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Michigan abortion providers scramble to figure out what a court ruling means

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Here's what flip-flopping court rulings can be like for abortion providers. First thing Monday morning, abortion was legal in Michigan. Then it wasn't. By the end of the day, it was legal again. All this confusion and chaos is coming just as Michigan is seeing a surge in increasingly desperate patients seeking abortions from out of state. Michigan Radio's Kate Wells reports.

KATE WELLS, BYLINE: Dr. Audrey Lance is an OB-GYN, and Monday morning she shows up to work at Northland Family Planning Centers in Metro Detroit, and then she gets a call from her boss.

AUDREY LANCE: We had to immediately halt kind of what we were doing.

WELLS: That's because the Michigan Court of Appeals had just ruled that local county prosecutors can enforce the state's 1931 abortion ban. And Lance suddenly had no idea whether this meant she could face felony charges for providing abortions.

LANCE: And felt a total gut punch and in real time trying to figure out what this means for the patients that are literally sitting in my clinic.

WELLS: Some of those patients were in the middle of getting ultrasounds or others were in counseling sessions. The clinics have been packed lately, and the waitlists keep getting longer. So Lace goes out to her patients, and she tells them, I am so sorry.

LANCE: We wanted to do our very best to take care of them, but that we had to stop for the time being to figure out what we were legally going to be able to do.

WELLS: Some of these patients had driven hours or taken flights just to get to Michigan. The state has seen a wave of patients coming from Ohio, Wisconsin, even as far away as Texas. Planned Parenthood of Michigan says the number of abortion patients coming to them from other states has tripled since the Supreme Court's decision. Lance says one of her recent patients was a young girl who drove seven hours with her mom from Milwaukee, had her appointment, turned around and drove home. Another patient was so frantic that when Lance was going over some of the medical risks with her...

LANCE: She kind of cut me off and said, it's fine. I don't care what the risks are. You could shoot me in my uterus. I just absolutely cannot have another child.

WELLS: Some of these patients coming to Michigan already had abortion appointments in their home states canceled. Dr. Lisa Harris is a professor and OB-GYN at the University of Michigan's health system. And she says one of her patients was a woman who decided to get an abortion because her young son was diagnosed with cancer.

LISA HARRIS: And she couldn't continue the pregnancy and care for her son with all his medical needs and had her appointment and another state canceled at the last minute. It took her a couple of weeks to find care with us in Michigan. And ultimately she had her abortion procedure the day before her child was about to have major cancer surgery.

WELLS: But Monday morning after this court ruling, Harris said they had to tell patients, look, you may need to go to yet another state for your abortion. Then around 5 p.m. on Monday night, another big court ruling - a different judge issued a temporary restraining order that once again made it illegal to enforce Michigan's abortion ban. Late yesterday, that judge decided to keep the temporary restraining order in place, at least for a couple of weeks, when there will be yet another hearing. If this sounds confusing and chaotic, Lance says, it is.

LANCE: It's confusing even to lawyers, let alone a layperson who is just trying to figure out if their appointment is still booked or not.

WELLS: Harris says the most important message for patients right now is that abortion is still legal in Michigan.

HARRIS: But if people don't know that or have doubts about it or are afraid of driving seven hours only to be turned away, which is what happened to some patients on Monday, yes, they will probably think twice or not think Michigan is going to be a welcoming place for their care.

WELLS: All of this confusion could be cleared up if the state Supreme Court steps in or if voters decide in November that there should be an amendment protecting abortion in Michigan. Until then, the right to an abortion in Michigan depends on the next court ruling, whatever that is.

For NPR News, I'm Kate Wells in Michigan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist and co-host of the Michigan Radio and NPR podcast Believed. The series was widely ranked among the best of the year, drawing millions of downloads and numerous awards. She and co-host Lindsey Smith received the prestigious Livingston Award for Young Journalists. Judges described their work as "a haunting and multifaceted account of U.S.A. Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar’s belated arrest and an intimate look at how an army of women – a detective, a prosecutor and survivors – brought down the serial sex offender."