In some states, voters can decide the future of abortion rights

As states grapple with the future of abortion in the United States, Michigan, California and Vermont could become the first states to let voters decide whether the right to abortion should be written into the state constitution.

In Michigan, a proposed constitutional amendment would override a 90-year-old state law that criminalizes abortion even in cases of rape or incest. The United States Supreme Court decision was overturned Roe v. Wade Last month could have revived that abortion ban — and galvanized abortion-rights advocates to secure new protections.

Some momentum is coming from staff joining for the first time.

“I wanted to do something, but I had no political experience or no activism experience,” said Amanda Mazur, who lives in rural northwest Michigan. “But I thought, ‘Maybe I can volunteer and offer something tangible to the movement.'”

Michigan organizers like Mazur submitted more than 750,000 signatures — a record number, they said — to state election officials in hopes of getting the amendment on the November ballot.

If just over half of the signatures are validated, Michigan voters will decide whether to amend the state constitution to guarantee a broad individual right to “reproductive liberty” that would cover abortion, contraception and fertility treatment. It would prevent the state from regulating abortion after pregnancy if the patient’s “physical or mental health” is at risk.

The ballot initiative has support from medical groups such as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, while conservative groups have called it radical and dangerous, claiming it would “allow late-term abortions for any functional reason.”

In California, the push to expand abortion access starts from a different vantage point: abortion rights are protected in state law. And voters will be asked if they want to be included in the constitution. Proposition 1, which will be on the ballot in November, would prohibit the state from interfering with Californians’ reproductive health decisions, including decisions about abortion or contraception.

“I want to know for sure that that right is protected,” state Sen. Tony Atkins (D-San Diego), the Senate Democratic leader and lead author of the amendment, said at a legislative hearing in June. “We are protecting ourselves from future courts and future politicians.”

The amendment is a strategy several California lawmakers are pursuing to protect abortion access in the state. Governor. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, signed legislation to eliminate out-of-pocket costs for abortions for most Californians and protect California providers who provide abortion services from lawsuits in other states. The latest state budget deal includes $200 million for reproductive and abortion care.

Earlier this month, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, announced the proposal would be on the Nov. 5 ballot. He said in a statement: “In Vermont, we have enshrined the right to vote in law, and now Vermonters have an opportunity to further protect that right in our constitution.”

For Mazur, the desire to “do something” began in 2017, when she and her husband gave their 2-year-old daughter some happy news: She was going to have a big sister. The family was thrilled.

But then the doctors said something was wrong with Mazur.

“Halfway through the pregnancy I found out that the baby my husband and I were hoping for suffered from a rare and life-limiting genetic condition,” Mazur said. “We ultimately made the compassionate choice to end the pregnancy for my well-being, and for the well-being of our family, and for the life of what we thought would be our child.”

Devastated, Mazur turned to a national online support group and met people with similar experiences. But many group members say they are having a hard time finding ways to terminate their pregnancies.

“It really breaks my heart that you are already going through this devastating experience but have to go so far away from your home across the country… [and] Advocate for yourself like crazy just to take care that you decide with your doctor is best for you,” Mazur said.

At the time, abortion rights in Michigan seemed pretty stable, but Mazur’s political awakening found an outlet this year.

Reproductive Freedom for All, a petition group supported by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan, was collecting signatures for a constitutional amendment to protect abortion in state law. The effort took on new urgency after a draft of the Supreme Court’s decision was released in May Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization Leaked and then published.

“People realized that this big, scary thing that they didn’t think would happen could actually happen,” said Jessica Ayoub, field organizer for the ACLU of Michigan.

Some Michiganders were registering to vote just to be eligible to sign the petition. Jenny Horauf, a 62-year-old attorney from Farwell, drove 40 miles to attend a rally where she knew she could sign it.

“A bunch of us were very ticked off [about Roe being overturned], and we are talking about it. And I was like, ‘I’m just going to go ahead and find out where I can sign the stupid petition,'” Horauf said.

Activists on both sides hope to spend millions of dollars on the abortion-rights debate. They predict donations will come from outside Michigan and voters in other states will watch.

Ayyub said, this is just the beginning of our fight. “We know it’s a long way until November.”

KHN correspondent Rachel Bluth contributed to this report.

This story is part of a partnership that includes Michigan Radio, NPR and KHN.

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