Michiganders protected abortion after Roe. Republicans are plotting a reversal.

By Kyle Kaminski

January 22, 2024

Michigan has emerged as a safe haven for abortion care after the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. But under Republican leadership, those rights could be in jeopardy.

MICHIGAN—Monday marks 51 years since the US Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, recognizing the constitutional right to privacy and a woman’s right to have an abortion.

Those rights have since been ripped away from millions of women across the country after the US Supreme Court decided Dobbs v. Jackson in 2022, overturning decades of progress on reproductive rights and allowing state governments to once again ban abortion care.

Since then, Michigan has emerged as a nationwide beacon for reproductive freedom after voters cemented the right to an abortion into the state constitution and elected Democratic lawmakers (and a governor) who have repealed several of Michigan’s anti-abortion laws.

But Michigan hasn’t always been a safe haven for women. In fact, before Roe was decided, Michiganders had spent decades living under a 1931 law that formally criminalized abortion statewide—a law that won’t even officially be removed from the books until next month.

And if ex-President Donald Trump and Republican lawmakers manage to take control of the federal government in the 2024 elections, those hard-fought rights could again be in jeopardy.

Wondering how we got here?

Here’s a look at the battle for reproductive rights in Michigan, beginning with the state’s first abortion ban, which was enacted less than a decade after Michigan became a state in 1837.

Michigan before Roe

Michigan first enacted a law to ban abortion (except to save the life of a mother) in 1846. That law was updated in 1931, officially making it a felony to perform an abortion in most situations.

Michigan after Roe

The US Supreme Court affirmed the constitutional right of privacy in 1973, allowing the right to choose an abortion. And although the ruling had superseded Michigan’s old law banning abortion statewide, Republican lawmakers kept chipping away at those rights for decades.

Among the restrictions on abortion care passed into Michigan law by Republicans after Roe was decided: Mandatory waiting periods for patients, parental consent requirements for teenagers, and new laws that aimed to ban so-called “partial-birth” abortions—an inaccurate term that is usually used to describe the dilation and extraction procedure used in late-term abortions.

Lawmakers also enacted licensing restrictions on abortion facilities that made it difficult for providers to operate in Michigan—including laws that required abortion clinics to conform to the same strict regulatory standards as outpatient surgical centers. Another law put in place in 2013 had forced Michigan women to buy a separate rider on their health insurance to cover abortion.

Michigan after Dobbs

Abortion rights were never compromised in Michigan as a result of the Dobbs decision.

On the same day of the ruling, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer filed a motion urging a court to declare the state’s 1931 abortion ban unconstitutional. A subsequent injunction prevented that old law from ever being enforced before the state Supreme Court later found it to be unconstitutional.

An overwhelming majority of Michiganders also voted in support of Proposal 3 at the polls in 2022, officially cementing their right to reproductive care into the state Constitution. And last year, Democratic lawmakers sealed the deal by repealing the 1931 abortion ban altogether.

As neighboring states continued to tighten restrictions on abortion care, Michigan Democrats also passed and Whitmer signed a package of bills known as the “Reproductive Health Act.”

Those new laws will repeal a raft of unnecessary (and cost prohibitive) state rules that have effectively prevented new abortion clinics from opening in underserved areas of the state. The new legislation also repeals decades of restrictive laws put in place by Republican lawmakers.

What’s next?

Advocates for reproductive rights didn’t get everything they wanted in the Reproductive Health Act—including the repeal of an old state law that requires those seeking an abortion to receive pamphlets of information about alternative options and another state law that forces patients to wait at least 24 hours between booking an appointment for an abortion and receiving care.

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

Early drafts of the legislation also included measures to repeal a longstanding state ban that prevents Medicaid from covering abortions except in cases of rape or incest, or when the life of the mother is at risk. Opposition from one Democratic lawmaker—Rep. Karen Whitsett (D-Detroit)—derailed those legislative plans last year, and they have yet to resurface in 2024.

Ashlea Phenicie, chief advocacy officer for Planned Parenthood of Michigan, said those measures are unlikely to return unless Democrats expand their majority in the state Legislature.

But in the meantime, she hopes lawmakers can keep making progress over the next year—including by expanding access to birth control, enacting new legislation to allow for paid family and medical leave, and new “shield laws” to further protect abortion providers statewide.

“As we enter 2024, we are taking a wider view at how we can support our patients and all Michiganders in making their reproductive healthcare decisions,” Phenicie said. “So—continuing the fight for abortion access, but also looking at how we can expand access to birth control and making sure that people are able to take time off work to heal and bond with their child.”

What’s at stake?

With President Joe Biden in the White House, Whitmer behind the governor’s desk, and Democrats in charge of the US House and both chambers of the Michigan legislature, Michiganders’ reproductive rights have never been more protected than they are today.

At the same time, there’s a high-stakes legal battle before the US Supreme Court over access to abortion medication which threatens to curtail access to the drug—even in states like Michigan, where abortion still remains legal and fully protected under the state Constitution.

And even more could be at stake in this year’s elections.

Anti-abortion Republicans are hoping to regain complete control of Congress in 2025, and a second Trump term could lead to sweeping, nationwide restrictions on abortion care.

Republican operatives have crafted an expansive blueprint that lays out in detail how they intend to leverage virtually every arm, tool, and agency of the federal government to attack abortion access—including by banning and criminalizing access to abortion medication.

That plan—which is more than 900 pages long—was put together by Trump’s allies and includes ways to make abortion inaccessible without actually passing any new laws at all.

The theory: Trump could replace nonpolitical staff in government agencies with right-wing henchmen to erode abortion rights, including by hiring staff at the US Food and Drug Administration to reject medical science and reverse its approval of all abortion medication.

Project 2025, as the plan has been called, also calls for the US Department of Justice to start enforcing the Comstock Act of 1873. The old law bans the mailing of “anything designed, adapted, or intended for producing abortion,” which could include medical instruments.

Another key part of the plan involves ending insurance coverage for reproductive care —including by blocking the Department of Veterans Affairs from offering abortions to veterans, prohibiting the disbursement of Medicaid funds to states that require insurers to cover abortions, and cutting off funding to hospitals that perform abortions, even to save the life of the mother.

Trump is currently leading the race for the Republican presidential nomination after scoring a record-setting win in the Iowa caucuses last week. Michigan’s presidential primary election is Feb. 27. The general election is Nov. 5. Click here to register to vote or request a mail-in ballot.

READ MORE: 8 ways Michigan Democrats protected abortion rights in 2023

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

Follow Political Correspondent Kyle Kaminski here.

Author

  • Kyle Kaminski

    Kyle Kaminski is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than a decade of experience covering news across Michigan. Prior to joining The ‘Gander, Kyle worked as the managing editor at City Pulse in Lansing and as a reporter for the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

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