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How Michigan doctors, patients are preparing for a post-Roe world

Planned Parenthood plans to spend at least $45 million backing candidates in local, state and national races who support abortion rights.
Erik McGregor
/
LightRocket via Getty Images
Planned Parenthood plans to spend at least $45 million backing candidates in local, state and national races who support abortion rights.

Verónica Valdivia-Vera is standing in the parking lot outside the Planned Parenthood in Ann Arbor, right on the line in the pavement marking where protestors can’t cross. She rushed to get here when her daughter-in-law, Stephanie Mejia Arciñiega, called her, shaken after she and a friend had been surrounded by anti-abortion protestors when they tried to pull in to the clinic.

“They come up to your car super fast,” Mejia Arciñiega said. “You don’t want to run their feet over, so we had to stop and be like, ‘Okay, no thank you.’ But then they started throwing just a bunch of papers and resources at us. We tried to go inside, but we couldn’t. We were like 10 minutes late to our appointment because of that.”

Mejia Arciñiega’s friend is still inside the clinic, which offers abortion care as well as birth control, cancer screenings, and STD treatment. And while Valdivia-Vera said she’d heard about the leaked U.S. Supreme Court draft opinion striking down Roe v. Wade, neither woman knew about Michigan’s 1931 law criminalizing abortion.

Here’s what would happen in Michigan if Roe were struck down tomorrow: overnight, nearly all abortions would become a felony carrying up to four years in prison, even in the cases of rape and incest. That’s under a 1931 state law that was never repealed, even after Roe made it unenforceable in 1973.

“I was not aware that that would happen,” Valdivia-Vera said. “It’s just like, shocking times. You wouldn’t think that in 2022, we’d be worrying about women’s rights, reproduction rights.”

Mejia Arciñiega is 18. She’s never imagined a world where abortion’s illegal. “You wouldn’t want someone young that isn’t ready [to] have to have a baby because the law says ‘No.’ It’s not fair.”

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel agrees. The Democrat said she won’t enforce the law if it springs back into effect.

But Michigan has 83 local county prosecutors, and Nessel said they could do whatever they want. “I don't think that I have the authority to tell the duly elected county prosecutors what they can and what they cannot charge,” she said at a press conference earlier this week. 

The way the law’s written, Nessel said, it’s possible that prosecutors could go after anyone who provides an abortion, as well as the person who takes medications to end their own pregnancy.

That could potentially “create a scenario where if a woman has self-aborted, and she seeks medical care after that, will the doctor — usually there's doctor-patient confidentiality, but because this is a criminal offense, will the doctor then have to report that to law enforcement?”

Nessel also discussed the abortion she’d had years ago, when she was pregnant with triplets.

Doctors told her they weren’t growing in utero, she said. “And I was told very, very specifically that there was no way that all three would make it to term … but if I aborted one, that it was possible that the other two might live. And, you know, I took my doctor's advice. … And you know what? It turned out that he was right. And now I have two beautiful sons.”

But under the 1931 law, there’s just one exemption: for abortions that are “to preserve the life” of the woman. Yet doctors say they have no idea what that actually means.

Say a woman has severe heart disease, and her chance of dying in pregnancy is around 20% to 30%. “Is that enough of a chance?” asked Dr. Lisa Harris, a University of Michigan professor and OB-GYN, speaking this week on Michigan Radio’s Stateside. “I hate to even put it that way, but is that enough of a chance of dying that that person would qualify under Michigan's ban for a lifesaving abortion? Or would their risk of dying need to be 50% or 100%?”

Or what if a pregnant person has cancer, and needs to end the pregnancy to begin chemo? “There's not an imminent risk of dying, but there might be a risk of dying years later if they didn't have chemotherapy … immediately. So these are the kind of situations doctors are wondering about,” Harris said.

The state legislature is controlled by Republicans, who have cheered the draft U.S. Supreme Court opinion that would bring Michigan’s 1931 law into force, but Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, filed a preemptive lawsuit last month seeking to block the law from going into effect. Planned Parenthood filed a similar suit as well. And there’s a campaign to collect enough signatures to put abortion rights on the ballot in November. But that would be long after the court makes its final ruling on Roe.

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health and the COVID-19 pandemic.
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