As the 2020 election draws closer, abortion is becoming a pressing issue in Michigan.
Two anti-abortion petition drives are underway in the state: one would ban the abortion procedure known as dilation and evacuation (D&E), and the other would ban abortions as soon as a cardiac activity can be detected.
Under Michigan law, petitions have 180 days to gather the amount of signatures equal to eight percent of votes cast for governor in the most recent gubernatorial election. For 2020, that number is 340,047 registered voters.
Once a petition has enough signatures that have been validated by the state Board of Canvassers, it goes up for a vote in the Legislature. If both the House and Senate pass the legislation, it goes into law without the need for the governor’s signature, bypassing a possible veto. If the legislation fails to pass the house, it would be added to the 2020 ballot.
But with two anti-abortion petitions circulating, there are questions about which groups are backing which initiative, and what exactly each petition aims to accomplish.
Update: Right to Life of Michigan submitted its petition signatures on December 23, 2019.
Banning a controversial abortion procedure
A committee called Michigan Values Life is sponsoring the dilation and evacuation petition. It was organized by Right to Life of Michigan, and is supported by the Michigan Catholic Conference, the Church’s public policy body.
D&E is a procedure used in the majority of second trimester abortions, largely because it is the safest option. The process involves a physician dilating the cervix before “aspirating the amniotic fluid and removing the fetus with forceps through the cervix and vaginal canal,” according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Disarticulation, or dismemberment, of the fetus often occurs in this process.
According to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, there were 1,908 dilation and evactuation abortions in 2018. That’s 7.1% of the total number of abortions that year.
The Michigan Values Life initiative refers to D&E as “dismemberment abortion,” and would make it illegal to perform the procedure except if the pregnant person’s life was at risk.
“An initiative petition to amend section 90h of the Michigan Penal Code, 1931 PA 328, MCL 750.90h, to define “dismemberment abortion;” to prohibit a person from performing a dismemberment abortion unless necessary to save a pregnant woman whose life is endangered by a physical disorder, illness or injury; to authorize the legislature to intervene in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of this proposal; to allow the spouse of a woman or parent of a minor who obtained a dismemberment abortion to sue for damages; and to prescribe criminal penalties for an individual who knowingly performs an abortion in violation of the proposed initiated law.”
The petition language specifies that the procedure would not be allowed on a “living fetus.” In other words, the procedure could be used to remove a fetus in the case of a miscarraige or abortion injection.
A law banning D&E actually passed the state Legislature this summer, but was vetoed by Gov. Whitmer.
Banning abortion after a “heartbeat”
The other anti-abortion petition would ban abortions once cardiac activity is detected in the fetus. It is being spearheaded by the Michigan Heartbeat Coalition.
Fetal cardiac activity can be detected as early as five weeks into pregnancy. 16,795 of the abortions performed in Michigan in 2018 were at five to eight weeks gestation. Only 435 were within the first four weeks.
Like the D&E petition, the heartbeat petition is an attempt to enact legislation that was vetoed by Gov. Whitmer.
The petition language reads:
“An initiative petition to enact the Fetal Heartbeat Protection Act, which would require testing to determine whether cardiac activity is detectable before an abortion; prohibit a person fromperforming an abortion after cardiac activity is detected, unless a medical emergency involving a life-threatening condition exists, or a condition that poses a serious risk of substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function; allow a woman who obtained an abortion in violation of the Act to sue for damages; and prescribe criminal penalties for an individual who knowingly performs an abortion in violation of the proposed initiated law.”
Under the proposal, a physician would face 2-4 years in prison if an abortion was performed after cardiac activity is found or if an abortion is performed without an attempt to find cardiac activity.
The "heartbeat" petition isn’t supported by Right to Life of Michigan. In a statement on their website, Right to Life says a heartbeat bill would not stop any abortions in Michigan, whereas their D&E ban could be enforced immediately.
But the Michigan Heartbeat Coalition knows their petition would face legal challenges. That’s the point. On their website, the coalition says the goal of the ballot is to join other states that have passed such bills, so Michigan can “play a significant role in overturning Roe vs. Wade.”
Strict abortion rules are being legislated in other states
A number of states have now passed so-called “heartbeat bills,” including Ohio and Georgia, and a total of nine states have passed legislation banning abortions in the first trimester.
Only Mississippi and West Virginia have D&E bans fully in effect. Nine other states, including Ohio and Indiana, have passed D&E bans, but those bills have been held up in court.
However, unlike Michigan, all of those bans have been passed by legislators. Michigan is the first state in over a decade to have voter-initiated abortion bans in the works. The only other state with similar voter-initiated legislation is in Colorado, where a petition to ban abortions after 22 weeks could end up on the 2020 ballot.
Abortion rights advocates are planning to fight back
In light of these two anti-abortion petitions, the ACLU of Michigan has vowed to fight for a person’s consitutional right to an abortion.
But so far, it’s unclear what that fight will look like.
Merissa Kovach is the group’s policy strategist. She told Michigan Radio the options on the table for consideration include a ballot initiative, legal challenges, and legislative advocacy.
“As the ACLU, we're going to do everything we can, and consider every single tool we have in our tool belt, to fight what they're doing and preserve a person's constitutional right to an abortion,” said Kovach.
Michigan Values Life and the Michigan Heartbeat Coalition have until May 27, 2020 to submit their valid signatures in order to be on the November, 2020 ballot. Michigan Values Life began their petition drive in June and must collect 340,047 valid signatures by December 23, 2019 to fit within the 180 day window required to collect signatures. The Michigan Heartbeat Coalition began their petition drive in July and must collect their signatures by December 30, 2019.
UPDATE: The last paragraph of this post has been updated to clarify the difference between the deadlines when signatures must be collected, and the deadline when they must be submitted in time to get on the November, 2020 ballot.