Michigan Has Become Ground Zero in the Fight Over Abortion.
By Joseph Brusgard
Date: November 6th, 2022
On June 24th, the Supreme Court overturned Roe V. Wade, and with it, 50 years of precedent. In the immediate aftermath of the decision, state political leaders rushed to act. Some states sought to strengthen reproductive rights in their state. Others, went in the opposite direction, passing new restrictions and bans, signaling the new and uncharted direction of American politics in a post-Roe world.
While uncertainty plagued other states Michigan anticipated the Court’s decision, and acted to keep abortion legal, despite a trigger law, put into effect almost 100 years ago. Now, Michigan will have a ballot initiative this November that will codify the right to abortion. It will almost certainly increase turnout in the state and could even make abortion the central issue of the cycle.
Michigan has become the central battleground in the fight over abortion thanks to a law passed in 1931. It banned abortion in the state with the only exception being to protect the life of the mother. While the law was struck down by the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe V. Wade, it was on track to go back into effect upon the reversal of the decision. State officials had to act quickly to keep abortion from being trapped in legal limbo.
Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer took action in September of 2021, after Texas passed a six-week abortion ban. Whitmer tried to work with the Republican state legislature to overturn the 1931 law, but attempts went nowhere. After this failure, Whitmer then took the next step, and filed a lawsuit, which would recognize abortion as a right under the state’s constitution, and invalidate the 1931 law as a violation of the state’s due process and equal protection clauses. By May, a judge issued a preliminary injunction, blocking the law from going into effect.
However, that wouldn’t be the final word on the matter. In August, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled county prosecutors could enforce the ban, meaning it was back in effect. Whitmer immediately filed a motion to temporally restrain it from going into effect, which was granted just hours later. A few weeks later, the law for county prosecutors was blocked by a judge. By September, an Oakland County judge struck down the law entirely, which is where the legal status stands today.
Notably, on the same day that Whitmer filed her lawsuit, Planned Parenthood also filed a lawsuit suing the state of Michigan, in order to preserve abortion access. While attorney generals normally have a responsibility to defend their state from lawsuits, Attorney General Dana Nessel staunchly disagreed with the 1931 law, and thus vowed not to defend it. For Nessel, the issue was a bit more personal, as she once underwent an abortion to save the life of her twin sons.
It has guided her fight on the issue, and Nessel has made it clear that she will use her power to preserve abortion access and to keep the public informed of the legal status of abortion in the state. Even though her job has heavily focused on legal proceedings, Nessel has also actively fought in support of keeping a ballot initiative on the ballot, one which represents, perhaps, the most crucial bulwark for abortion access in the state.
The Right to Reproductive Freedom Initiative, or Proposal 3 as it is also known, is a ballot measure that seeks to codify reproductive rights into the state constitution. As abortion grew to be a top issue for the midterm cycle, Michigan citizens took initiative in getting the proposal on the ballot. The response was so strong, that the initiative got the most signatures for any initiative in state history, belying a level of engagement unlike anything else the state had seen before. Although it almost didn’t pass due to the Michigan Board of State canvassers deadlocking over spacing errors, the state Supreme Court has allowed it to appear on the ballot, meaning that Michigan voters may have a chance to codify abortion, offering it constitutional protection.
While everyone involved in the fight has been successful in their efforts thus far, there is still one last hurdle, and that is to win in November. Michigan has consistently been one of the most competitive states in the nation, meaning that the fight will be tough, and closely fought. However, pro-choice Democratic candidates across the state have been savvy in leaning into the issue. Consequently, abortion has completely reshaped the calculus for Democrats in the state in races up and down the ballot.
Democrats appear to be in a strong position heading into election day in Michigan - even as they've lost ground in many other key swing states over the last few weeks. Democrats have a comfortable lead in the governor’s race (which our forecast rates as likely D) and hold a more moderate, but consistent lead in the Attorney General’s race. Moreover, polling has shown Proposal 3 polling best of all, outrunning the statewide candidates. This broad level of support for the initiative, across the state, further highlights the issue of abortion as being central to Michigan voters.
Referring to a poll released on September 22nd, Pollster Bernie Porn of the Michigan-based polling firm Epic-MRA told us in an exclusive interview: “In August, everyone says if you had inflation and the economy, that’d make abortion seem like an afterthought… I said let’s put them both in and see what happens. Sure enough, inflation is on top, but so is abortion.”
Even as inflation once again returns to being the top issue, later polls conducted by the firm show that abortion is still a big issue in the state, and Whitmer and Nessel have made sure to lean on it and highlight it in their ads. They also have taken time to criticize the extreme pro-life views of their opponents, in comparison. It has undeniably made a difference in these races and has enabled Democrats to maintain a steady lead throughout a tough cycle nationally.
Notably, the statewide contests aren’t the only races feeling an impact. Down ballot, in the battle for the house, abortion has become an issue in Michigan’s most competitive races - including the Democratic leaning 3rd district and the Republican trending 8th district.
It's loomed large in the Michigan 7th - where Elissa Slotkin faces a well-funded challenge from State Senator Tom Barrett. The 7th district voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and Joe Biden in 2020, and the House race has become one of the most expensive in the country this cycle.
Barrett is one of the most pro-life candidates in the country, only supporting exceptions for the life of the mother, and in the state senate, he supported a resolution supporting the 1931 abortion ban. However, as public sentiment has shifted, shifted away from highlighting these views, including removing mentions of being pro-life from his website. It will be difficult for him to separate, as polling has shown abortion to be a top issue in the district, and consequently, Barrett has trailed in polls.
Further down the ballot, there’s another group of legislative races up for grabs. Michigan’s state Legislature has become the most expensive State Legislature contest in the country. As new lines from redistricting made these contests closer, the chambers are one of the most likely in the nation to flip from Republican to Democratic, and abortion may be a reason for that.
Pollster Bernie Porn told us: “It could have an impact because of the closeness of the redistricting of the State Senate and State Rep. districts. The Democrats are fairly well funded at both levels.”
Flipping even the state House would be a big achievement for Democrats, who have been locked out since 2010. However, taking the State Senate would be borderline historic. The last time they were in the majority was in the 1980s. A double victory would likely lead to more legislation codifying the protections previously provided by Roe into state law.
The last type of election that will be affected is for the State Supreme Court. The Court ruled earlier this year that it would allow Proposal 3 on the ballot, and it could be important in any potential legal challenges that might come from those who oppose it. The Court currently has a 4-3 Democratic, pro-choice, majority. With such a narrow majority, the outcome could carry consequences, ones that could render the work of those trying to protect reproductive rights moot.
While the political environment has become much more challenging for Democrats in the closing weeks of the campaign, they have a real chance of a strong day in Michigan on election day. The salience of abortion in the Great Lake state has been undeniable, and a potential statewide sweep for Democrats would be a real sign of the potency of pro-choice politics in post-Roe America.
For more on Michigan Politics, explore our Michigan Governor Forecast, and our predictions for the Michigan House races. On election day, we’ll have a live election forecast for the Senate and the House updated after every race is called.