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What might happen to Duluth abortion access if Roe v. Wade is overturned?

WE Health Clinic, the only abortion provider in northern Minnesota, northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula, could become more in demand for out-of-state patients.

clinic escort outside of the WE Health Clinic
Ollie Morris, lead clinic escort/recovery room assistant, stands outside the WE Health Clinic at the Building for Women in Duluth on Friday morning. Protesters and patient escorts can be seen in the background.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — If Roe v. Wade is overturned, as it is rumored to be in a leaked draft from the U.S. Supreme Court, abortion would still be available in Duluth. However, it may become harder to access.

Laurie Casey, executive director of WE Health Clinic in Duluth, said clinics that perform abortions in the Twin Cities area are seeing wait times of up to six weeks, partially because out-of-state patients are coming from places like Texas to receive an abortion.

woman at a protest tries to get someone's attention
Sarah Winandy, assistant director of Pro-Life Ministries of Duluth, left, tries to get the attention of a patient who arrived at the WE Health Clinic in Duluth on Friday. A clinic escort stands on the other side of the gate. Members of Pro-Life Ministries gathered outside the clinic to protest abortions.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

WE Health Clinic is the only place in the Northland that performs abortions, and serves people from northern Minnesota and Wisconsin, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and sometimes North Dakota. Casey said WE Health Clinic is currently able to schedule patients within about a week of their appointment request.

“We are seeing people from the Twin Cities area, and even Eau Claire, Wisconsin, coming to our clinic because our waiting time to get an appointment is less than what it is in the Twin Cities,” Casey said.

The 1973 Roe v. Wade case established that abortion is a constitutional right up to 24 weeks of pregnancy. The U.S. Supreme Court decision draft leaked May 2 was confirmed to be authentic, but does not reflect a final decision. The final decision is expected to be announced and go into effect in the next two months.

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If the Supreme Court ruling is overturned, the decision would fall to states about whether to ban or legalize abortions, and Minnesota could almost become an island for legal abortion access. North Dakota and South Dakota are among states with “trigger bans,” which would immediately ban abortion if Roe v. Wade is no longer in effect.

Abortion rights groups have sued the state in an effort to repeal Minnesota laws that set a waiting period to access an abortion, require that physicians perform the procedures and mandates that clinics collect information about patients.

A Wisconsin statute would also make abortion illegal because it hasn’t been repealed in the 49 years since the Roe v. Wade decision, despite being unenforceable. Iowa law protects the right to abortion, but hearings later this year could allow legislatures to change that.

In 2020, which is the latest data available, 9,108 abortions were performed in Minnesota. Of those, 859 came from out-of-state patients. Casey said WE Health performed 462 abortions last year, and the clinic is on track to do a similar amount in 2022 — unless its patient volumes increase, in which case the clinic would need to perform abortions more than just one day a week, like it does now.

clothing that reads Give Life A Chance
A protester with Pro-Life Ministries of Duluth stands outside the WE Health Clinic in Duluth on Friday morning.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

Paulina Briggs, a lab technician at WE Health Clinic, said she foresees more patients coming from the Twin Cities because it will become harder to get an appointment there, and many people seeking abortions can’t wait several weeks for risk of passing the limit of when an abortion can be performed. Duluth can provide abortions within the first 15 weeks of pregnancy, and clinics in the Twin Cities provide for up to 24 weeks gestational age.

Tom Schaer, director of Pro-Life Ministries of Duluth, said the thought of more abortions taking place in Duluth makes him both sad and angry. The ministry's volunteers frequently stand outside WE Health Clinic on days abortions are performed to act as sidewalk counselors, with the goal of talking patients out of obtaining abortions.

the WE Health Clinic at the Building for Women in Duluth
Protesters and patient escorts stand outside an entrance at the Building for Women in Duluth, where the WE Health Clinic is located, on Friday morning.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

“We, too, are readying ourselves to continue to be there on perhaps a more consistent basis, perhaps a longer time, and looking to be the kindness of God there to intervene at the last minute for some to be saved,” Schaer said.

The group was outside the clinic Friday, as were clinic escorts, who volunteer to bring women to their appointments at WE Health. Pro-Life Ministries Assistant Director Sarah Winandy said the clinic escorts play very loud music, forcing her to shout in order to talk to the people going to appointments.

“Our organization seeks to engage in those conversations wherever we go, but the last opportunity that we see is at WE Clinic here in Duluth, just offering hope and love to moms,” Schaer said.

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WE Health Clinic in Duluth performs medication and suction abortions. It also offers telehealth visits for medication abortions, which mail abortion pills to patients. However, clients must call the doctor from within Minnesota and must receive the medication at a Minnesota address. A change in the Roe v. Wade ruling would not change those guidelines.

Since the start of President Joe Biden's administration, Democrats have wrestled with repealing or modifying the long-held filibuster rule requiring at least 60 votes in the 100-member chamber to advance most legislation, as a way to get around their razor-thin majorities.

“We help women control when, and if they ever want to, become pregnant,” Casey said. “I think we have a really great clinic that’s not judgmental.”

Briggs said that despite abortion remaining legal in Minnesota regardless of the ruling being overturned, other barriers exist for people seeking abortions, including the Women’s Right to Know Act, which requires a patient to receive information from a physician at least 24 hours before an appointment or their abortion could be canceled. She said many patients seen at the clinic don’t have reliable phone access and struggle to keep appointments as a result.

Another barrier is cost. While WE Health does have some funds to assist patients with payment, most patients will pay the $700 for abortions out-of-pocket. MinnesotaCare will offer medical assistance for abortions if the pregnancy will cause mental, emotional or physical health impacts, but Briggs said the medical assistance is less than $300, so the clinic is hit with substantial revenue loss.

escorts surround a patient entering a building
Clinic escorts surround arrivals to the WE Health Clinic in Duluth on Friday.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

“It’s important to our mission to serve people who are at risk of unintended pregnancy, and people who are low-income, so we always are trying to look for ways that we can try to fill that gap between what it actually costs us to provide the service and what we get reimbursed,” Casey said.

In a column written for the Duluth News Tribune earlier this year, The Most Rev. Daniel Felton of the Catholic Diocese of Duluth acknowledged that regardless of what happens with Roe v. Wade, the debate about people's opinions will remain.

a lady wearing a button
Connie Joppa, of Duluth, protests outside the WE Health Clinic in Duluth on Friday morning.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

"We Catholics continue, too, to seek ways to limit abortion while it remains legal, and I note that even many who favor legal abortion generally agree with us in favoring reasonable regulations that would make abortions safer for mothers or restrict it to the earlier stages of pregnancy," he wrote in January. "We recognize, of course, that many Minnesotans disagree with the Catholic church on abortion, but there is a place where we can find common ground: trying to be there for women in difficult circumstances to reduce the demand for abortion.

"Whatever our views on the legality of abortion may be, surely we can all agree that a Minnesota in which no pregnant mother feels so desperate that abortion looks like the only way out of a crisis is a better Minnesota," Felton wrote.

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a clinic escort walks between protesters
A clinic escort walks between protesters from Pro-Life Ministries of Duluth near an entrance of the WE Health Clinic on Friday morning.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

Besides abortions, WE Health provides birth control, free condoms and emergency contraception, physical exams and gynecology, gender-affirming hormones, sexual health education and STD testing for all genders.

Schaer said Pro-Life Ministries is there for support and counseling, and has helped mothers in need by buying them groceries and hosting baby showers. Schaer said he urges people considering abortion to instead consider parenting, and if not, to turn to adoption instead. He has adopted and fostered children.

The Women’s Care Center, located across First Avenue East from WE Health at 103 E. First St., provides free counseling, support, education, pregnancy tests and ultrasounds. A representative said the organization does not comment on any political matters, including Roe v. Wade, and was unable to say whether the center expects any changes in patient volumes following a change in ruling.

Lawyers and scholars backing abortion rights have criticized Alito's reading of history as glossing over disputed facts and ignoring relevant details as the conservative justice sought to demonstrate that a woman's constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy was wrongly recognized in the Roe ruling.

According to the center’s website, counselors will discuss the procedures and steps of an abortion with clients to see if it is the best choice for them, but the Women’s Care Center does not perform abortions.

Star of the North Maternity Home, which has locations in Duluth and Hibbing, provides housing for pregnant women and mothers with infants who don't have secure housing.

Planned Parenthood’s Duluth location offers men’s and women’s health care, STD testing, birth control, emergency contraception and pregnancy testing and services. The center provides abortion referrals, but does not perform abortions.

The Lake Superior Life Care Center in Superior offers post-abortion counseling to help patients experiencing grief, anxiety, depression and other mental health symptoms after receiving an abortion. The center also offers free pregnancy testing and ultrasounds and maternal education.

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Earlier this month, Traverse County Attorney Matthew Franzese filed a petition with District Court Judge Thomas Gilligan Jr. asking to intervene in the case. Gilligan in July handed a victory to abortion providers who had filed a lawsuit in 2019 challenging state regulations, including a 24-hour wait period for the procedure.

Laura Butterbrodt covers health for the Duluth News Tribune. She has a bachelor of arts in journalism from South Dakota State University and has been working as a reporter in Minnesota and South Dakota since 2014.
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