A photo shows a woman's hands as she fills out a ballot in a polling booth.

Waiting for the voters’ decision on abortion, when medicine and politics collide

LANSING, Mich. — The fight against abortion is heading for political resolution across the state as activists, policymakers, politicians, providers and potential patients eye the Nov. 8 election.

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

Kansas voted this year to keep abortion legal. Now Michigan is one of five states, along with California, Kentucky, Montana and Vermont, asking voters next month to weigh in on abortion policy following the Supreme Court’s ruling in june in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. This decision overturned the court’s 1973 decision Roe vs. Wade decision and lets states set their own abortion policies.

Since the court ruling, access to abortion in the United States has evolved into a jumble of norms. In some states, decades-old laws that linger on the books could trigger dramatic changes, while other states are considering new laws. But as the political landscape forms, those on the front lines must operate in an uncertain state of vacuum.

In Michigan, the politically deadlocked state government ensured that a 1931 law banning abortions was dusted off and then sent back to the courts, where judges temporarily blocked prosecutors from enforcing it. The ballot measure to protect abortion rights only landed on ballots after lawyers submitted petitions with more than 735,000 valid signatures and Michigan Supreme Court justices put down end to a legal tussle over the technical details of the petition.

Abortion politics have also spilled over into both the Attorney General and Governor race, with incumbent Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who supports abortion rights, running against Republican Tudor Dixon, an outspoken conservative who opposes abortion, even in cases of rape and incest.

When 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 amendment constitutional state.

“There’s a bit of a tennis game 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.

Christen Pollo, executive director of Protect Life Michigan, which works with students on campus to end abortion, said “the overwhelming majority of voters oppose the extreme policies” of the measure. But according to a poll commissioned by the Detroit Free Press and its media partners, 64% of those polled plan to vote for the campaign measure codifying abortion rights into the Michigan Constitution.

Meanwhile, state abortion providers continue to see patients amid confusion over what will be legal in Michigan. At a full-service family planning clinic in a busy Lansing strip mall, staff still see a steady stream of women seeking services. And in a busy corner outside the clinic’s parking lot, a steady stream of anti-abortion protesters still show up, waving signs, as they have since this place opened decades ago.

Everything looks much the same as it did before the landmark Supreme Court ruling, but behind the scenes, abortion providers and advocates are bracing for an uncertain future. Linda Goler Blount, president of the national Black Women’s Health Imperative in Atlanta, works with networks of activists across the country to support their efforts to ensure the availability of contraceptives. “Some of these groups order medical abortion products and stockpile them,” she said.

And medical professionals are worried about what will happen if Michigan’s Proposition 3 doesn’t pass. Dr Alane Laws-Barker, who works with resident physicians at Michigan State University in East Lansing, said some residents in the emergency and internal medicine departments fear being charged with causing an abortion while providing care. Overall, she said, doctors and other providers fear their medical licenses could be at risk or find themselves locked out if the ballot measure fails.

The entire medical community is “in a waiting moment,” she said.

But if Proposition 3 passes, Sprague said, it will cause a cascade that will wipe dozens of other laws that protect women and children off the books. He called it a “bad law for women” in Michigan that is too sweeping.

A state ban on abortions would likely have the greatest impact on black women. According to the Michigan Department of Community Health, black women make up nearly 56% of abortion patients in the state in 2021.

“The disparity in the number of black women seeking abortion services speaks to the many health care inequities they suffer at all levels,” Goler Blount said.

So black reproductive activist groups are among those on the ground making it clear to voters where elected officials stand, Goler Blount said. She added that they were working on mass voter registration and efforts to get the vote.

Both Michigan sides have invested millions in ads to make their case. In addition to neighborhood canvasses and phone trees, they’re taking to social media, including Detroit rapper Marshall Mathers, known as Eminem, which supports the measure. Signs for each side are sprouting up in yards, and anti-abortion groups have held prayer rallies across the state.

The stakes are high and heated as the state awaits the vote. In September, a man shot an 83-year-old canvasser on her shoulder in County Ionia as she handed out anti-abortion pamphlets, and earlier this month abortion rights graffiti was sprayed outside a Catholic church Roman in Lansing.

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