Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is on the front lines of protecting abortion rights in Michigan, where a court injunction is the only thing keeping the state from reverting to a 1931 law that banned and criminalized abortion.
“I don’t think many knew that Michigan would snap back 91 years to a law that would render this pro-choice state one of the most extreme in the country,” Whitmer told CNN. “No exceptions for rape, no exception for incest. This is how serious this moment is and how dramatic lives could be upended in Michigan.”
A week after the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the fallout is rippling across the country, with new legal clashes and fresh political fights emerging to protect – or further restrict – abortion rights in one state after another.
Here in Michigan, it’s a battle on two fronts – in courtrooms, where Whitmer has challenged the law, and in campaigns, both in her reelection bid and in a separate effort asking voters to enshrine abortion rights into the state constitution on the November ballot.
Challenging the 1931 law
Whitmer first filed a lawsuit in April, asking the Michigan Supreme Court to strike down the 1931 law that considers almost all abortions a felony, with possible prison sentences of up to four years for doctors and pregnant women. Her move was in anticipation of the US Supreme Court decision last week, which formally handed the contentious issue back to the states – and pushed it to the forefront of her bid for a second term as governor.
“The most important economic decision a woman makes in her lifetime is when and whether to have a child and this court decision threatens to rip that away from every woman in the country,” Whitmer said, after meeting with a small group of women here for a conversation on abortion rights. “It’s going to be up to governors and that’s why this fight is so important.”
This week, she pressed the state Supreme Court once again to take up her abortion lawsuit, saying the ruling from Washington has led to confusion in Michigan. Democratic nominees to the state court currently hold a 4-3 majority.
It’s too soon to know if the outcome of any midterm election races will be influenced by the latest chapter of the abortion battle, but the seismic court ruling has energized both sides of the debate and has reshaped the set of issues driving many campaigns – not only for Congress, but even more acutely in local and statewide contests.
The arguments are already playing out in governor’s races in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, where Democrats argue they are the last line of defense from Republican gubernatorial challengers and GOP-controlled legislatures pressing for new abortion restrictions.
“It may not be the only issue people vote on, but I do think that we want to empower people in this tough economy,” Whitmer said. “The last thing you do is take their health care away from them, take their rights away, and render them not full citizens.”
In this closely-divided state, Whitmer is also facing the same political headwinds that Democratic candidates are experiencing across the country, with President Joe Biden’s low approval rating amid steep economic challenges. She acknowledged those concerns, but said taking away abortion rights would result in greater economic burdens for women and families.
“Inflation has taken a toll. The cost of gas, the cost of groceries, it’s tough,” Whitmer said. “But I also know that you take away someone’s ability to make their health care decisions, that only compounds the pain that families are going to feel.”
Tudor Dixon, one of five Republicans in an August primary that will determine who will run against Whitmer, strongly opposes abortion rights. She won a coveted endorsement from the Michigan Right to Life, an influential anti-abortion rights grassroots group that is mounting a campaign against a petition to get a question on the November ballot to ask voters directly whether they want to enshrine abortion rights into the Michigan constitution.
“On both sides, it energizes people,” Dixon said of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision. “Certainly, you have the pro-life people that feel like this was a win, and then you have the pro-choice people who want to see something different.”
Organizers are in the final days of gathering signatures for the initiative – 425,059 valid ones are needed – in a move that would guarantee abortion remains a central issue through the fall election.
Armed with a clipboard and a pen, Sharon Basemen greeted people coming into a band concert one night earlier this week in Huntington Woods, an Oakland County suburb of Detroit.
“Have you signed the reproductive rights ballot initiative petition yet?” Basemen asked everyone who passed by, with one person after another stopping to listen. A handful of men and women signed the petition in the Democratic-leaning community, with several explaining they had already done so.
“Friday, all hell broke loose, with people saying, ‘What can I do to help?’” Basement said in an interview. “I think women are fed up. We are getting a lot of people who aren’t necessarily Democrats coming to sign because they think it’s wrong.”
Dixon and her Republican rivals running for governor are opposed to the constitutional amendment question being added to the November ballot. She suggested that Whitmer and other Democrats were trying to change the conversation by making the 2022 campaign about abortion rights, rather than inflation and other economic issues of top concern to all voters.
“Gretchen Whitmer has a pretty negative record in this state, so she needs to see if she can come up with something that will bring people to the ballot box,” Dixon said, noting that opponents of abortion rights will also be motivated to vote against a constitutional amendment in November.
Christen Pollo, a spokeswoman for a coalition opposing abortion rights called Citizens to Support Michigan Women and Children, blasted the ballot initiative as extreme and said her group intended to mount a robust campaign against the measure.
“We have been gearing up to run a massive educational campaign against this anything-goes-abortion amendment,” Pollo said in an interview. “For the next four months, up until Election Day, we’ll be fighting to educate every Michigander on what is actually in the text of this abortion amendment.”
A week after the monumental Supreme Court ruling, she said, the excitement among opponents of abortion rights remains equally high as a new chapter of the debate begins.
“To finally have this issue returned to the states, it was a moment of celebration,” Pollo said. “But there’s also a recognition that we have a lot of hard work ahead of us.”
Loren Khogali, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, said she was confident the petition would receive the required number of signatures by a July 11 deadline. She dismissed criticism the proposed constitutional amendment was extreme, saying voters could bypass the Republican-controlled legislature and decide for themselves whether to protect abortion rights and reproductive freedom.
The Michigan amendment, she said, would serve as a test run for other states navigating the post-Roe world.
“If and when this passes, this will serve as a model for other sort of similarly situated states across the country,” Khogali said. “It really will be a beacon in the midst of a really difficult time for reproductive rights supporters.”