MISSOULA - Independent abortion clinics in Montana are ready to handle an influx of out-of-state patients, even as Planned Parenthood of Montana shies away from providing medication abortion care to patients from states where the procedure is banned.
“We can add providers, if necessary. We can add days, we can add hours,” said Helen Weems, a nurse practitioner and founder of All Families Healthcare, an abortion provider in Whitefish. “And with the provision of medication abortion by mail, we can see many more patients.”
If someone comes over the border and is in Montana, either All Families Healthcare or Montana’s other independent abortion provider — Blue Mountain Clinic in Missoula — can have a telemedicine visit with them and either clinic can overnight mail an abortion pill to the patient — if the pill’s destination is a Montana address — Weems said. All while staying in compliance with Montana law, she said.
In early June, Planned Parenthood of Montana announced it would not provide abortions to people from states where the law banned the procedure, including for pregnant people who wanted a medication abortion but had passed their state’s gestational limit, said Laura Terrill, vice president of external affairs for Planned Parenthood of Montana. For instance, while medication abortion can be used up to 11 weeks into a pregnancy, both Ohio and South Carolina ban abortions after six weeks.
Planned Parenthood of Montana imposed this standard for medication abortions alone, Terrill said. Planned Parenthood will not deny abortions to people who come to Montana for a procedural abortion, even if they live in a state with a ban. In Montana, a procedural abortion can be done up to about 21 weeks of pregnancy.
Planned Parenthood of Montana cited the state’s hostile political environment as the reason for the decision.
“We are closely monitoring the legal and service landscapes in Montana and in nearby states and are committed to restarting medication abortion services for all out-of-state patients,” Terrill said in an email Thursday. “If and when we are able to do so.”
Planned Parenthood clinics are numerous, granting them significant name recognition. However, independent abortion clinics perform the majority of abortions across the country, according to a 2021 report by Abortion Care Network, the national association for independent abortion care providers.
About 58% of abortions are carried out by independent clinics, with Planned Parenthood-affiliated clinics performing 37% and hospitals and physicians handling about 4%, according to the report.
Even before Planned Parenthood of Montana announced its new policy, Montana’s independent clinics already offered more opportunities for procedural abortions than Planned Parenthood. All Families Healthcare and Blue Mountain Clinic can provide either method of abortion during their normal business hours. All Families is open four days a week, while Blue Mountain is open five days. Both clinics can get patients in for an appointment within about a week.
For those who can’t access a medical provider for an abortion, information is available on All Families Healthcare’s website about how to self-manage an abortion, Weems said.
“And while some may continue to engage in dangerous attempt with sharp instruments or hitting themselves, we have a safe option with medication abortion,” Weems said. “The post-Roe world does not have to be as dangerous and as deadly as the pre-Roe world.”
Only Planned Parenthood’s Helena clinic offers procedural abortions after the Billings clinic closed due to a water leak, Terrill said. The organization is working to reopen the Billings clinic as soon as possible and does have a second location in Billings providing medication abortions.
Planned Parenthood’s Helena clinic is the farthest east abortion provider in the state.
In addition to Billings, Planned Parenthood’s Helena and Great Falls clinics provide medication abortions. The Planned Parenthood clinic in Missoula does not. While procedural abortions happen just twice a month at the Helena clinic, Terrill said patients can get an appointment for a medication abortion within about a week. The clinics also have a telehealth and medication by mail program.
During the pandemic, Weems said, tens of thousands of women were involved in a study of medication abortions, which demonstrated the safety of medication abortions without testing and without ultrasounds.
After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Blue Mountain Clinic Executive Director Nicole Smith said an increasing number of patients have requested abortion care. The clinic also saw a drastic increase in the number of patients in their 20s and 30s requesting IUDs. IUDs are a long-term, effective form of birth control inserted into a person’s uterus. Patients are also requesting referrals for permeant sterilization procedures, such as tubal ligation, sometimes referred to as getting tubes tied, or vasectomies, Smith said.
“The division that we're seeing in our country,” Smith said. “Is based more on a political ideology than it is around truly understanding and valuing what it means to control what happens inside your own body.”
Weems in Whitefish also noticed an increase in requests for birth control and a trickle of out-of-state patients from states with trigger laws, such as South Dakota.
For pregnant people in need of an abortion after Montana’s 21-week limit, Montana’s only local abortion financial support organization, the Susan Wicklund Fund, will sometimes provide money for a person to travel to a state such as Washington, where abortions can be done up until between 24 and 28 weeks of pregnancy, said Hannah Altman, a fund board member.
Altman, who joined the board of the Susan Wicklund Fund this year, said an increasing number of people are also requesting financial help to get to Montana from places with abortion bans.
What Weems doesn’t understand, she said, are people who talk about abortion as violence or hate. Every day she sees abortion is love, Weems said. Abortions are sought by parents already struggling to raise three kids, or maybe a young person who doesn’t have the resources or the ability to raise a child the way they wish they could.
“The decision can be difficult, or it can be clear,” Weems said. “But it’s rooted in love and a desire to parent in a positive way.”
People interested in learning more about Montana's abortion providers and financial supports can visit All Families Healthcare, Blue Mountain Clinic, Planned Parenthood of Montana, and the Susan Wicklund Fund.