With Roe on the line, Michigan abortion advocates try to face an uncertain future
For decades, abortion rights advocates have focused on protecting the legal right to abortion guaranteed by Roe versus Wade.
Now that the U.S. Supreme Court stands ready to rule on a case that could overturn Roe, they’re gearing up for a different battle: How to navigate a world where abortion is once again illegal.
For now, they face a difficult and uncertain landscape. But some Michigan advocates are trying to prepare anyway.
“We no longer have to live in the world of the coat hanger”
The Supreme Court decided Roe versus Wade in 1973. The landmark decision found a constitutional right to privacy included the right to have an abortion.
But abortions were happening before 1973. Underground networks helped some women get the procedure—sometimes safely, sometimes with grim and occasionally deadly results.
But those networks didn’t entirely fade away. Roe didn’t guarantee access to an abortion. Some women who want the procedure still face legal and economic barriers, and have turned to them for help.
“There’s people who have been doing the work in the underground for decades now,” said Jex Blackmore, a Detroit artist and reproductive rights activist. “And those are the people that we need to learn from, and start reproducing those models in a wider and more accessible way.”
A lot has changed since 1973. When it comes to abortion, one of the biggest changes is what’s called medical abortion—two pills, mifepristone and misoprostol, that taken together effectively induce what’s commonly called a miscarriage.
Blackmore is spearheading a campaign to let people know about those pills, and how to get them–by, among other methods, plastering fliers on Detroit city streets. The FDA recently allowed them to be distributed by mail, and they’re widely available on the internet. The pills work up through about 11 weeks of pregnancy. The vast majority of abortions happen in that time frame.
“It’s safe, affordable–more affordable than a clinic–and is the same medication you would get if you went to a clinic today,” Blackmore said.
When discussing the possibility of overturning Roe, some abortion rights activists say it will mean the return of women dying from back-alley abortions. That kind of rhetoric frustrates other abortion rights supporters, including Blackmore, who fears it will scare and confuse people.
“We no longer have to live in the world of the coat hanger because we do have medical abortion, which is extremely safe and reliable,” she said.
Blackmore’s efforts illustrate how abortion options have changed since 1973—and some of the legal gray areas that are likely to open up if Roe is overturned.
“The nature of our Legislature is…very hostile to abortion”
Michigan has a 1931 law that criminalizes abortion in all cases, except when the mother’s life is at stake. If Roe goes, it would come back to life as what some–including Michigan State Senator Erika Geiss (D-Taylor)-call a “zombie law.”
“Because once Roe v. Wade went into effect, it made that law null and void,” Geiss explained. “But the Legislature at no point in time ever repealed it.”
Geiss and some Democratic colleagues have introduced bills that would explicitly repeal the 1931 law, and replace it with one that guarantees access to abortion. It would also repeal other aspects of that law, including provisions that make publishing information about abortions and contraception misdemeanor crimes.
Governor Gretchen Whitmer has specifically asked for those bills to come to her desk. But they’ve gone nowhere in the Republican-dominated Michigan Legislature. “The nature of our Legislature is such that it's very hostile to abortion and to access to abortion and broadly to any type of reproductive health, justice or equity,” Geiss said.
Abortion rights advocates in Michigan are trying another route too–petitioning for a state constitutional amendment that would guarantee the right to abortion. According to proponents, which include the ACLU of Michigan, it would call for a voters to decide on laws that would "explicitly affirm Michiganders' fundamental right to reproductive freedom," including "the right to make and carry out decisions without political interference in all matters relating to pregnancy, including abortion, birth control, prenatal care and childbirth.”
But Geiss fears nothing will fundamentally change until people face the reality of abortion becoming illegal. “I think there is a miscalculation by the folks who are anti-abortion and thinking that by having Roe fail, it would make abortions stop,” she said. “It wouldn't.”
“People who think this won’t impact them are wrong”
That thought preoccupies Dr. Sarah Wallett too.“I honestly can't stop thinking about it. It keeps me up at night,” she said.
Wallett is the chief medical officer for Planned Parenthood of Michigan. She’s also an abortion provider. She said she’s been talking with colleagues in states like Texas and Missouri, where strict anti-abortion laws have made the procedure nearly impossible to access. They’re brainstorming the best options for working within and around the law.
“We don't have the luxury of not trying to plan, because the worst thing that could happen is that we're not ready to provide people with what help we can come a Supreme Court decision,” Wallett said.
But Wallett admits that’s tricky. That’s because a lot is riding on what the Supreme Court actually decides, and then on how—and how much—states decide to enforce their own laws.
Wallet says it all makes for a confusing, scary landscape. But there’s one thing she has no doubts about: “No one plans that they're going to need an abortion, but life is complicated and messy, and people who think this won't impact them are wrong.”
One more thing Wallett says she’s sure about—she and other abortion rights advocates will keep on fighting this fight, regardless of what courts decide.