Right to Life plans to bypass Whitmer's expected veto of abortion bills

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake.

Lansing — Right to Life of Michigan is planning a petition drive to ban a second-trimester abortion procedure known as evacuation and dilation if Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer follows through on her pledge to veto advancing legislation.

The Republican-led state Senate and House on Tuesday voted to ban the abortion method despite the governor's opposition, legal uncertainty and objections from a statewide physicians group.

Anti-abortion advocates call the procedure “dismemberment abortion” and argue it is a cruel practice that should be outlawed. But critics contend the proposed ban is an unconstitutional attempt to chip away at legal abortion rights guaranteed under the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade, an effort critics claim is happening in states across the country.

The maneuvers in Michigan came before the Alabama Senate on Tuesday evening passed the most restrictive abortion law in the United States. The legislation, which now goes to Republican Gov. Kay Ivey's desk, would ban all abortions unless the mother's health is at risk. Ivey has not publicly said whether she will sign the bill.

Alabama Senate debates near-total abortion ban

Last week, Georgia 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. Georgia was preceded in passing the "heartbeat" bill by Mississippi, Kentucky and Ohio in 2019, Iowa in 2018 and North Dakota in 2013, according to the pro-abortion Guttmacher Institute.

Asked about the Michigan bills Tuesday, Whitmer was unequivocal: “I am going to veto them when they come to my desk,” she told reporters at an unrelated event. It's not yet clear when or which version of the bills will be sent to Whitmer. 

“I think that these are decisions that should be made between a woman and her doctor. I have always supported a woman’s autonomy and freedom to make her own choices, and that should be no surprise to anyone in this town.”

The measure passed the Senate in a straight party-line vote, with support from 22 Republicans but opposition from 16 Democrats. The House also voted along party lines, with support from 58 Republicans and opposition from 51 Democrats. Both chambers fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a Whitmer veto.

The House also passed a non-binding resolution Tuesday declaring an aim to preserve “legal protections for unborn children” and recognize that “any abortion is a tragic loss of human life.”

Right to Life plans to launch a petition drive if Whitmer vetoes the bills, according to spokesman Chris Gast, who said the anti-abortion group will attempt to collect 400,000 signatures to send “initiated legislation” back to the Legislature.

The Michigan Constitution allows lawmakers to enact initiated legislation without the governor’s signature. Right to Life of Michigan has successfully used petition drives to initiate laws on multiple occasions, most recently on 2014 abortion insurance legislation opposed by then-Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican.

“We applaud our pro-life legislators for leading on this legislation,” Gast said in an email. “Tearing the arms and legs off of human beings has no place in medicine, and we’re confident most Michiganders agree it’s time to end this late-term dismemberment abortion procedure.”

The Michigan State Medical Society, which represents more than 15,000 physicians across the state, opposes the legislation, which it called a form of "interference that would hinder physician discretion to act within the standards of good medical practice and the best interest of the patient."

The dilation and evacuation method is the most common form of abortion after 13 weeks of pregnancy and is "medically preferred because it results in the fewest complications for women compared to alternative procedures," according to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Sen. Kim LaSata, a Bainbridge Township Republican who sponsored one of the bills, said the legislation proposes “reasonable restrictions” on abortion and would “criminalize the cruel and brutal procedure known as late-term dismemberment.”

In an emotional speech, LaSata told colleagues she nearly terminated a pregnancy "under duress" two decades ago when doctors told her child would not survive. But the procedure was unsuccessful, and she later delivered a stillborn daughter instead.

“It bothers me 20 years later, and until the day abortion is made illegal, I will continue to fight for those unborn babies, because who else is going to fight for them,” LaSata said. “It should be painful. It should be a hard decision.”

Rep. Pamela Hornberger, a sponsor of the House bills, said the legislation would bring an end to a "gruesome, horrific, cruel" procedure.

"It is unconscionable to me that this type of abortion exists," said Hornberger, R-Chesterfield Township. "It is long past due that this practice is ended.”

But Democrats argued that women should have the right to choose their own course when pregnancy complications arise. Abortions after the first trimester often involve rare, several fetal abnormalities and risks to women’s health, said Sen. Winnie Brinks, D-Grand Rapids.

Criminalizing the medically preferred procedure “will only result in increased complications and adverse medical outcomes,” she argued. “More bluntly, more suffering and more death.”

Women do not need their doctors second-guessing a science-based decision out of fear of punitive laws, said Rep. Kristy Pagan, D-Canton.

"If you cannot trust me with a choice, how can you trust me with a child?” she said.

The proposal would expand the state’s partial-birth abortion ban to include the dilation and evacuation procedure. Physicians could face up to two years in prison, a fine of up to $50,000 or both for using the abortion technique unless it is done to save the life of a pregnant woman endangered by a physical disorder, illness or injury.

The procedure involves dilation of a woman’s cervix, vacuum aspiration and surgical removal tissue from the uterus using instruments such as forceps. First-trimester abortions are more common, but there were 1,777 dilation and evacuation abortions reported to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services in 2017.

The action on the bills coincided with Right to Life of Michigan’s annual legislative day. Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, and House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, were both scheduled to address the anti-abortion group at a gathering near the Michigan Capitol.

Later-term abortions place women at greater risk of surgical complications, pre-term births and mental health problems, said Rebecca Mastee of the Michigan Catholic Conference in written committee testimony.

“Women deserve better, better than the D&E/dismemberment procedure, better than abortion," she wrote.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan has called the proposed ban "not only unconstitutional but dangerous." Courts have blocked similar dilation and evacuation bans in Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Ohio, Oklahoma and Texas, according to the ACLU.

Alabama, backed by 21 other states, is petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court to hear arguments on its "dismemberment" abortion ban. A federal appeals court panel in 2018 ruled the law unconstitutional, saying it put an "undue burden" on the right to end a pregnancy before the fetus is viable.

It's among a series of controversial laws approved in Republican-led states that advocates hope will compel the nation's highest court to revisit abortion rules more than three decades after Roe v. Wade.

Lori Carpentier, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan, criticized GOP lawmakers for Tuesday’s vote, accusing them of trying to codify “their personal beliefs into law and criminalizing doctors for doing exactly what the vast majority of Michiganders want them to do: their jobs.”

“These are complex, complicated decisions and should be made by the people with the best information and most expertise — the women themselves in consultation with their physicians,” Carpentier said in a statement. “Politicians are not doctors.”