One year after Dobbs, advocates say Michigan leads on abortion rights ⋆

Buttons at Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan event in Lansing, Michigan on May 2, 2023. | |Anna Liz Nichols

Hours after the right-wing U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and ended the country’s  nearly 50-year-old constitutional right to abortion on June 24, 2022, a heavy-hearted state Sen. Mallory McMorrow (R-Royal Oak) was talking to a group of organizers.

“Even though we knew it was coming, it was just devastating,” McMorrow said. “I think there was a moment where women across the country really felt hopeless. It hit me really hard when it happened. But I remember telling organizers that day that we’re not powerless in Michigan. We have elections coming up; we would have Prop 3. We had the ability, unlike many other states, to do something about this. If the Supreme Court is going to say it’s a state issue, let’s make it our issue. And we did that.”

It is a variation on that sentiment — “we did that” — that permeates Democratic lawmakers’ and advocates’ reflections on Michigan’s reproductive rights landscape in the year following the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision.

“If there’s anything the last year has taught us, it’s you can’t take away a fundamental right that women have had for almost 50 years and expect there isn’t going to be a reaction,” said McMorrow, who for years had, along with her Democratic colleagues, pushed to protect and expand access to abortion but was blocked from doing so by a then-Republican-led Legislature. 

The Supreme Court’s decision wrought furious protests in Michigan and across a country where the majority of the population supported the right to abortion and disapproved of the court’s ruling. Doctors throughout the state and nation derided the decision, saying it unleashed legal chaos for patients and health care providers and put pregnant people’s lives at risk in states where decades-old abortion bans once moot under Roe went into effect and where right-wing lawmakers now had the power to implement new abortion restrictions and bans. 

“It was like a punch to the gut,” Paula Thornton Greear, the president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Michigan, said of the court’s ruling. “But the story of the overturn of Roe v. Wade really can’t be summed up in a single day. It spans the decades leading up to the Dobbs decision and continues now as states shore up and gut abortion protections.”

Sen. Mallory McMorrow (D-Royal Oak) speaking at the Bans Off Our Bodies protest in Lansing on May 3, 2022 | Allison R. Donahue

One year after the Supreme Court struck down Roe, 14 states have banned abortion while lawmakers in other states with Republican-led legislatures, like Ohio, Florida and Montana, are attempting to restrict or ban abortion. A total of 24 states are likely to ban abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based abortion rights think tank.

In Michigan, however, a different scenario has played out.

“The court’s action one year ago was shocking and terrifying for so many people,” Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids) said. “It was also a rallying cry for Michiganders to take our rights into our own hands, and that’s exactly what we did.”

At the time Roe was overturned, the state had a 91-year-old abortion ban on the books — but Michiganders remained able to access abortion care because Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Planned Parenthood of Michigan filed lawsuits that blocked the state’s 1931 law from going into effect. Following those lawsuits being filed, Michigan Court of Claims Judge Elizabeth Gleicher issued a preliminary injunction on the 1931 ban on May 17, prior to the Supreme Court’s decision. She would go on to issue a permanent injunction in September.

Then, less than half a year after Dobbs, Michigan voters in the November 2022 election passed a constitutional amendment — known as Proposal 3 — that enshrined the right to abortion and other reproductive care in the state constitution.

In that same election, Democrats took control of the state House and Senate for the first time in nearly 40 years; they also maintained the governorship, attorney general and secretary of state. 

With that new majority — which followed a 2018 constitutional amendment that took redistricting out of the hands of the Legislature and created a redistricting commission composed of Republicans, Democrats and independents — Democrats repealed the 1931 abortion ban.

“Echoing the voice of voters, the Michigan Senate and I introduced and passed legislation to repeal the archaic 1931 abortion ban, contraception ban and the related penalties — dangerous laws drafted, passed and enacted by an entirely male Legislature,” said state Sen. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor), who has for years worked to increase access to abortion in Michigan. “To be clear, those of us in the Senate were working on these bills even before the Dobbs decision because of the persistent chipping away at abortion access across the country.”

If there’s anything the last year has taught us, it’s you can’t take away a fundamental right that women have had for almost 50 years and expect there isn’t going to be a reaction.

– State Sen. Mallory McMorrow (D-Royal Oak)

Now, with the country entering its second post-Roe year, Democratic elected officials and reproductive rights advocates are expanding access to abortion and reproductive care in Michigan.

“Last year, after the Dobbs decision was released, tens of millions of Americans across the nation had their fundamental right to make their own decisions about their own bodies and lives stripped away,” Whitmer said in a statement provided to the Advance. “As reproductive freedom remains under attack in other states, we are taking action to guarantee that Michiganders have the right to make reproductive health care decisions that are best for them.

“We have made real progress, but the work must continue,” Whitmer continued. “It is my hope that the Legislature will repeal laws that make it harder for women to exercise their right to access abortion care, including laws that mandate biased, medically inaccurate counseling, discriminatory waiting periods, and put obstructive, targeted regulations on women’s health providers. I will keep using every tool in my toolbox to support, protect, and affirm reproductive freedom in Michigan, and I’ll keep fighting to make our state a welcoming beacon of opportunity where anyone can envision a future.” 

The fact that Michigan has enshrined the right to abortion in its constitution, repealed the abortion ban once on the books and is now focusing on growing access to reproductive health care, Greear said, translates to Michigan being a “blueprint for what other states are striving to do.”

“When I think about the past year, Michiganders rose up so tall and strong,” she said. “Michigan fought; we passed Prop 3. We repealed the 1931 abortion ban. We are now the blueprint; we have this tremendous success in Michigan, but it’s essential we remain steadfast in our commitment to supporting and advocating for comprehensive reproductive health care across the board.”

That advocacy, Greear said, is multi-layered and includes continuing to expand access to abortion and reproductive care in Michigan, including in areas known as abortion and health care deserts. 

Planned Parenthood of Michigan for example, recently launched a virtual health center that provides emergency contraception, birth control and gender-affirming care. Planned Parenthood is also caring for a surge in out-of-state patients coming to Michigan for abortion care. The organization has seen a 30% jump in the number of out-of-state patients it cares for following Dobbs, including from states like Ohio, Wisconsin, Indiana, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Texas, Greear said.

To meet those patients’ needs, Planned Parenthood of Michigan created a “navigation program” over the past year to help people travel to Michigan for abortion care. That program works with patients on travel arrangements, financial hardships, emotional support and more, Greear said.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (left) poses for a picture with Paula Thornton-Greear at a Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan lobby day in Lansing on May 2, 2023. | Anna Liz Nichols

‘It was so stressful, so intense’: The campaign for Proposal 3

Lawmakers and advocates alike emphasized that the change Michigan was able to implement after Dobbs followed years of work. Proposal 3 receiving a record number of signatures to get on the November ballot and proceeding to secure 56.7% of the vote, as well as lawmakers overturning the 1931 abortion ban this year, was no overnight miracle, legislators said.

“It didn’t happen quickly,” McMorrow said. “I introduced the Reproductive Health Act when we got into office in 2018. We introduced it knowing we wouldn’t get bill hearings [in the GOP-led Legislature], but it signaled to residents we were fighting for this. Planned Parenthood of Michigan and the organizations planning the [Proposal 3] initiative saw it coming and were doing organizing work well before the Dobbs decision.”

That work, lawmakers noted, came as states for years rolled back abortion access following the Roe decision in 1973.

“When [former Republican President Donald] Trump got into office, he said it was his mission to overturn Roe v. Wade,” Greear said. “There was still a huge believability gap that Roe would fall, but what I think what the opposition didn’t plan on or prepare for was how quickly people would rebound from that gut punch. That the majority of people would stand up and fight.”

Geiss also noted the years of work to undo Roe.

As we know, the overturning of Roe v. Wade has been a longtime goal of anti-abortion extremists across the country,” Geiss said. “Anti-abortion activists, politicians and judges have been seeking to control our bodies and our lives, take away our bodily autonomy and force their will on the rest of us.”

That, Democratic lawmakers said, meant they had long laid the groundwork for the change that occurred in late 2022. Voters, for example, passed Proposal 2 in an effort to end gerrymandering and create the independent redistricting commission in 2018; that commission then drew new political maps used in the 2022 election in which Democrats took control of the state House and Senate. 

We have to stand up for bodily autonomy. People should have the ability to choose their own destiny,” said State Sen. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor) | Ken Coleman

Months before the Dobbs decision, in January 2022, Planned Parenthood of Michigan, the ACLU of Michigan and Michigan Voices formed a coalition, Reproductive Freedom For All, to get a proposal on the 2022 ballot to enshrine the right to abortion in the state constitution.

All of that, advocates said, meant that when the Supreme Court announced Roe v. Wade was overturned, there was already a political infrastructure in place to quickly organize around. 

Still, that didn’t mean the time between the court’s ruling in June and the November election wasn’t incredibly stressful, said Darci McConnell, the communication director for Reproductive Freedom for All and the CEO of the Detroit-based McConnell Communications Inc.

“It went from zero to 60 very fast,” McConnell said. “There were incredibly grueling, long and intense days. People were watching us across the country.”

There were a number of reasons the Proposal 3 campaign was successful, despite a litany of anti-abortion and anti-Proposal 3 ads that flooded the airwaves before the election, McConnell said. 

“I think having these groups at the table — the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, Michigan Voices — that was significant,” McConnell said, noting the organizations’ ability to fundraise and familiarity with political messaging.

“Doctors and health care professionals in general were very pivotal in this campaign,” McConnell continued. “They’re not accustomed to participating in campaigns like this, and doctors were a huge part in explaining what this was and what it would mean. We had the best messengers you could have.”

As we know, the overturning of Roe v. Wade has been a longtime goal of anti-abortion extremists across the country. Anti-abortion activists, politicians and judges have been seeking to control our bodies and our lives, take away our bodily autonomy, and force their will on the rest of us.

– State Sen. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor)

Dr. Rob Davidson, an emergency room physician in West Michigan who is the executive director of the Committee to Protect Health Care, was one of the doctors who backed enshrining the right to abortion in the constitution.

“We were very focused on Proposal 3 and supporting it,” said Davidson, whose organization is now working to protect abortion care across the country. “We were also supporting the governor, who had spent most of 2022 after the decision filing motions in court trying to uphold the rights of half the people of our state.”

Following a leaked draft decision that set off alarms nationwide that the Supreme Court was poised to overturn Roe, Whitmer and Planned Parenthood of Michigan filed their lawsuits in April 2022 in attempts to keep abortion legal in the state. In the months that followed, often confusing legal proceedings frequently left health care providers and residents wondering if abortion was still legal — which it was, Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel repeatedly said. 

On one particularly tumultuous day in August of 2022, a state Court of Appeals judge ruled that county prosecutors were exempt from Gleicher’s injunction. The same day that ruling was made, Whitmer asked the Oakland County Circuit Court to issue a temporary restraining order to prevent county-level decisions on abortion access. By that evening, Circuit Court Judge Jacob Cunningham granted the governor’s request.

These months of legal tumult, Davidson said, left many health care providers feeling concerned about what they could legally practice. 

“There were probably six months in there where there was back and forth,” Davidson said of the lawsuits making their way through the courts. “You had to go online and check the legal status day by day. 

“When you have these people in the Legislature, in government, in the courts, county prosecutors — when you have all of them deciding they’re going to weigh in and tell us how we’re going to practice medicine, it adds this whole layer of stress,” he continued. “… It adds to burnout, which has been a huge problem in health care before COVID, during COVID, after COVID.”

Now, however, Davidson said there’s a deep “sense of relief” and security for health care professionals and abortion providers in Michigan. “There’s nothing else we have to worry about in Michigan; we have Proposal 3 saying, ‘You guys do the medicine, full stop.’”

McConnell echoed this sentiment. 

“We went from a place of despair with regressive things happening to now we can be considered the innovator in terms of having laws that empower voters and protecting reproductive rights,” she said.

Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan and others canvassed a Detroit neighborhood in support of Proposal 3. | Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan photo

Anti-abortion movement continues the fight

After the majority of Michiganders who voted in November’s election backed protecting access to abortion, state Republican lawmakers have continued introducing legislation restricting reproductive rights.

Rep. Neil Friske (R-Charlevoix) in May introduced a legislative package that included a joint resolution to remove the Proposal 3 amendment from the state constitution and bills to reinstitute the 1931 abortion ban, reinstitute a ban on the sale of prescription abortion bills, and reinstitute a ban on advertising for abortion services. The package also includes a resolution “declaring the evidence for life prior to birth and the condemnation of deliberate abortion as murderous,” according to a statement from Friske.

The package remains in committee and is not expected to be voted on by the Democratic-led Legislature.

“While unlikely to pass, this package should serve as a guideline for Republican pro-life legislators,” Friske said in a May 26 press release. “This pro-life model should be the official Republican platform for life, and repealing Proposal 3 and reinstituting pro-life laws should be the first and foremost goal of our caucus.”

Reps. Matt Maddock (R-Milford), Steve Carra (R-Three Rivers), James DeSana (R-Carleton), Cam Cavitt (R-Cheboygan), Angela Rigas (R-Caledonia), Joseph Fox (R-Tecumseh) and Gregory Alexander (R-Carsonville) were co-sponsors of the joint resolution, bills and resolution.

Right to Life of Michigan, a Lansing-based anti-abortion group that worked to defeat Proposal 3, has also continued its advocacy and in a statement sent to the Advance called the one-year anniversary of Dobbs a “celebratory time for the cause of life nationwide.”

“The Dobbs decision reaffirms our national commitment to women – their health, their children and their futures – and a broader life ethic that characterizes the best of humanity,” Right to Life of Michigan said. 

“Dobbs is not an end in itself but the reigniting of a cultural conversation about how we as a society value and support each other and every woman through the most challenging of times, inviting her to make a choice for life,” Right to Life continued. 

At the Michigan Hall of Justice in Lansing, a few dozen people gathered on June 24, 2022 to celebrate the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. | Photo by Andrew Roth

The future of abortion care

Republican lawmakers are attacking abortion rights in a slew of other states, as well. 

Democratic lawmakers and advocates said a federal abortion ban isn’t out of the question should Republicans take control of the executive and legislative branches in the 2024 election.

“The 2024 election is critical,” Davidson said. “If we end up with control by Republicans of all branches, I think it’s clear something like a 15-week abortion ban or worse is in play. One of the two leading candidates — [Florida Gov. Ron] DeSantis — just signed a six-week abortion ban in his state.

“If it comes to pass that someone like DeSantis, [U.S. Sen.] Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and [U.S. House Speaker] Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) get to write the laws, it’s not going to be doctors who are in control,” Davidson said.

While Republicans at the congressional level have not enacted any legislation restricting abortion, right-wing lawmakers at the state level have. Federal judges appointed by Republicans have also led efforts to restrict access to reproductive health care.

U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas Matthew Joseph Kacsmaryk, who was nominated by Trump, overturned the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s decades-old approval of mifepristone, often referred to as the abortion pill, in early April. The U.S. Justice Department appealed the case to the 5th Circuit Court, which heard oral arguments in May and could make a ruling any day. The case is expected to go to the U.S. Supreme Court after that. Meanwhile, mifepristone remains legal in Michigan.

Last year, after the Dobbs decision was released, tens of millions of Americans across the nation had their fundamental right to make their own decisions about their own bodies and lives stripped away. As reproductive freedom remains under attack in other states, we are taking action to guarantee that Michiganders have the right to make reproductive health care decisions that are best for them.

– Gov. Gretchen Whitmer

These efforts to ban and restrict abortion and other reproductive care over the past year have left pregnant people and families across the country to deal with life-threatening situations, soaring costs for abortion care, and a psychological toll among patients and health care providers alike, experts said.

“On this anniversary, I’m pleased Michigan has listened to the voice of the people, but I’m very saddened by what a number of women are having to experience in terms of not getting timely care for things like miscarriages, which is life threatening, and for ectopic pregnancies, which is life threatening,” said Siobán Harlow, a professor of global public health, obstetrics and gynecology, and epidemiology at the University of Michigan.

“Women are using resources they don’t have to travel to a state where they can make decisions about their lives, their families and reproductive self determination,” Harlow continued. “I think it’s a troubling time.”

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.), who has shared how his now ex-wife had to receive a life-saving abortion, also emphasized that Michigan’s abortion access is far from universal.

“While Michiganders voted to enshrine a woman’s right to an abortion in our state’s constitution, the threat to essential health care for women is as strong as ever,” U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.) said in a statement for the Advance.

“Republicans across the country are working to pass legislation to make abortion illegal everywhere,” Peters continued. “I will keep fighting to protect every American woman’s right to make her own health care decisions with her doctors without interference from politicians and judges.”

U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) said she plans to “continue to fight like hell for reproductive freedom for all Americans.

Last year, abortion rights were on the ballot in Michigan, and Michiganders soundly rejected the far-right Supreme Court’s decision to strip away their right to bodily autonomy. Unfortunately, many folks in other states across the country are living with these devastating consequences,” Tlaib said in a statement for the Advance.

“We know that abortion bans disproportionately endanger the lives of Black and brown Americans,” Tlaib continued. “We must continue to mobilize and organize a movement to restore abortion rights as the law of the land across the nation. Congress is an institution that responds to external pressure. Change begins in the streets.”

Hundreds of people braved the heat in Lansing to protest the Supreme Court’s decision to remove abortion protections for millions of people on June 24 2022. | Photo by Andrew Roth

Greear also made this point: Marginalized Americans, including Black and brown residents, are disproportionately affected by abortion bans and restrictions. Americans facing financial hardship because of systemic racism are far less able to access funding for out-of-state abortion care, which, in addition to the care itself, includes transportation, housing and food during a trip that means crossing state lines.

“People that are fortunate enough to have money in this country will always be able to access the care that they need,” Greear said. “This country already had a deep, deep divide. If you look at the health disparities that exist — those disparities have only deepened, which makes what we’ve been able to do in Michigan only that much more necessary. To me, it is truly saving lives.”

Greear agreed with Davidson and Democratic lawmakers that there’s reason to be concerned about the 2024 election. 

“The opposition is dogged and determined,” she said. “They have a very serious bark that they try to turn into a very serious bite.”

Geiss said the 2024 election “is going to be crucial for protecting reproductive freedom and ensuring reproductive justice,” and McMorrow said abortion is “going to be a huge issue” in the upcoming presidential election.

“I have no doubt this is going to be a huge mobilizing issue heading into 2024,” McMorrow said. “I’ve been telling people Michigan should be a beacon of hope on what we can do.”

Part of being that beacon, Greear said, is a recognition of the “ripple effects of the decision that are permeating across this country.

We went from a place of despair with regressive things happening to now we can be considered the innovator in terms of having laws that empower voters and protecting reproductive rights.

– Darci McConnell, the communication director for Reproductive Freedom for All, said of the campaign for Proposal 3

“There’s been a recognition that this fight for reproductive rights is interconnected with the broader struggle of social justice,” she said.

“Overturning Roe really has weakened the legal foundations of many rights that we as Americans deeply, deeply value,” Greear said. “It’s caused a lot of ripple effects that are going to continue for years to come. Look at the attacks on marriage equality, the right to contraception and gender-affirming care – so many other civil liberties that are now at risk.”

While Michigan’s Democratic-led Legislature has passed a number of protections for LGTBQ+ Michiganders that have been signed by Whitmer, there have been 491 anti-LGBTQ+ bills introduced or passed across the country in 2023, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

These attacks on abortion access, contraception and gender-affirming care are related not to health care, Greear said, but to power. 

“I’m here to say we are not letting go of the power that we have – the power of bodily autonomy,” she said. “… The renewed intersectional movement for civil liberties all over is standing strong.”

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authored by Anna Gustafson
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