive health care, said Angela Vasquez-Giroux, the vice president of communications at Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan.
But because of such laws and the stigma some have about abortions, access is still difficult.
“People should be able to get their health care needs met by their regular providers, but because abortion providers face harassment, patients are stigmatized and shamed for seeking abortion care,” Vasquez-Giroux said.
Such care is “specifically regulated by laws designed to make it hard to be an abortion provider. It can be challenging to find enough providers to meet patient demand,” she said.
Even with remote providers, distance can still be a problem – 67% of women who received an abortion at Planned Parenthood in Marquette came from another county, she said.
The distance from abortion clinics may mean that even if Michigan residents want an abortion, many choose not to get one.
Abortion rates in rural counties are dramatically lower than the state average of 14.9 per 1,000 Michigan women, according to Health and Human Services.
In Leelanau County, for example, it was 4.5. In Houghton County, it was 3.5.
Abramowitz said the economic consequences can be dire for women who want but don’t receive abortions.
“There has been some research showing the economic consequences of not being able to get an abortion when you want one,” she said. “And the findings are that people are in worse financial situations.”
For example, they are more likely to default on their bills, which can adversely impact their families, she said.
“If someone’s seeking an abortion and can’t get one, then that child that’s born is also living in that situation that’s less economically stable,” Abramowitz said.
Anna-Marie Visser, director of communications for the Lansing-based Right to Life Michigan, said the organization has over 150 pregnancy resource and adoption centers throughout the state.
“We have done a pretty good job of dispersing different pregnancy resource centers throughout the state so that women don’t feel like their only option is to go to an abortion facility,” Visser said.
The U.S. Supreme Court heard a challenge to Roe v. Wade in December, and a ruling pending.
If Roe v. Wade is overturned, Kovach said, abortion access in Michigan will be in a dangerous position due to a 1931 state law that criminalizes almost all abortions.
Visser said Right to Life is in favor of keeping that law on the books.
Abramowitz said nearby states have similar restrictive laws, so Pennsylvania and Illinois would be the closest states where Michigan residents could get abortions
“If you’re in rural areas or you’re in the UP, it’s even further to go,” Abramowitz said.
In 2019, 23 Michigan residents had abortions in Wisconsin, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. Wisconsin has a state law similar to Michigan’s that would criminalize doctors who perform abortions.
“When abortion is not accessible, then the promise of Roe v. Wade is only a right in name only,” Kovach said.