Michigan petition drive seeks to ban abortion after fetal heartbeat

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant is surrounded by lawmakers on Thursday, March 21, 2019, as he signs a bill that would ban most abortions once a fetal heartbeat can be detected, in Jackson, Miss. A Michigan group is seeking to create a similar law through a petition initiative drive.

Lansing — A coalition of religious and political conservatives are launching a Michigan petition drive for an initiative seeking to outlaw abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected, mirroring recent bans in other states that could set up a Supreme Court challenge.

Michigan already has a broad but unenforceable abortion ban on the books. The new proposal would criminalize the act of performing an abortion after about six weeks of pregnancy, which is when a fetal heartbeat is usually detectable. It would punish physicians or other medical providers with prison time.

“As soon as there is the detection of a heartbeat, an abortion would be illegal,” said Corey Shankleton, who pushed for enactment of a similar law in Ohio and is now president of the Michigan Heartbeat Coalition.

Organizers are using a petition drive in an attempt to circumvent a likely veto from Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who has vowed to reject any anti-abortion legislation that reaches her desk. They hope the Republican-led Legislature would approve the initiative rather than letting it go to the 2020 ballot for voters to decide.

The Michigan Heartbeat Coalition on Tuesday filed its petition language with the Bureau of Elections. The group is operating independently from Right to Life of Michigan, which is planning a separate petition drive to ban a common second-trimester abortion procedure known as dilation and evacuation.

Whitmer promised to veto similar dilation and evacuation ban legislation approved last week by the House and Senate. She spoke out against national anti-abortion efforts Monday in an interview with MSNBC.

“So many of these decisions are made in a vacuum with a bunch of men sitting around a table and deciding what a woman’s rights should be, our access to health care, trying to control women by controlling our bodies,” Whitmer said.

The fetal heartbeat law would run afoul of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 landmark ruling in Roe v. Wade, which prohibits abortion bans and gives women the constitutional right to the procedure. The high court has allowed certain restrictions on the practice.

But Republican lawmakers and activists are hoping the Supreme Court will revisit the issue in the wake of conservative appointments by GOP President Donald Trump.

“Right now there’s a lot of attention being brought to the cause of the pro-life movement, and everyone I think is seeing that Roe v. Wade’s days are numbered, to being overturned or at least adjusted and looked at in a different way,” Shankleton told The Detroit News.

“Michigan already has one of the strongest abortion bans in the nation in its constitution, but we’re vulnerable if Roe v. Wade is not fully overturned but moves the mark from (fetal) viability to some other standard.”

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel has also warned that Roe v. Wade is likely to be overturned, but the first-term Democrat said last month she would “never prosecute a woman or her doctor for making the difficult decision to terminate a pregnancy.”

The Michigan initiative announcement comes one week after Republican Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed the nation’s most restrictive abortion law in the United States that attempts to ban all abortions unless the mother's health is at risk.

Georgia recently became the fourth state this year to ban abortion at six weeks of pregnancy, a policy based on the earliest point of gestation in which a fetal heartbeat can be detected. Similar laws have been adopted this year in Mississippi, Kentucky and Ohio, Iowa in 2018 and North Dakota in 2013, according to the pro-abortion Guttmacher Institute.

Right to Life of Michigan is not coordinating with the new Heartbeat Coalition, whose leadership is from out of state, said legislative director Genevieve Marnon.

“We are not supportive of a heartbeat ban in Michigan because Michigan law already bans all abortion except to save the life of the mother,” she said. “It’s a fine bill, wrong state.”

Michigan has had an abortion ban on the books since 1846, including a 1931 version that would be reactivated if the Supreme Court overturns Roe, which it has not yet taken any steps to do. 

Bill Bolin, a pastor at Floodgate Renewal Fellowship church in Brighton, disputed the Right to Life characterization and said the Michigan Heartbeat Coalition’s board is comprised entirely of state residents. It includes himself, Shankleton, Rick Warzywak of the Michigan Capitol House of Prayer and GOP activist Mark Gurley of Make Michigan Great Again.

The group plans to begin collecting signatures as soon as the Board of State Canvassers approves the form of its petition. Canvassers are scheduled to meet Thursday but the petition is not currently on their agenda.

Organizers filed the anti-abortion petition language with the state the same day as Planned Parenthood and other organizations spearheaded “Stop the Bans” rallies across the state, including a gathering outside the Michigan Capitol.

The planned Michigan initiatives are both part of a “harmful, unconstitutional and deeply unpopular” movement to ban all abortions, said Lori Carpentier, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan.

"A ban is a ban is a ban,” Carpentier said in a statement. “All these bills and all these ballot initiatives really have two goals: to ban abortion in Michigan and make sure the people of Michigan — who they know don’t support this — don’t get a say.”

Under the Michigan heartbeat petition initiative, a physician who performs an abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected could face at least two years in prison. The proposal includes exceptions if the health of a pregnant woman is in jeopardy.

The initiative makes clear that a pregnant woman seeking an abortion would not face criminal penalties.

“The lady is seen as a second victim,” Shankelton said.

The groups says its Michigan supporters include former  Republican National Committeeman Dave Agema, former gubernatorial candidate Jim Hines, former state Trump campaign director Scott Hagerstrom and various religious leaders, including Keith Den Hollander, national field director for the Christian Coalition.

Shankelton said the group will rely on volunteer petition circulators. When they begin, they’ll have 180 days to collect at least 340,047 signatures.

The signature requirement jumped 36% percent this year because of strong voter turnout in 2018. The threshold is adjusted every four years to match 8% of the total votes cast in the most recent gubernatorial election. 

Michigan lawmakers last year also made petition drives harder by limiting the number of signatures organizers can collect in any single congressional district, capping the number at 15% of the total.

Nessel is reviewing the constitutionality of the petition drive rule changes, and she is expected this week to issue a formal opinion.