Ex-clinic head backs heartbeat bill, won't endorse dismemberment ban

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

A former Planned Parenthood clinic director whose path to the anti-abortion movement was detailed in a movie has endorsed a Michigan ballot initiative to ban abortions after fetal cardiac activity is detected, usually around six weeks' gestation. 

The Michigan Heartbeat Coalition said Thursday it had the endorsement of Abby Johnson, whose story was featured last year in the movie "Unplanned" and is in part credited with spurring a wave of similar anti-abortion heartbeat legislation across the United States.

Brenda Rohn, of Sterling, holds a sign during a pro-life rally on the Capitol lawn in Lansing on Saturday, June 15, 2019, held to mobilize volunteers to collect petition signatures for an initiative that would ban abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected.

Johnson, a Texas native, said she will not be endorsing a separate effort led by Right to Life of Michigan to ban dilation and evacuation abortions, a common second trimester abortion referred to as “dismemberment abortion” in the petitions circulating throughout the state.

In an email to The Detroit News, Johnson said she’s not opposed to the dilation and evacuation ban, but said she does not believe it would survive a court challenge that relies on Roe’s prohibition of a “particular type of abortion.”

“Also, it won’t stop abortion,” Johnson said. “The industry will simply use another method to abort the babies, either by induction and delivering them whole or by using a larger suction cannula.”

Both groups are in the midst of gathering the roughly 340,000 valid signatures needed to qualify the petition for the November ballot. Instead of allowing the initiatives to go to the ballot, proponents are relying on the GOP's legislative majority to adopt the proposals before they make it to the ballot.

The heartbeat bill is being opposed by Right to Life of Michigan over largely the same legal concerns. The group has worried that, should Roe v. Wade be overturned, a judge would allow the state to abide by the heartbeat law rather than Michigan’s existing abortion law, which outlaws abortion at every stage but is considered largely unenforceable under the 1973 Supreme Court ruling.

Johnson dismissed the concerns, noting that “there should be absolutely zero conflict in supporting this bill.”

“The Heartbeat Bill has specific language written into it that states that the law most stringent will be followed,” Johnson said. “So if Roe were to be overturned, the original bill would be enforced and the Heartbeat Bill would be pushed to the side.”

The Heartbeat Coalition has similarly defended its initiative and has argued that the wave of introductions of similar legislation throughout the United States will provoke lawsuits and appeals that eventually will push the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider and perhaps overturn Roe v. Wade, the High Court decision that legalized abortion throughout the country in 1973.

“Abby joins a growing list of pro-life voices who are saying, ‘The time to regulate abortion has ended, the time to end abortion has come,’” coalition President Corey Shankleton said.

Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan was less enthusiastic about the endorsement. 

“It’s fitting that an organization pushing policies based on lies and radical ideology would receive the endorsement of a person whose claims have repeatedly been proven false," said Angela Vasquez-Giroux, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood Advocates.

Right to Life of Michigan appreciates Johnson’s story, but noted she is not from the state and isn't a legal expert. The group is focused on gaining the signatures of Michigan residents, not “out-of-state endorsements,” said Chris Gast, a spokesman for Right to Life of Michigan.

Right to Life of Michigan’s lawyers are confident the dilation and evacuation ban, which would be added to the state’s partial birth abortion ban, can withstand any legal challenges it may face.

“Our dismemberment ban will definitely reduce late-term abortions, and is likely to be the next pro-life law to win at the Supreme Court since it builds directly on our successful partial-birth abortion ban,” Gast said.