Meet the Democrat blocking Michigan abortion bills. She says she’s not alone
- Detroit Democrat Karen Whitsett is at odds with party leadership over bills to expand abortion access
- She claims several other Democrats also oppose the legislation, although other House Democrats dispute that
- Whitsett has sided with Republicans — and praised former President Donald Trump — several times while in office
The Detroit Democrat currently blocking abortion rights bills supported by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has been willing to break rank with her party before — and this time, she claims, she’s not the only one who has concerns.
Rep. Karen Whitsett, a community organizer and activist first elected to the Michigan House in 2018, courted controversy among Democrats by meeting with then-President Donald Trump, voting with Republicans on several key policy matters and supporting a Republican lawmaker over a Democratic challenger during the 2020 election cycle.
Now, she’s in the spotlight again for being the lone Democrat in the House Health Policy Committee this week to vote against the Reproductive Health Act, an 11-bill package of abortion access bills that had been expected to pass through a Legislature with a razor-thin Democratic majority.
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Whitsett has taken issue with several provisions in the package, most notably: allowing state Medicaid funds to be used for abortions, and repealing a 24-hour waiting period between an abortion consultation and the procedure.
Whitsett told Bridge Michigan she supports the right to an abortion and voted for Proposal 3 — a ballot initiative passed last fall that codified abortion rights in Michigan after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the federal right to abortion. But she said she believes it’s “not too much to ask” of people seeking abortions to pay for it without Medicaid, and take their time to consider the decision.
She said constituent feedback and her own experience terminating a pregnancy after a sexual assault informed her positions. Perhaps more problematic for her Democratic colleagues: Whitsett said she’s spoken with seven other members of her caucus who share her concerns.
“If it came to the floor right now, the votes aren't there,” Whitsett said.
The rift poses a roadblock for Whitmer and Democrats as they push an aggressive fall agenda and highlights the limitations of the Democratic majority: Without a fully united caucus, a two-seat advantage in the House and Senate may not be enough to get politically divisive legislation to the governor’s desk.
Democrats say they aren’t giving up. Amber McCann, spokesperson for House Speaker Joe Tate, D-Detroit, said Whitsett has “been known to change her mind,” adding that bill sponsors are working to address her concerns.
The main sponsor, Rep. Laurie Pohutsky, D-Livonia, said Whitsett’s estimate of seven other lawmakers standing in opposition “does not reflect the conversations I’ve been having.” But Pohutsky also said her ultimate goal is to “get everyone as comfortable as we possibly can” before taking a floor vote.
Whitsett, who is already facing intense pressure from Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan and others to reverse course, said she’s open to discussion, but doesn’t plan to budge on objecting to key aspects of the package.
“I have gone through this process, so I'm not just saying it as an outsider,” Whitsett said. “We're talking about people's mental health, and (getting an abortion) will stick with you forever. I don't care how it transpired, what the situation may be. This will always stick with you.”
Whitsett is a graduate of Cody High School in Detroit and worked in pest control, banking and as a technical advisor at a call center prior to pursuing elected office.
She was also a community organizer who advocated for auto insurance reform and neighborhood improvements, according to her House website. She represents the 4th House District covering parts of Detroit and Dearborn.
Since her first months in office, she’s had a history of publicly clashing with Democratic Party leadership, when she was one of three Democrats to join a then-Republican majority in voting for auto insurance reform legislation.
In early 2020, Whitsett alleged in a radio interview that then-House Democratic Leader Christine Greig had promised to make her life a "living hell" after those votes. Whitsett further claimed that the "climate is racist in Lansing.”
Later that year, during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Whitsett contracted the coronavirus and publicly credited then-President Donald Trump for saving her life by recommending hydroxychloroquine, an unproven and controversial treatment.
Whitsett later flew to D.C. and met with Trump at the White House to thank him for "everything you have done” on COVID, undermining Democratic arguments that the president had done too little.
The visit with Trump resulted in a formal censure by the 13th Congressional District Democratic Party, which said Whitsett had "misrepresented the needs and priorities" of Democratic leaders while "endangering the health, safety and welfare of her constituents.”
Whitsett countered with a lawsuit against Whitmer and 13th District Democrats, accusing them of "engaging in a conspiracy" to defame her and violate her constitutional right to free speech.
She dropped the lawsuit less than a month later but continued to criticize Whitmer and Democratic leaders, later suggesting they "came gunning” for her because she had not sought "permission" from the governor before going to the White House.
"I guess having COVID, they would have preferred I died than still exist," Whitsett said in a March 2021 radio interview. "That is how I felt when they came for me."
Whitsett continued to raise eyebrows by appearing on conservative talk show programs and recording a radio advertisement for then-Rep. Annette Glenn, R-Midland, who in 2020 fended off a challenger Democrats had high hopes for.
Several prominent Democrats, including U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Detroit, backed Whitsett’s primary challenger in the 2020 primary. But with the support of Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, Whitsett held on to win the primary race by 14 percentage points and has continued serving in the Legislature.
With Republicans still in charge last term, Whitsett broke party ranks to join the GOP on several votes, including tax cut legislation, a spending bill that sought to overturn earlier Whitmer vetoes and a Republican-backed law to strip emergency authority from the governor.
After Democrats regained control of the Michigan House by a narrow two-seat majority, Whitsett announced in January that she would back Tate for House Speaker, ending speculation she might diverge from the party again and jeopardize her party’s narrow majority.
Despite the recent disagreements on abortion policy, Whitsett said she’s had no issues working with Tate, noting he and his staff have been “very open and helpful.”
Jonathan Kinloch, chair of the 13th Congressional District Democratic Party who orchestrated Whitsett’s censure, predicted Whitsett will likely face little blowback from House leadership, as they will continue to need her vote in the 56-54 Democratic majority.
Whitsett’s current block on the abortion package, Kinloch said, is partly of Democrats’ “own making.”
He argued Democratic insiders, labor unions and other liberal-leaning organizations backed candidates such as Whitsett and Rep. Dylan Wegela, a Garden City progressive who voted against a $1.5 billion Democrats-backed deal in business incentives.
“They supported people just because they said they could win, instead of supporting people who stand on the principle of supporting issues that are important to Democrats,” Kinloch said.
“It’s like finding an enemy within,” Kinloch told Bridge.
‘All options are on the table’
The ambitious abortion access package that Whitsett currently opposes is the latest effort by legislative Democrats and Whitmer to roll back abortion restrictions currently included in Michigan law.
In addition to allowing Medicaid funding to be used for abortions — a change that would increase state Medicaid costs by $2 million to $6 million a year, according to the nonpartisan House Fiscal Agency — and ending a mandatory 24-hour waiting period for patients under Michigan’s informed consent abortion law, the House and Senate bills would:
- Repeal the “Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act,” which makes it a two-year felony for doctors to perform a rare medical procedure for late-term pregnancies “that kills the partially delivered living fetus.” The law makes an exception when the mother’s life is in danger.
- Repeal manslaughter penalties associated with abortions
- Repeal some structural requirements for abortion facilities that advocates like Planned Parenthood say are intentionally onerous and designed to “shut down abortion providers and make it more difficult for people to access abortion.”
- Allow universities to refer students to abortion providers
Whitsett said her main concern with the package is that having Medicaid pay for abortions could divert money from an insurance program that seniors in her district rely on for care. She said she’s supportive of keeping the 24-hour waiting period in some capacity and retaining some of the structural standards currently in place for abortion clinics.
“They’re just things that we need to have conversations about,” she said. “I have a responsibility to people. This can’t be undone once this happens. We need to make sure we get it right.”
Sponsors of the legislation said they’re willing to be flexible to get a majority of votes in the chamber — at least to a point.
“I'm willing to try and meet people where they are, but we also need legislation that addresses the problem,” Pohutsky said. “We're having conversations about potential changes that need to be made, but the goal is to get something that is going to increase access. So there's not a whole lot of wiggle room there.”
Most, if not all, House Republicans will likely oppose any iteration of the proposal. But Rep. Julie Rogers, D-Kalamazoo, said she isn’t ruling out the possibility of Republican support.
In March, Reps. Donni Steele, R-Orion Township, and Tom Kuhn, R-Troy, joined House Democrats to repeal a long-dormant 1931 law banning abortions as well as a ban on medicine, drugs or substances that could be used to induce a miscarriage, citing last year’s passage of Proposal 3.
Rogers and Pohutsky said they believe they can get to 56 votes on the current abortion package. As for what changes it might take to get there, Rogers said, “All options are on the table.”
Several Republicans shot down that prediction earlier this week. House Minority Leader Matt Hall, R-Richland Township, said the abortion package has “hit a dead end,” and Rep. Angela Rigas, R-Caledonia, said in a statement she hoped Whitsett’s actions “means this will be the last we hear of this horrible package ever again.”
House Republicans have “been absolutely opposed to state-funded abortions," Rigas said. "It's nice to see at least one Democrat found the courage to join us.”
Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan, a key supporter of the bills, has ramped up pressure on Whitsett to flip. In a statement, President and CEO Paula Thornton Greear said Whitsett will be “solely responsible” for continued enforcement of abortion restrictions if the package doesn’t pass.
Whitsett said, though, she does not stand alone: other Democratic legislators also have reservations. “I'm just the one who took the vote on the committee,” she said.
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