Majority of Michigan voters oppose proposed abortion restriction

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
The Michigan Capitol is seen in a file photo from Lansing.  Most Michigan voters said they opposed a proposed ban on a common second-trimester abortion procedure that could become law by 2020.

Most Michigan voters said they opposed a proposed ban on a common second-trimester abortion procedure that could become law by 2020.

In a poll of 600 likely voters commissioned by Glengariff Group and released to The Detroit News and WDIV-TV (Channel 4), 58% of voters said they opposed the new restriction that would charge doctors with a two-year criminal offense for performing the procedure while 31% supported the restriction.

The legislation would ban a procedure called dilation and evacuation when performed on living fetuses. The procedure involves dilation of a woman's cervix, vacuum aspiration and surgical removal of a fetus with instruments such as forceps. The procedure was used in 1,777 abortions in 2017, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. 

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Republican lawmakers proposing the ban have referred to the procedure as dismemberment abortion because of how tissue is removed.

While the proposed ban is popular with pro-life residents, the poll results indicate the policy itself appears to be unpopular with most other voters, said Glengariff Group pollster Richard Czuba.

GOP majorities in the House and Senate passed separate but similar forms of the legislation restricting dilation and evacuation abortions earlier this year, but have yet to move either package through both chambers and on to Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who has pledged to veto the bills. 

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In anticipation of Whitmer's veto, Right to Life of Michigan has also filed a ballot petition to ban the abortion procedure. Once the ballot initiative's language is approved, the group plans to collect roughly 400,000 signatures in support of the ban and then ask the Legislature to adopt the measure instead of placing it on the November 2020 ballot. 

"We’ve done this four times in the past," said Genevieve Marnon, legislative director for Right to Life of Michigan. "It's costly to have a ballot initiative, and we feel its no different than a regular piece of legislation, only this time there are 400,000 co-sponsors.”

The ballot initiative is seen by some political experts as a way of energizing pro-life voters, who usually vote for Republican candidates, going into a presidential election. Liberal groups placed ballot measures on marijuana legalization and absentee ballot expansion on Michigan's November 2018 ballot that were credited with attracting more Democratic-friendly voters to the polls. 

“Any benefit that Republicans get in energizing their base is countered by how poorly this will be received among women in counties like Oakland or Macomb, which they desperately need,” Czuba said about the anti-abortion initiative.

Nearly 50% of those polled by Glengariff Group last week said they strongly opposed the proposed restrictions, while nearly 24% strongly supported banning the procedure.

Of the 600 people polled, 42% called themselves pro-choice and 33% considered themselves pro-life. Nearly a quarter of voters identified as “somewhere in between” on the issue.

Typically, a ballot initiative has to poll in the upper 50% range to stand a chance of passage as a traditional ballot measure, Czuba said.

But a ballot initiative with enough valid signatures goes straight to the Legislature, which has 40 days to approve it or let it go on the ballot to be decided by voters. If the Senate and House approve the initiative, it avoids a potential gubernatorial veto and becomes state law.

Those polled specifically were asked whether they supported proposed state legislation “that would ban a commonly used abortion procedure in Michigan during the second trimester and charge doctors who use the procedure with a two-year criminal sentence.”

Right to Life's Marnon questioned the wording and estimated support for the ban would be higher when the procedure is described in detail, as is the case in the proposed legislation and petition language. 

"The way the question is worded makes a huge difference as to whether or not people would actually support this," Marnon said. 

Czuba said he avoided using the word “dismemberment” or even the procedure’s medical name to avoid dipping into the "PR battle" surrounding the issue.

“The pro-life movement wants to use graphic words and describe things to scare people and horrify them, but when you present a straightforward neutral reading of this it is not popular at all,” he said.

Instead of "sterilizing the language," the legislation and petition language use medically accurate wording that is reflective of the reality of the procedure, Marnon said.

"If you’d actually worded the question to describe what the bill actually bans you might be surprised with the results," she said.

Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan was unsurprised by the poll results, noting the majority of the state's voters in 2018 elected "pro-comprehensive, reproductive health women" to Michigan's highest elected positions — U.S. Senate, governor, attorney general and secretary of state. 

"I think we already had an idea of what Michigan thought of progressive values and specifically about this issue," said Lori Carpentier, president and CEO for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan. 

Marnon said Right to Life of Michigan does not believe its ballot drive will have negative implications for Republicans in the 2020 elections. The group plans to educate people on the issue while collecting signatures and gain supporters in the process, she said. 

By educating voters on dilation and evacuation abortions, the group hopes to expose "the reality of abortion, just like we did with the partial-birth abortion ban," Marnon said. 

Carpentier said lawmakers supporting the banning of dilation and evacuation procedures are attempting to step "between patients and physicians" and to interfere "with physicians' good judgment."

"We know across the country bans are unpopular," she said. "I think its political folly, frankly.”

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