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1931 law protects some babies in Michigan

Officials give conflicting opinions on the legality of abortion in the state


Pro-lifers pray outside a Planned Parenthood in Ann Arbor, Mich., on June 24. Associated Press/Photo by Jacob Hamilton/Ann Arbor News

1931 law protects some babies in Michigan

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich.—Jordan Sweezer can almost always tell when abortionist Thomas Gordon arrives at the Heritage center. Sweezer preaches outside of the facility on abortion procedure days, Wednesday through Friday, and offers help to the pregnant women. He recognizes the abortionist’s cars: one gray and one black BMW. Sweezer said Gordon is also easy to identify when he arrives because he slows down in front of Sweezer and “gives me a one-finger salute every morning that he shows up.”

Sweezer was there on Wednesday morning, June 29, with a small group of pro-lifers. It appeared to be business as usual—until Sweezer and the others noticed the women arriving for their appointments could not get into the building. A handful of women with their friends or family members eventually gathered by the locked front door of the facility. After they waited for some time, a facility worker let the group enter. Within two minutes, they all came back out and got in their vehicles and left. Within an hour, the staff started to leave, and eventually even Gordon left. It appeared that no abortions would happen that day.

“It was just so amazing,” said Sweezer. “They just all came out at the same time with their babies alive and knowing where they can go for help.”

Mark Garner, who works security for the pro-life groups at the abortion facility and was there that morning, corroborated Sweezer’s story. Although staff came on Thursday and Friday, Garner and Sweezer said the facility didn’t appear to perform any abortions either day. Sweezer said the only woman who entered that didn’t look like a staff member was only in the building for about 15 minutes.

The abortion facility answered calls on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday but said they could not provide a statement to the media. A Planned Parenthood down the street that provides chemical abortions did not answer calls on Friday.

Earlier in the week, the county’s prosecuting attorney, Chris Becker, stated his intentions to enforce a 1931 Michigan law protecting all babies from abortion except to save the life of the mother. The 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade was the only thing preventing the law’s enforcement. But now that the high court has overturned Roe in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health decision, officials disagree about whether or not that 1931 law is in effect.

Since the Supreme Court issued its Dobbs ruling on June 24, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, has made repeated public statements claiming that abortion is still legal in the state. She points to a ruling from Michigan appellate judge, Elizabeth Gleicher, who is presiding over a lawsuit Planned Parenthood filed against Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel. Gleicher in May ruled to temporarily block the attorney general from enforcing the 1931 law. She purported to prevent county prosecutors from doing the same. But Becker in Kent County and another prosecutor in Jackson County, Jerard Jarzynka, said they can still enforce the law as separately elected officials who were not parties to the lawsuit against Nessel.

“We could have been sued by the plaintiffs, but those plaintiffs decided not to sue the county prosecutors. So we’ve never had a chance to respond,” Jarzynka said.

In an interview last week, Jarzynka said he believed the Planned Parenthood in Jackson, Mich., was still distributing abortion pills. Pro-life sidewalk counselor Beth Thorres confirmed the same on Friday, saying the facility had added additional business hours to its schedule and that “yesterday they were busier than I have ever seen in 20 years.” That Planned Parenthood did not answer calls on Friday.

Jarzynka said he had received no police reports yet on violations of the 1931 law, adding that could partly be due to how recently the Dobbs ruling came out: “The dust is still settling.” As of June 30, he had not issued any guidance to medical offices or law enforcement in his county but said he intended to do so to clarify what the law says and the exceptions it provides for saving the life of the mother.

Kent County prosecuting attorney Becker said on Thursday he also had not communicated directly with law enforcement or with local abortion facilities and hospitals. He confirmed that earlier in the week he “issued a statement saying I’m not ignoring the law.”

Meanwhile, hospitals in the state have shown conflicting responses to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling. The day the Dobbs decision came down, the Beaumont-Spectrum hospital system issued a statement saying it would comply with the 1931 law, only performing abortions when the life of the mother was in danger. In another statement the next day, the system reversed course and said it would continue providing “medically necessary” abortions as it had historically done, noting that practitioners “have not and will not” perform elective abortions. A spokesperson told the Detroit News that “medically necessary” includes serious risks to the woman’s health and situations in which the baby is unlikely to survive.

Responding to the initial news that the Spectrum-Beaumont hospitals would comply with the 1931 law, social media users expressed concerns that women would not receive proper care after miscarriages. But Jarzynka and Becker said in interviews with WORLD that they would not prosecute doctors who treated miscarriages or ectopic pregnancies since such treatment is not considered a crime under the law. “If the baby is dead, obviously, the health of the mother probably, the life of the mother is at risk, because you're carrying a dead infant,” said Jarzynka. “Or if it’s an ectopic pregnancy, then yeah, I think the life of the mother is in danger from bleeding to death, for example.”

Opponents of the 1931 Michigan law complain that the legislation is outdated. Instead of using the term “abortion,” it refers to the criminal act as employing any means to “procure the miscarriage” of a pregnant woman. It does not clarify that pregnant women themselves cannot be prosecuted. But Genevieve Marnon, the legislative director for Michigan Right to Life, said any remaining confusion over what is and what is not allowed under the Michigan law can be clarified in other statutes and in case law.

Elsewhere, in Michigan statute clarifies that if a mother causes the miscarriage of her unborn baby, she is not liable for that act. Another state law says removing an ectopic pregnancy, removing a baby that has miscarried, or performing an abortion to save the mother’s life does not count as an elective abortion. That same act also clarifies that the use of “a drug or device intended as a contraceptive” does not count as an elective abortion.

In a 1973 Michigan Supreme Court decision regarding the state’s abortion statute, the court also clarified that “the central purpose” of the 1931 law was “clear enough to prohibit all abortions except those required to preserve the health of the mother.” In a separate case from 1963 also involving the 1931 abortion law, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that the petitioner in the case—a woman who had an abortion—could not be prosecuted.

Under that jurisprudence, Michigan hospitals would still be allowed to perform abortions when the life of the mother is at risk, and (despite alarmism from abortion supporters) women would not face the possibility of jail time for having an ectopic pregnancy removed. The only change that the Beaumont-Spectrum hospitals would have to make to abide by the 1931 law would involve halting abortions of babies with disabilities, what Marnon called “eugenic abortions.” She said Right to Life of Michigan recommends perinatal hospice—not abortion—for unborn babies suffering from severe abnormalities.


Leah Savas

Leah is the life beat reporter for World News Group. She is a graduate of Hillsdale College and the World Journalism Institute and resides in Grand Rapids, Mich., with her husband, Stephen.

@leahsavas

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