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Michigan Right to Life scraps abortion ban ballot drive

Right to Life of Michigan is ending a ballot drive to ban a common second-trimester abortion method, pledging instead to support like-minded candidates through the 2020 elections. 

The state Bureau of Elections estimated last month that the group did not gather enough valid signatures from voters to advance the proposal. Instead of challenging those findings, Right to Life scrapped the initiative for now. 

“Our petition drive system works well in normal times, but this time we were forced to fight a series of unprecedented battles we did not choose,” Right to Life of Michigan President Barbara Listing said in a statement Tuesday. 

Among those, Listing said, were challenges in retraining volunteers to abide by a 2018 law that increased restrictions on ballot initiatives, a competing ballot drive that would have banned abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected, and an increased number of signatures necessary due to high voter turnout in 2018. 

The group needed 340,047 valid signatures to move the initiative forward, the highest number needed since the 1970s. In comparison, 252,523 signatures were needed in 2018. They submitted 380,070, but the Bureau of Elections estimated only 332,771 were valid. 

“The effort behind this petition drive was worth it and will carry forward,” Listing said. Right to Life has spearheaded multiple ballot initiatives or referendums and is well-known for its volunteer signature-gathering corps. It is the first time the group has not successfully completed a ballot initiative or referendum drive, Legislative Director Genevieve Marnon said.

“This was our first attempt to end the dismemberment of babies in Michigan, and we will continue working until we end this form of violence and protect the lives of every unborn child,” Listing said. 

The initiative would have banned the dilation and evacuation (D&E) abortion method, which Right to Life refers to as “dismemberment abortion.” The procedure involves dilation of the cervix and using forceps or other medical tools to remove the fetus from the uterus.

If approved by the Board of State Canvassers, the petition would have gone before the Republican-led Legislature, which indicated they intended to approve it. That would make it a law incapable of being vetoed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat. 

D&E abortions are the most common abortion procedure in the second trimester of pregnancy, between 13 and 24 weeks. However, it was used in fewer than 10 percent of all abortions in Michigan in 2017, according to an analysis of similar legislation from the House Fiscal Agency. 

A ballot committee backed by Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan challenged Right to Life’s signatures with the Bureau of Elections earlier this month. In a statement issued Tuesday, Michigan Planned Parenthood President Lori Carpentier called the petition failure “a victory for every doctor and every patient in Michigan.”

“The credit for this victory goes to all the pro-choice voters who turned out in 2018 to vote for reproductive health champions like Gov. Whitmer and AG Nessel,” Carpentier said. 

“That record-breaking turnout forced Right to Life to have to collect signatures in proportion to the number of Michigan voters who actually agree with their agenda; unsurprisingly, it proved to be impossible to do that and meet the minimum number of signatures required to be certified.”

The coronavirus pandemic has made it challenging for multiple groups to advance ballot initiatives this election cycle. A ballot initiative to add LGBTQ rights to the state’s anti-discrimination law punted its effort to 2020 due to signature-gathering challenges related to the pandemic. Right to Life of Michigan, however, submitted signatures in December, well before the state saw its first cases.

The group is planning to “pivot to the elections” in the remaining months in the 2020 election cycle, Marnon said, adding that the next steps for a D&E abortion ban may be determined by its results. Whether Republicans, who traditionally support abortion restrictions, retain control of both chambers of the state Legislature will “make a difference in our strategy going forward.”

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