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In Michigan, the future of abortion rights could soon be up to voters

Supporters of a ballot measure to legalize abortion in Michigan gathered on Monday, after submitting hundreds of thousands of signatures to qualify for the November ballot.
Joey Cappelletti
Supporters of a ballot measure to legalize abortion in Michigan gathered on Monday, after submitting hundreds of thousands of signatures to qualify for the November ballot.

As states grapple with the future of abortion, Michigan could become one of the first in the nation to let voters decide the matter.

A proposed constitutional amendment there would override a 90-year-old state law that makes abortion a felony, even in the case of rape or incest.

The U.S. Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade has revived that abortion ban — and galvanized abortion rights advocates to secure new protections.

Much of the momentum is coming from activists who're getting involved for the first time.

"I wanted to do something, but I had no political experience or really any experience in activism," says Amanda Mazur, a working mother of two who lives in rural northwest Michigan. "But I thought, maybe I can volunteer, and just offer something tangible to the movement."

This week, organizers like Mazur submitted more than 750,000 signatures — which they say is a "historic" record — to state election officials in hopes of having the amendment appear on the November ballot.

If just over half of those signatures are validated, Michigan voters will decide whether to amend the state's constitution to guarantee broad, individual rights to "reproductive freedom," including abortion, contraception and fertilty treatments. The change would also allow abortions later in pregnancy, if the patient's "physical or mental health" is at stake.

While it has the backing of medical groups like the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG,) alreadyconservative groups are attacking it as a "radical" and dangerous, claiming it would "allow late-term abortions for practically any reason."

What drove one mother to activism

For Mazur, the desire to "do something" started in 2017, when she and her husband gave their then-two year old daughter some happy news: she was going to be a big sister. The family was thrilled.

But then, doctors told Mazur something was wrong.

"I found out halfway through the pregnancy that the baby my husband and I hoped for, suffered from a rare and life-limiting genetic condition," says Mazur. "We ultimately made the compassionate choice to end the pregnancy for my well-being, and for the well-being of our family, and the life of what we thought would be our child."

Devastated, Mazur turned to a national online support group where others were experiencing the same loss. But unlike her, many in the group said they were having a tough time finding a way to terminate their pregnancies.

Parents were "sharing...the shame and the stigma surrounding it," she says. "It really broke my heart that you're going through this already devastating experience, but have to travel far away from your home across the country...[and] advocate for yourself like crazy just to get care that you have decided with your doctor is best for you."

The experience was life-changing for Mazur.

A "long road" to changing the Michigan constitution

At the time, abortion rights in Michigan seemed pretty stable, but, this year, Mazur's political awakening found an outlet.

Reproductive Freedom for All, a petition group backed by the ACLU of Michigan and Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan, was gathering signatures for the constitutional amendment to enshrine abortion protections in state law.

The effort took on new urgency in May after the leak of the Supreme Court's draft decision on the Dobbs case.

"Folks realized that this big, scary thing that they did not think would happen, might actually happen," says Jessica Ayoub, a field organizer with the ACLU of Michigan.

Some Michiganders were registering to vote just to be eligible to sign the petition.

Jaynie Hoerauf, a 62-year-old attorney in Farwell, drove 40 miles to attend a rally where she knew she could sign.

"I was just astonished how many people there were," says Hoerauf. "A bunch of us were so ticked off [about the Supreme Court overturning Roe] and we were talking about it. And I was like, 'I'm just going to go on and find where I can sign the stupid petition."

In the week after Roe was overturned, there were nearly 200 events throughout the state — everything from small gatherings at farmer's markets to full-fledged rallies.

Activists on both sides expect to spend millions. They predict donations will also pour in from outside Michigan, and that voters in other states will be watching.

There are two other states — California and Vermont — with similar proposals to protect abortion rights on their November ballots: But unlike those states, Michigan has a ban in place that could soon eliminate the ability to get an abortion.

While the 1931 abortion law isn't being enforced yet because of ongoing lawsuits, that could change any day.

"This is just the start of our fight," says Ayoub. "We know that it is a long road to November."

Copyright 2022 Michigan Radio

Kate Wells
Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist and co-host of the Michigan Radio and NPR podcast Believed. The series was widely ranked among the best of the year, drawing millions of downloads and numerous awards. She and co-host Lindsey Smith received the prestigious Livingston Award for Young Journalists. Judges described their work as "a haunting and multifaceted account of U.S.A. Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar’s belated arrest and an intimate look at how an army of women – a detective, a prosecutor and survivors – brought down the serial sex offender."