Anti-abortion petitions set to hit the streets in Michigan

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Brandi Bonner, 28, of Kalamazoo, attends a pro-life rally on the Capitol steps in Lansing on Saturday, June 15, 2019, to mobilize volunteers to gather signatures for a petition that would prohibit abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected.

Lansing — Michigan anti-abortion groups on Wednesday won approval to begin circulating two separate petitions for initiated legislation, including a measure that medical experts warned could effectively ban most abortions in the state.  

If they collect the 340,047 signatures required to advance the initiatives, organizers hope the state's Republican-led Legislature will adopt the measures rather than allow them to go to the ballot for voters to decide.

Doing so would avoid a likely veto by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who has vowed to reject any anti-abortion legislation that reaches her desk.

Organizers must collect the requisite signatures within a 180-day window. Based on current plans, they would submit signatures by the end of year for certification. If they are successful and the Legislature does not adopt the proposals, they would appear on the statewide ballot in November 2020.

An initiative from the Michigan Heartbeat Coalition proposes to criminalize the act of performing an abortion after cardiac activity is detected in a fetus or embryo, which can happen as early as six weeks into a pregnancy.

A second petition backed by Right to Life of Michigan proposes to ban the most common form of second-trimester abortion procedure, which doctors call the dilation and evacuation method but critics call “dismemberment.”

Both measures will face legal challenges if enacted into law and may be rendered unenforceable. But anti-abortion activists across the country are urging the increasingly conservative U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider or chip away at Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that established a constitutional right to abortion.

The four-member Board of Canvassers on Wednesday approved the form of both petitions and, operating under a new law, adopted 100-word summaries that will appear atop the petitions.

That process proved contentious, with anti-abortion and pro-choice forces debating specific language, most notably the phrases “fetal heartbeat” and “dismemberment abortion.”

Dr. Halley Crissman, representing the Michigan chapter of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, argued both phrases were inaccurate descriptions of medical procedures that would not clearly explain the impact of the proposals to voters asked to sign the petitions.

Electrical activity can be detected in an embryo before it is considered a fetus and “does not represent the complete formation of a heart,” Crissman said.

The Board of Canvassers initially deadlocked on the petition summary but approved the language after agreeing to change two references from “fetal heartbeat” to “cardiac activity.”

Crissman said she remains concerned the summary does not indicate how early detection may be possible. It could happen before a woman realizes she is pregnant, “thus completely preventing them from being able to seek an abortion," she said.

Bill Bolin, a Brighton pastor and member of the Michigan Heartbeat Coalition, disputed testimony that the proposed law could ban “most” abortions in the state.

“But it would be a large number of abortions,” he said. “It depends on.. how science will define that cardiac dynamic, and that will have to be determined at court at some point.”

Bolin said the group aims to “have an impact on Roe v. Wade,” which guaranteed a right to abort a non-viable fetus.

“If we can get the heartbeat to be the point of viability, we will in effect restrict abortion without overturning the federal law, as stated from the Supreme Court," he said.

Canvassers unanimously approved the Right to Life petition summary despite concerns over the “dismemberment” language, calling it an accurate summary of the proposal. 

The initiated legislation would define “dismemberment abortion” in state law, as noted in the 100-word summary drafted by Michigan Elections Director Sally Williams. 

In written testimony submitted before the hearing, several doctors argued against the language, which one called a “graphic and misrepresentative presentation” of the procedure.

 “The goal is NOT deliberate dismemberment of a fetus but simply to extract the fetus as gently as possible in the safest way for a mother,” wrote Katherine Gold, a family medicine physician at the University of Michigan.

“Parents needing this procedure usually are those who have a fetus with a life-threatening fetal anomaly, a fetus who has ALREADY died inside the womb, or a mother who medically is not able to continue to carry the pregnancy.”

The state received more than 500 public comments on proposed language for the two petitions, most short messages from supporters of the Right to Life initiative, formally sponsored by the Michigan Values Life committee.

The dictionary definition of dismemberment is “to remove limbs from a body,” said Genevieve Marnon of Right to Life of Michigan and the Michigan Values Life committee. “This is an accurate medical description of what takes place during a dismemberment abortion.”

The group planned to send petitions to the printer later Wednesday before beginning to collect signatures, Marnon said. If that goes smoothly, “we can begin tomorrow," she said.

Right to Life uses a large volunteer network to collect signatures and has successfully initiated laws several times, most recently 2014 abortion insurance legislation that was opposed by then-Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican.

The Michigan Constitution guarantees the right for citizens to initiate legislation by petition drive and gives legislators 40 days to enact a measure into law — without the governor’s signature — or send it to the ballot.

Both petition committees will operate under a new set of rules after Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel invalidated portions of a law Republicans approved last year.

The Michigan Heartbeat Coalition also intends to use volunteer circulators. The group is not affiliated with Right to Life, which opposes the petition and fears it could supersede an existing abortion ban that has been on the books in Michigan since the 1930s but is currently unenforceable because of Roe v. Wade.

Bolin predicted the Heartbeat Coalition will be prepared to begin distributing petitions and collecting signatures in a matter of days. Organizers must update their petition to include approved modifications to the 100-word summary before sending it to the printer.

The group held a rally last weekend at the Michigan Capitol, and roughly 120 volunteers attended a related petition training session, Bolin said.

“So far our network is expanding and doing everything that we hope it will do.”

Representatives from Planned Parenthood of Michigan and the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan testified against each of the petition summaries.

Pro-choice activists are also expected to rally against abortion bans on Saturday at the Michigan Capitol.