After years of battling, South Bend's only abortion clinic forced into closing next month

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SOUTH BEND — Nearly five years after Whole Woman's Health Alliance first sought to open a South Bend clinic, the abortion provider will close next month after Indiana legislators passed a ban on almost all abortions starting Sept. 15.

“Really the decision was made for us," Midwest Advocacy Director Sharon Lau said Tuesday. "It's not surprising. We will be continuing to see patients up until the ban law goes into effect, and after that time, we will have to close the clinic.”

The lone abortion provider in South Bend, Whole Woman's Health is one of seven licensed clinics in Indiana. Since opening in June 2019, it has provided more than 1,100 medication abortions, according to a clinic spokeswoman.

The seven Indiana abortion clinics whose licensure will be terminated by the new law perform 98% of abortions in the state, data shows.

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The law permits abortions only in cases of rape, incest, a fatal fetal abnormality, or a threat to the life and health of the mother. Victims of rape or incest have up to 10 weeks after becoming pregnant to have an abortion. The procedure can occur only at hospitals and ambulatory outpatient surgical centers owned by hospitals.

Reverend Chip Roush blesses the waiting room along side Sharon Lau during a blessing for the facility Thursday, May 12, 2022, at Whole Woman's Health in South Bend.
Reverend Chip Roush blesses the waiting room along side Sharon Lau during a blessing for the facility Thursday, May 12, 2022, at Whole Woman's Health in South Bend.

Once Indiana abortion providers close Sept. 15, the closest facility offering the procedure will be Planned Parenthood Kalamazoo, 75 miles from South Bend. Abortion remains legal in Michigan while a 1931 abortion ban is blocked by a court order.

The next closest provider is Family Planning Associates Chicago, 100 miles from South Bend, according to Pro Choice South Bend, a local group that offers information to people seeking an abortion.

“It's incredibly disheartening," Lau said. "These bans are cruel and inhumane, and they literally are taking away the safest option for a lot of folks who are pregnant."

The consultation room of the facility is shown Thursday, May 12, 2022, at Whole Woman's Health Alliance in South Bend.
The consultation room of the facility is shown Thursday, May 12, 2022, at Whole Woman's Health Alliance in South Bend.

Clinic leaders say Whole Woman's Health will still serve people seeking abortions through the Abortion Wayfinder Program. Staffers help patients to arrange and pay for transportation, child care and lodging while connecting them with providers in states that continue to allow abortions.

The nonprofit established a pilot of the program in Illinois this spring. Because of Indiana's statewide ban on telehealth for abortions, Indiana residents must be in Illinois for every step of the health care process, which includes an appointment with a provider and shipment of a pill to an Illinois address. There is no mandatory waiting period between a consultation and an abortion in Illinois, unlike in Indiana and Michigan.

Whole Woman's Health continues to run clinics in Minnesota, Maryland and Virginia. Though the nonprofit has tentative plans to open a clinic near Chicago, its closest existing branch — in Bloomington, Minnesota — is more than 500 miles away from South Bend.

"We're going to do the best we can to get folks out of states that are turning their back on them," Lau said, "and to the states where they are able to get the care that they need.”

More:South Bend's lone abortion clinic had plans to expand. A tumultuous summer upended them.

The South Bend clinic's closure also means many of its 13 staff members will lose their jobs, Lau said. The same has been true for employees of four WWHA clinics that closed in Texas after that state implemented a ban. Lau said some workers will be placed in other jobs within the nonprofit where they're available.

Planned Parenthood Mishawaka, which doesn't provide abortions, will stay open and continue providing services such as birth control, emergency contraception and gender-affirming hormone care, according to Nicole Erwin, the communications manager for the regional organization. The clinic also will refer patients to out-of-state abortion providers.

"We’ve invested in our patient navigator team so that we can stay close and help guide patients through the process of getting care out of state, connecting with abortion funds, and providing follow up care in their home states," Erwin said in a statement.

Whole Woman's Health was first asked to open a clinic in South Bend in 2014, when a group of physicians, advocates and academics were anticipating the closure of the area's long-serving abortion provider, the Women's Pavilion.

The path to opening was full of obstacles. In early 2018, the Indiana Department of Health denied the Virginia-based nonprofit's application for a license to perform abortions, saying it lacked the "reputable and responsible character" necessary to run a clinic. More than a year later, clinic leaders were granted preliminary relief by a federal judge and began seeing patients in June 2019.

April Lidinsky, an Indiana University South Bend professor of women's and gender studies since 2004, said she and other abortion rights advocates were drawn to the organization's "feminist, empowering care." Since the 2019 opening, she has been one of several volunteer escorts for patients seeking abortions. Anti-abortion protesters have been a regular presence outside the clinic, seeking to dissuade people from having the procedure.

“We loved (Whole Woman's Health's) vision and continue to and hope that this is a pause rather than a stop," Lidinsky said Tuesday. "It was a long road to bring them here because of many roadblocks in the community.”

Contact South Bend Tribune city reporter Jordan Smith at 574-235-6480 or JTsmith@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter: @jordantsmith09

This article originally appeared on South Bend Tribune: Whole Woman's Health South Bend to close after Indiana abortion ban