Abortion rights advocates eye Michigan ballot initiative

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

As two anti-abortion ballot proposals circulate through Michigan, Planned Parenthood officials are assessing the “appetite” of the state's voters for a separate ballot initiative that would protect a woman’s right to choose.

The potential initiative, floated as the national Planned Parenthood Federation of America leader visited Detroit in late July, could oppose the anti-abortion proposals expected to become law next year or attempt to protect abortion rights ahead of the possible U.S. Supreme Court reversal of the Roe v. Wade decision.

Dressed in a red cloak and white bonnet to represent oppressed female characters in Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale," Carrie Gallup listens to speakers on the Capitol lawn Saturday, June 22, 2019 during a rally opposing bans that would limit legal abortion procedures in Michigan.

Michigan’s current abortion law is one of the toughest in the nation but is largely unenforceable while the landmark 1973 court decision remains in place. 

“We’re trying to figure out what really is the appetite in the state of Michigan to protect women and to protect women’s ability to make this choice in the way that they choose to do it,” said Lori Carpentier, executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan.

Planned Parenthood Advocates formed a ballot question committee in June, called Coalition to Protect Access to Care, but its purpose largely is to mount opposition to the two anti-abortion petitions circulating in Michigan. The group has stressed it is exploring all options as it researches ways to better protect women's health care access in Michigan.

The consideration occurs during a summer of change for the national advocacy branch.

Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Leana Wen was ousted in July after eight months on the job over what she called “philosophical differences” related to the treatment of abortion as a political issue instead of a health care issue.

Planned Parenthood has been forced to become political and “build the muscle” needed to defend the care it provides as efforts to restrict abortion mount across the country, said Alexis McGill Johnson, who stepped in to lead the national organization in mid-July.

“A movement, I feel like, is even too small of a word,” McGill Johnson said. “There is just an active extremist effort designed to take away and restrict women's access to reproductive health care and health care in a general way.”

Positive S.I.S.T.E.R.S. Founder Kimle Nailer of Detroit, left, hugs SEIU Local 517M President Joey Combs of Novi at a "Superlocal x Detroit" event at Wayne State  on Aug. 10.

In Michigan, two ballot committees are nearly two months into their collection of signatures for ballot proposals that would prohibit abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected and prohibit dilation-and-evacuation abortions. They have until mid-December to collect at least 340,047 valid signatures required to advance the initiatives for expected approval in the Republican-controlled Legislature. 

The possibility of a pro-abortion rights ballot initiative is “definitely a concern,” said a spokeswoman for Right to Life of Michigan, which is leading one of the initiative efforts. But Michigan voters are more likely to be wary of abortion rights initiatives as abortion legislation become more permissive in other states such as New York and Virginia, anti-abortion advocates said.

"That is not mainstream; that is not where people are in America,” said Genevieve Marnon, legislative director for Right to Life of Michigan.

Other states, other models

While in Detroit for the Democratic presidential debates, McGill Johnson suggested Michigan could look at models from other states that sought to protect a woman’s right to abortion or federal efforts to pass the proposed Women’s Health Protection Act.

The Women’s Health Protection Act, reintroduced in Congress in May, would create a federal safeguard against state restrictions and bans that erode abortion access, according to the pro-abortion rights research and policy organization, Guttmacher Institute. It would require abortion or any abortion procedure be legal in all 50 states until the fetus is viable or to protect the health of the mother when the fetus is viable.

Other states — such as Alaska, California and Minnesota — have state constitutional protections that are largely the opposite of Michigan’s and likely would preserve abortion rights even if Roe v. Wade is overturned. In states like Connecticut, Maryland and Nevada, abortion is protected by state law, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

In 2017, Oregon enacted a law prohibiting the state from restricting “the choice of a consenting individual to terminate the individual’s pregnancy,” including rules related to facilities, benefits or services.

It is not clear what form Planned Parenthood’s ballot initiative might take or what impact it would have on Michigan's current or proposed abortion restrictions. All of the details  are still being researched, the group said.

But the political will to upend abortion restrictions exists in Michigan, said Cecile Richards, the former director for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Richards was in Detroit last weekend with Supermajority. the women’s advocacy group she co-founded this year, to provide training on civic participation and women’s engagement.

During a table discussion, Supermajority co-founder Cecile Richards talks with women attending a "Superlocal x Detroit" event at Wayne State on Aug. 10. Supermajority is a new women's political action nonprofit designed to educate and empower. Richards is a former Planned Parenthood president.

The success in electing Democratic women in Michigan in 2018 shows the state is ripe for female leadership and the advancement of women’s issues despite growing opposition, Richards said.

“Clearly, not only in Michigan, but in other states across the county the concern that women and men have is there’s a concerted effort to roll back health care access to safe and legal abortions,” she said.

“These efforts in Michigan are for all intents and purposes efforts to ban all access to abortion.”

Michigan's anti-abortion proposals

For now, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan is promoting arguments against the proposed anti-abortion ballot initiatives in Michigan, even though they expect the Legislature to approve the measures if enough valid signatures are gathered. 

The group's leaders are focusing on what they see as a “bait-and-switch” in which both anti-abortion groups collect signatures in the hopes that Michigan lawmakers will enact the legislation before allowing it to proceed to the ballot. The process sidestepping Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s promised veto is “non-democratic,” Carpentier said.

“We think it's really clear that there's no intent to put these on the ballot,” she said. “And yet, that's what they're gathering signatures to do.”

Both ballot groups collecting signatures have expressed confidence that the GOP-led Legislature will enact their proposals rather than place them on the November 2020 ballot and have trained volunteers to inform signees of that goal.  

“Every time we speak, we stress the point that it won’t go to a (statewide) vote,” said Cory Shankleton, a pastor and president of the Michigan Heartbeat Coalition. “It actually will go to the Legislature, and we see that as a positive. All of our volunteers have been instructed to define this as a legislative initiative petition.”

The option is protected by Michigan’s Constitution, which allows the Legislature to enact the ballot initiative, vote down the measure so it can go to the ballot or ignore it so the initiative can proceed to the November election.

“That’s not deceitful; that’s specifically written in the Constitution,” Marnon said. “I didn’t write those rules. Right to Life didn’t write those rules. And those rules apply to everyone equally.”

Michigan Values Life, the ballot committee organized by Right to Life of Michigan to prohibit dilation and evacuation procedures, has mailed 200,000 petitions to gather the signatures they need to prohibit what they have called “dismemberment” abortions.

The Michigan Heartbeat Coalition has distributed 170,000 petitions and received roughly 25,000 back for an initiative that would ban abortion after fetal cardiac activity is detected, Shankleton said.

Kim Enokian of Brighton (left) and her 19-year-old niece Krystalyn Terski protest on the Capitol lawn Saturday, June 22, 2019 to oppose bans that would limit legal abortion procedures in Michigan.

Right to Life of Michigan has expressed concern for the heartbeat bill, arguing that it could result in looser restrictions than the state’s current dormant law should Roe vs. Wade be overturned. The group’s dismemberment measure wouldn’t interfere with Roe vs. Wade, Right to Life argued, because it bans a specific procedure rather than a given period in the pregnancy.

Heartbeat Coalition organizers have said their ballot initiative contains the appropriate legal language to prevent a clash with Michigan’s current abortion law.

The popularity of the heartbeat ban in other parts of the country results from the distaste with more progressive abortion laws enacted last year, the possibility of Roe vs. Wade’s overturn and the release of the movie "Unplanned," which details a Planned Parenthood employee’s defection to the anti-abortion movement, Shankleton said.

The same confluence of events hopefully will spoil any future ballot initiatives from Planned Parenthood, he said.

“Many people who were maybe sitting on the sidelines with the understanding of abortion being rare and safe certainly never intended abortion on demand,” he said.


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