Michigan pro-lifers fight a radical amendment
A summer that started with hopes of shutting down Michigan abortion facilities ends with efforts to oppose a ballot initiative
Michigan resident Colleen Issa started her summer optimistic that local authorities would enforce the state’s 1931 abortion law and shut down the Grand Rapids abortion facility. After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June, Issa started showing up on the sidewalk outside of the Heritage Clinic abortion facility. The tall woman with dark, curly hair wanted to talk to women who had arrived for appointments, but she also wanted to help shut the facility down—and for the first time in almost 50 years, that seemed like a possibility. Michigan’s pre-Roe abortion law makes it a felony to perform abortions except to save the life of the mother, and Kent County Prosecuting Attorney Chris Becker said he was willing to prosecute.
For Issa, it was personal: She says the Heritage Clinic abortionist Thomas Gordon performed an abortion on her more than 30 years ago, when she was in her 20s, and it traumatized her.
Abortions at the facility appeared to stop for the first few days after the overturn of Roe. But when Issa and others saw women entering the facility, she made multiple calls to the police and filed a police report in hopes of holding Gordon accountable. Now after more than two months of inaction from local authorities, she’s stopped hoping to see the facility close in the near future. Instead, she’s shifted her attention to helping fundraise for and install safe haven baby drop-off boxes in Michigan cities.
“You know, nothing’s gonna happen with this abortion issue, at least until November, and even then it’s going to be an uphill battle,” Issa said on Friday.
Why November? That month, Michiganders will likely vote on a constitutional amendment that would add a right to abortion to the state constitution. After a series of disappointing court rulings in cases involving Michigan’s pre-Roe abortion law, pro-life groups in the state are focusing on fighting this pro-abortion amendment.
A court in May ruled to prevent Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel from enforcing the 1931 abortion law that would protect babies from abortion except to save the mother’s life. But some county prosecuting attorneys in the state—including Becker—pointed out that the injunction did not apply to them and said they would still enforce it. Police in Grand Rapids echoed talking points from Michigan’s pro-abortion governor and attorney general, telling local pro-lifers that abortion was still legal in the state.
On Aug. 1, the Michigan Court of Appeals issued an opinion affirming what Becker and other county prosecuting attorneys had argued all along: that the May ruling did not apply to the county prosecuting attorneys since they were not parties in the case. But hours after that opinion came down, Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Jacob Cunningham, in another case involving Becker and 12 other county prosecuting attorneys, issued a temporary restraining order to prevent them from enforcing the law. Over the next couple of weeks, the court held hearings in the case, culminating in an Aug. 19 order from Cunningham blocking the law’s enforcement while the case continues to play out in the courts.
David Kallman, attorney for Becker and one other county prosecutor, said he plans to appeal the ruling to the Michigan Court of Appeals. In the meantime, he said the Michigan Supreme Court could also intervene in the case since Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has requested that court to step in and use the case to declare a right to abortion in the state constitution. At the Michigan Democratic Convention on Aug. 21, state Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein told attendees that “the Michigan Supreme Court … will have the final word in a woman’s right to choose in the state of Michigan.” But Kallman said the case might not see much activity until after the midterm elections on Nov. 8 because the abortion issue is likely to be on the ballot this fall.
In July, abortion groups in the state submitted 753,759 signatures in favor of the pro-abortion ballot measure, almost double the required 425,059. The ballot initiative petition proposed an amendment that would “establish a new individual right to reproductive freedom.” It lists “abortion care” among a list of other pregnancy-related matters including prenatal care, childbirth, contraception, and infertility care.
On Thursday, the Michigan Bureau of Elections recommended the amendment for the ballot after determining that enough of the signatures were valid. In a meeting Wednesday, the state Board of Canvassers will also consider the ballot measure—and hear arguments from a pro-life coalition that argues typos in the amendment make it unacceptable for the ballot.
“There are 60 spaces missing,” said Christen Pollo, spokeswoman for the pro-life state coalition Citizens to Support MI Women and Children. The group argues these missing spaces amount to “strings of gibberish” that should not be added to the state constitution. “There have been proposals in the past thrown out for much smaller instances of mistakes being made,” said Pollo, adding that no legal mechanism exists for fixing errors in a proposed amendment that has already been approved through the petition process.
But, in the meantime, state pro-life groups are also preparing for the possibility that the amendment will come before voters on the November ballot. Pollo said they want to educate voters about the effects that the amendment will have on existing state laws, including that it will repeal the state’s parental consent requirements for minors seeking abortion.
It will also allow for late-term abortions: According to the amendment, the state will only be able to regulate abortion care after the unborn baby is viable (usually around 24 weeks of gestation) if they also allow for abortions to protect the life or “physical or mental health of the pregnant individual.” Under this broad and undefined mental health exception, this could mean allowing for abortions if pregnancy causes any sort of stress to the mother. “Most people do not support legalizing abortion [on healthy babies] through all nine months of pregnancy for any reason whatsoever …. That is what this would do,” said Pollo. Currently, Michigan law only allows abortions after 24 weeks if the mother’s life is at risk.
“If that passes and gets into our Constitution, then all of this is moot .… These cases, I’m sure, would be dismissed at that point,” said Kallman, referring to the ongoing lawsuits regarding the state’s 1931 abortion law. To Michigan residents who want to help protect unborn babies in their state, he said the primary thing they can do at this point is “get the word out” about the ballot amendment and to vote against it: “We have to be out there educating and letting people know what the truth is.”
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