Lansing rally preps volunteers for 'heartbeat' abortion ban petition drive

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
Brenda Rohn, of Sterling, holds a sign during an anti-abortion rally on the Capitol lawn in Lansing on Saturday.

Lansing — A group working to prohibit abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected kicked off its efforts Saturday on the steps of the Capitol, a few days before the group's initiative petition goes before a state board for approval.

The goal of the Heartbeat Rally was to “educate, train and mobilize” volunteers to begin the eventual collection of the roughly 500,000 signatures organizers hope to gather in support of the effort, said Rick Warzywak, a board member of the Heartbeat Coalition and executive director of the Michigan Capitol House of Prayer.

“We have gained such momentum,” Warzywak said. “It’s unbelievable.”

Pending format approvals from the Board of State Canvassers this week, the group will collect signatures over the summer with a goal of having the Legislature eventually adopt the initiative before it hits the November 2020 ballot.

The Legislature’s enactment of the initiative to ban abortions after a heartbeat is detected — usually around six weeks of pregnancy — would sidestep a promised veto from Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. The Michigan Constitution allows lawmakers to enact initiated legislation without the governor’s signature. 

In joining several other states that have passed similar legislation, organizers hope the passage of such a law would have an impact not only in Michigan but also in the national effort to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 landmark ruling in Roe v. Wade.

Rick Warzywak, a board member of the Heartbeat Coalition, sifts through signs during a rally on the Capitol lawn in Lansing on Saturday.

Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan have opposed the initiative as a "harmful, unconstitutional and deeply unpopular" effort to ban all abortions

“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," Lori Carpentier, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan, said last month.

For Sarah Coombs of Clarkston, efforts to pass heartbeat bills in other states and to provide wider education on the realities of abortion were encouraging. She was among the roughly 200 people who attended the rally Saturday “to celebrate life” and “speak up for those who have no voice.”

“People are getting educated on what abortion actually is,” Coombs said. “More people are waking  up the fact that babies are more than just a clump of cells.”

Organizers must gather signatures equal to 8% of the number of people who voted for governor in 2018 — roughly 340,000 — but Warzywak said the group is aiming to collect 500,000. 

Brandi Bonner planned to go to a training offered to volunteers after the rally, noting that Saturday was her first time participating in an anti-abortion event. The 28-year-old Kalamazoo woman said the experience was “powerful.”

“We’re standing up for those that are voiceless,” she said.

Brandi Bonner, 28, of Kalamazoo, attends an anti-abortion rally on the Capitol steps in Lansing on Saturday.

Scott and Kelli Smail also plan to collect signatures to support the cause in the coming months. The Allegan couple, who brought their four-month-old daughter Avery to the rally, said they felt as if opinions on abortion in Michigan and elsewhere were shifting gradually toward the enactment of more limitations on the procedure. 

“It feels like there’s been a little bit of an uprising,” Scott Smail said. “We hope and we pray that we can make a difference.”

Right to Life of Michigan had no part in the rally, spokesman Chris Gast said. The group has expressed concerns in the past about the effort because of its potential impact on Michigan's complete abortion ban should Roe v. Wade be overturned.

“We fear a pro-abortion judge could abuse the heartbeat ban to stop our 100% abortion ban from being fully enforceable when Roe v. Wade is overturned, keeping abortion legal in the first weeks of pregnancy,” the group said on its website.

The Heartbeat Coalition does not believe its initiative would impact Michigan’s law since it includes language that protects laws prior to the Roe v. Wade decision, Warzywak said.

“They are becoming more conciliatory right now," Warzywak said, of Right to Life of Michigan. "They’re seeing our impact that we’re having because what we’re doing resonates more with the public.”

Right to Life of Michigan has its own initiative petition it plans to gather signatures for that would outlaw dilation and evacuation abortions when performed on living fetuses. The procedure is commonly used in the second trimester of pregnancy but advocates of a ban on the procedure have called it cruel and refer to it as dismemberment abortion in the language of the petition and already pending legislation.

Separate dismemberment abortion bans have been approved by both the House and Senate but neither chamber has concurred on the bills. Whitmer has promised to veto the legislation should it reach her desk.

Right to Life of Michigan has used petition drives to initiate laws in several instances, including the passage of 2014 abortion insurance legislation opposed by then-Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican.

The Board of State Canvassers will review both petition initiatives for approval as to form at a meeting this week.

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