Awaiting voters’ decision on abortion, when medicine and politics collide

Lansing, Mich. — The fight against abortion is racing toward a political solution across the state as activists, policymakers, politicians, providers and patients look to the Nov. 8 election.

Voters will decide on Proposition 3, which, if approved, would enshrine protections for a woman’s right to an abortion in the Michigan Constitution.

Kansas voted to legalize abortion this year. Michigan is now one of five states, along with California, Kentucky, Montana and Vermont, to ask voters next month to weigh in on abortion policy in the wake of the Supreme Court’s June ruling. Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. That ruling overturned a 1973 court ruling Roe v. Wade decides and allows states to set their own abortion policies.

Since the court’s ruling, abortion access standards in the United States have become a mess. In some states, decades-old laws remain on the books to make dramatic changes, while other states are looking at new laws. But as the policy landscape shapes, those on the front lines must operate in an uncertain stalemate.

In Michigan, the politically deadlocked state government ensured that a 1931 law banning abortion was struck down and then thrown into court, where judges temporarily blocked prosecutors from enforcing it. The ballot measure to protect abortion rights only landed on the ballot after advocates submitted a petition with more than 735,000 valid signatures and Michigan Supreme Court justices ended a legal battle over the petition’s technicalities.

Abortion policy has spilled over into both the attorney general race and the gubernatorial race, with Democratic incumbent Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who supports abortion rights, pitted against Republican Tudor Dixon, an outspoken conservative who opposes abortion, even in cases of rape and incest.

While Whitmer urged Michigan voters to fight like hell to protect abortion rights, Michigan Catholic Bishop Earl Boyea urged Catholics to “fight like heaven” to stop the state’s constitutional amendment.

“There’s a tennis match going on in Lansing right now,” said Jim Sprague, CEO of the Pregnancy Resource Center in Grand Rapids and a member of the Coalition Against Proposition 3.

Kristen Polo, executive director of Protect Life Michigan, which works with students on campus to end abortion, said that “overwhelmingly, voters oppose the extreme policy of this measure.” But according to a poll commissioned by the Detroit Free Press and its media partners, 64% of respondents plan to vote for a ballot measure to codify abortion rights in the Michigan constitution.

Meanwhile, abortion providers in the state continue to see patients amid confusion over what will be legal in Michigan. At a full-fledged Planned Parenthood clinic in a busy shopping plaza in Lansing, staff still see a steady stream of women seeking services. And on a busy corner in front of the clinic’s parking lot, a steady stream of anti-abortion protesters can still be seen, holding signs, just as they have since the location opened decades ago.

It looks like it’s just before the Supreme Court’s historic decision, but behind the scenes, abortion providers and advocates are preparing for an uncertain future. Linda Golar Blunt, president of the National Black Women’s Health Imperative in Atlanta, works with a network of activists across the country to support their efforts to ensure contraceptives are available. “Some of these groups are ordering medical abortion products and stockpiling them,” he said.

And medical professionals worry about what will happen if Michigan’s Proposition 3 doesn’t pass. Dr. Allen Loss-Barker, who works with medical residents at Michigan State University in East Lansing, said some emergency room and internal medicine residents are concerned that they may be accused of abortion while providing care. Across the board, he said, physicians and other providers worry that their medical licenses could be in jeopardy, or that they could find themselves locked out if the ballot measure fails.

The entire medical community is “in a wait-and-see moment,” he said.

But if Proposition 3 passes, Sprague said, it would set off a cascade that would wipe dozens of other laws protecting women and children off the books. She called it “a bad law for women” in Michigan that is too radical.

Bans on abortion in the state will have the greatest impact on black women. According to the Michigan Department of Community Health, about 56% of abortion patients in the state in 2021 will be black women.

“The disparity in the number of black women seeking abortion services speaks volumes for the health care disparities they experience across the board,” said Golar Blunt.

So black reproductive activist groups are among those making it clear to voters where elected officials stand, Golar Blunt said. He added that they are working on massive voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts.

Both sides have invested millions in advertising to make their case in Michigan. Along with neighborhood canvassing and phone trees, they’re taking to social media Detroit rapper Marshall Mathers, better known as Eminem, who are supporting the measure. Signs for each side are sprouting up by the yard and anti-abortion groups are holding prayer rallies around the state.

The stakes are high and hot as the state awaits the vote. One was shot in September An 83-year-old canvasser was handing out anti-abortion pamphlets on his shoulder in Ionia County, and earlier this month, abortion rights graffiti was sprayed outside a Roman Catholic church in Lansing.

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