Group submits 380K signatures to ban abortion procedure in Michigan

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — Right to Life of Michigan submitted roughly 380,000 signatures to the state on Monday in an effort to ban a common second-trimester abortion procedure referred to in ballot language as "dismemberment abortion."

The signatures submitted to Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson's office for the statewide petition could bring the end of dilation and evacuation abortions. It is expected to be passed by the GOP-led Legislature instead of heading to the November ballot. 

The Legislature's adoption of the ballot initiative would remove the proposal from voters at the ballot box as well as Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who promised to veto similar legislation working its way through the Legislature earlier this year. 

The Michigan Constitution allows the Legislature 40 days to either adopt a ballot initiative or allow it to proceed to the ballot for voters to decide. Unlike the normal lawmaking process, the Legislature's adoption of a ballot initiative does not require the governor's signature. 

The Michigan Values Life Coalition, backed by Right to Life of Michigan, said it hoped the 379,418 signatures collected would yield at least a 97% validity rate. 

“Our committed all-volunteer force persevered through significant obstacles that kept being put in their path this year," said Barbara Listing, president of Right to Life of Michigan. "We’ve received more than 400,000 signatures, but after thorough checking, we’ve whittled it down to our final total of valid signatures.”

Two states — West Virginia and Mississippi — have a similar ban in effect, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights. Two other states — Alabama and Texas — have had similar laws permanently enjoined by the courts and six other states have temporary holds on enforcement while their laws are being challenged in court, according to Guttmacher.

James Muffet, of Citizens for Traditional Values, helps to deliver 70 boxes containing petitions with nearly 380,000 signatures to Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson's office on Dec. 23, 2019, in Lansing. The signatures were gathered as part of an effort to ban dilation and evacuation abortions, or “dismemberment abortions,” as they’re referred to in the petition language.

The group needed roughly 340,047 valid signatures within 180 days, a window set to expire Dec. 24, to qualify for the November ballot.

Groups usually submit more signatures than necessary in case some are ruled invalid by the Board of State Canvassers, which is tasked with determining whether a group has collected enough valid signatures from registered voters. 

Because of a change in the law governing Michigan's petition initiative process, Right to Life revised its validation process and checked each petition "at least four times," the group said in a statement. 

If and when the Board of State Canvassers confirms the signatures, the GOP majority Legislature will have 40 days to adopt the legislation through a majority vote or allow it to proceed onto the ballot. 

The Legislature is expected to adopt the legislation, which will remove any possibility that it could fail at the ballot box or be vetoed by Whitmer. 

During an interview with reporters last week, Whitmer said she’ll be watching “closely” what happens with the initiative. 

If it does end up on the statewide ballot, Whitmer said, “I will actively campaign against adoption.”

The ACLU of Michigan plans to fight the proposal in the Legislature and said the measure as it stands is unconstitutional because it creates an undue burden on patients and doctors who use the procedure as well as a woman's right to abortion. 

Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan said it also planned "to challenge the petition at every opportunity."

“If this goes all the way and does become law, we’re prepared to challenge it in court,” said Merissa Kovach, a policy strategist for the ACLU of Michigan.

The "dismemberment" abortion ban would prohibit dilation and evacuation procedures, a common second-trimester abortion procedure in which a fetus is extracted from a mother's womb and sometimes dismembered in the process. 

There were 1,908 dilation and evacuation procedures reported to the state in 2018, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Dick and Deborah Winter were among the volunteers who helped to collect signatures for the petition. The Wayland couple hadn't participated in a similar petition drive before but decided to after hearing of national efforts to make abortion more accessible. 

"It was the New York Legislature," Deborah Winter said Monday. "That moment in their session where they enthusiastically applauded after passing a bill that would allow abortion up to the point of birth, that was what moved me to become involved." 

A second group, the Michigan Heartbeat Coalition, said it planned to finish its drive in late January for signatures supporting a prohibition on abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected, usually at six weeks' gestation.