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Anti-abortion groups criticize Whitmer's quip that abortion 'life-sustaining'

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Michigan anti-abortion groups are criticizing Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for defending her continuation of abortion procedures in Michigan amid the COVID-19 ban on elective surgeries as “life-sustaining.”

The Democratic governor banned elective procedures March 21 that weren’t essential to addressing a “medical emergency or to preserve the health and safety of a patient.” A clarification later added to the order said medical providers are responsible for using their “best clinical judgment” in deciding whether outpatient procedures would “preserve the health and safety of their patients.” 

The continuation of abortion procedures was criticized by Right to Life of Michigan and mentioned in two separate federal lawsuits filed by the conservative American Freedom Law Center.

The policy was raised last week when Whitmer was interviewed on “The Axe Files” podcast with former President Barack Obama’s senior adviser and political consultant David Axelrod, who asked the Michigan governor about a lawsuit filed last Wednesday by Planned Parenthood against Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, whose coronavirus response efforts included banning abortions. 

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer appears on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" on Thursday, March 5, 2020. Whitmer endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden for president during the appearance.

“What’s your reaction to that?” Axelrod said. “You’re a governor you have to make these decisions as well.”

Whitmer responded that the attempt by some to lump abortions in among the banned elective surgeries in Michigan was “ridiculous.”

“A woman’s health care, her whole future, her ability to decide if and when she starts a family is not an election,” the governor said. “It is a fundamental to her life. It is life-sustaining, and it’s something that government should not be getting in the middle of."

In response, Right to Life of Michigan President Barb Listing renewed her call Friday for Whitmer to treat elective abortions the same as other non-essential procedures and accused the governor of letting ideology and her consideration by presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden as a potential running mate come before public health. The group has argued that most abortions are for economic or social reasons.

“If a lack of enough personal protective equipment is the reason that many surgeries remain postponed or canceled, then it’s heinous that Gov. Whitmer is allowing abortion facilities to continue using up these precious supplies in surgical abortions and ultrasound examinations prior to medication abortions,” Listing said in a statement. 

The Michigan Catholic Conference also condemned the continued allowance of abortions during a pandemic and criticized Whitmer’s comments on Axelrod’s podcast. The conference is the public policy arm of the Catholic Church in Michigan. 

The group noted it appreciated the governor's actions seeking to protect residents during the pandemic, but said Whitmer's podcast comments reflect “how bifurcated and confusing her understanding of human life has become.”

“How can Gov. Whitmer on the one hand prohibit medical surgeries and the growth of food through gardening yet refer to a procedure that intentionally destroys a developing human person as ‘life-sustaining?’” the group said in a statement. 

Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan rejected the objections by anti-abortion groups. 

“People who practice medicine — who see patients, give them their professional opinion based on years of training and experience, and then help carry out a treatment plan — agree that abortion is an essential and time-sensitive procedure," said Angela Vasquez-Giroux, a Planned Parenthood Advocates spokeswoman. "We believe in listening to doctors, not people who would exploit a worldwide pandemic to push a dangerous political agenda.”

Planned Parenthood said Monday it has created an app called Planned Parenthood Direct that provides online access to its clinicians and allows patients to get birth control, treatment for urinary tract infections and other services without leaving home.

In “Believer: My 40 Years in Politics” (Penguin Press), former White House senior adviser David Axelrod writes at “our quiet urging, (President George W.) Bush had agreed to provide just enough loans from the (Troubled Asset Relief Program) to keep GM and Chrysler alive for a few more months.”

Axelrod also asked the governor if she considered the Texas ban on elective abortions a “back door” way to push an anti-abortion agenda or a “legitimate public policy decision.”

“My gut is it’s the former,” Whitmer said, but noted she didn’t know the details of the Texas case. “I do think that there is a very concerted effort to use every opportunity to take away women’s ability to make our own health care decisions.”

The Democratic governor has been involved in other abortion-related controversies during the pandemic.

A week after Detroit police ticketed a man protesting outside a city abortion clinic, Whitmer clarified her original stay-home order to exempt those engaging in activity protected by the First Amendment. Andrew Belanger filed a federal lawsuit against Whitmer and the Detroit Police Department shortly after the citation.  

The governor's office clarified online that “persons may engage in expressive activities” so long as they adhered to social distancing measures. Western Michigan U.S. District Judge Janet Neff signed last week a stipulated agreement in which the city of Detroit agreed to dismiss the citation and dismiss Belanger's lawsuit with prejudice.

eleblanc@detroitnews.com