Fight for abortion access continues in Michigan after a single lawmaker blocks reforms

By Kyle Kaminski

November 2, 2023

A coalition of advocates for abortion access are blaming one Democratic state lawmaker for derailing legislation that is designed to expand access to reproductive care in Michigan.

MICHIGAN—A “watered down” package of bills passed by the state House this week doesn’t go far enough to expand access to reproductive health care in Michigan, according to a broad coalition of abortion rights groups that includes Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan.

The state House of Representatives on Wednesday passed a series of bills known collectively as the “Reproductive Health Act,” which were previously passed by the Senate, and are designed to tear down long standing legal barriers to abortion access by repealing several old state laws that have prevented women from receiving reproductive health care in Michigan.

But because one Democratic lawmaker—Rep. Karen Whitsett (D-Detroit)—opposed some of the measures included in the legislation, the bills that were passed this week did not include several key changes that advocates had argued were necessary for bolstering access to care.

“While the provisions that were passed (Wednesday) are an incremental improvement for Michiganders seeking abortion care, this stripping away of critical components of the Reproductive Health Act is not in line with the will or the needs of voters across the state,” according to a joint statement released by the ACLU of Michigan, which was co-signed by Planned Parenthood Advocates, and other groups. “We will not stop until barriers to abortion access are removed, and all Michiganders have equitable access to this constitutional right.”

Here’s the deal:

Legislation passed by the state Senate last month sought to erase several legal obstacles to accessing reproductive health care in Michigan, with state lawmakers labeling the old laws as “unnecessary red tape” that only prevent women from receiving the health care they deserve.

The package of bills sought to repeal a number of targeted restrictions on abortion providers in Michigan, also known as TRAP laws. The Senate-passed legislation included the repeal of a mandate in state law that forces patients who seek an abortion to wait at least 24 hours before they can get care, as well as tweaking state licensing requirements for abortion providers.

State Sen. Sarah Anthony (D-Lansing) sponsored the bills alongside Sens. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit), Erika Geiss (D-Taylor), and Mary Cavanagh (D-Redford Township). Anthony said the legislation reflected the “true needs and interests” of Michiganders—especially after 56% of voters supported Proposal 3 last year to cement reproductive rights into the state Constitution.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer also listed the legislation as a top priority in a speech this summer. And after the bills moved to the House, Speaker Pro Tempore Laurie Pohutsky (D-Livonia) vowed to do everything in her power in order get the bills passed and signed into law as soon as possible.

“If we have a constitutional right to reproductive freedom, but it’s not accessible for everyone, then it’s not actually a right,” Pohutsky said in an interview with The ‘Gander in late July.

‘Foolhardy opposition’

Democratic leaders told The ‘Gander that they had anticipated the bills would face opposition from Republicans, who have long opposed reproductive freedom in Michigan. And they did.

But with Democratic lawmakers having a 56-54 majority in the House, the legislation was still expected to pass—until Whitsett decided to speak out against the legislation last month.

Whitsett reportedly said that she opposed several key parts of the legislation, including repealing Michigan’s 24-hour waiting period for those seeking abortions, as well as additional legislative plans that initially sought to require Medicaid to cover the cost of an abortion.

And because Whitsett’s opposition threatened to derail the package altogether under a slim Democratic majority, lawmakers were only able to pass the changes that she would support.

The result was “watered-down” bills that will keep abortion care “out of reach for too many across our state,” according to the ACLU and Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan.

Their statement reads: “Voters have time and again sent a clear mandate to elected officials to take action to remove unnecessary restrictions on abortion access that only impose barriers to care. And yet—thanks to one Michigan House member’s foolhardy opposition to this critical legislation—this chamber just passed a watered-down version of the Reproductive Health Act that lacks key policy reforms that are both desperately needed and widely supported by voters.”

What was passed?

The House did pass some of the Senate-backed measures, though.

One of those bills aims to repeal a state law signed in 2012 by former Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, which currently requires clinics to perform at least 120 abortions every year in order to be licensed as a freestanding medical center. The law forced some clinics with less demand to close, and also restricts the use of telemedicine in essential reproductive healthcare matters.

Officials at Planned Parenthood of Michigan said those licensing requirements prescribe a raft of unnecessary (and cost prohibitive) state rules that have effectively prevented new clinics from opening their doors in underserved areas—especially in the more rural pockets of Michigan.

For example:

The rules have effectively blocked Planned Parenthood from offering procedural abortions at 12 of its 15 health centers—making the organization’s northernmost clinic in Flint. That means a Planned Parenthood patient living in the Upper Peninsula who is in need of a procedural abortion would need to travel seven hours by car to commute to their nearest clinic.

Lawmakers said that dearth of access is an unacceptable convenience for patients. The bills passed in the House, which are now headed back to the Senate, would eliminate those barriers.

Another bill would also repeal the state’s Abortion Insurance Opt-Out Act, which forces Michiganders to buy separate riders to have abortion care covered under their insurance plans. That restriction has been criticized by opponents as a “rape insurance” law, including by then-state Sen. Gretchen Whitmer, who called the legislation “ignorant” and “repulsive” in 2013.

The bills would also reportedly lift a ban on what Republicans inaccurately call “partial-birth” abortions, which is not a medical term and could be interpreted to include a ban on dilation and extraction procedures that are rarely used in late-term pregnancies. The procedure is used for miscarriages, as well as abortions in in the second and third trimester of pregnancy.

The legislation would also allow people to sue if their constitutional rights are infringed, as well as end a ban on colleges and university resources from providing referrals to abortion services.

The bills would also reportedly lift a ban on what Republicans inaccurately call “partial-birth” abortions, which is usually the dilation and extraction procedure used in late-term abortions.

These procedures are extraordinarily rare—99% of all abortions taking place before 20 weeks, and only 0.2% occur via the dilation and extraction procedure—and often are performed in cases of miscarriages, fetal anomalies, or health risks to the pregnant woman.

The legislation would also allow people to sue if their constitutional rights are infringed, as well as end a ban on colleges and university resources from providing referrals to abortion services.

After passing the House, those changes are now headed back to the Senate for final approval.

What didn’t make the cut?

Among the four bills that were passed by the state Senate last month was one that sought to repeal an old state law requiring those seeking an abortion to receive pamphlets of information about alternative options, as well as the 24-hour waiting period.

Officials at Planned Parenthood of Michigan said that rule has created unnecessary delays for patients in need of essential care—especially for those who might not have realized there was a waiting period, and already drove hundreds of miles to receive abortion care.

But those reforms—which Whitsett opposed—were left behind in the House bills.

Whitsett’s opposition also essentially forced state lawmakers to abandon plans to repeal a longstanding state ban that currently prevents Medicaid from covering abortions except in cases of rape or incest, or when the life of the mother is at risk.

In a statement, advocates condemned Whitsett’s opposition as a “direct affront” to what voters demanded when they passed Proposal 3, which includes most of the voters in Whitsett’s district:

“Without eliminating the Medicaid abortion ban and the 24-hour mandated delay, access to abortion care will remain out of reach for too many across our state. Barriers like these make abortion care more difficult to access and often have a disproportionate impact on Black and brown people, people working to make ends meet, rural residents, and other marginalized communities. Moreover, voters across the state support repealing these harmful restrictions.”

Denzel McCampbell, managing director of Progress Michigan, still billed the passage of the “scaled-back version” of the original bills as an important win for reproductive freedom in Michigan, which will still serve to remove critical barriers to reproductive healthcare.

“Rep. Whitsett is far from the only obstacle to progress on reproductive healthcare. Even this incomplete version of the RHA passed with zero Republican support,” he said in a statement. “We’re celebrating a significant win and the positive impact it will have on the lives of people across the state. But the fight for reproductive freedom isn’t over and we will not stop fighting until everyone can access the care they need without fear, shame, or arbitrary restrictions.”

READ MORE: Michigan Senate advances transparency reforms for elected officials

For the latest Michigan news, follow The ‘Gander on Twitter.

Follow Political Correspondent Kyle Kaminski here.



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