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Right to Life of Michigan launches ballot drive to ban abortion procedure

Update: Michigan abortion foes can call procedure ‘dismemberment’ on ballot petitions

Right to Life of Michigan says it has launched a petition drive to ask voters to ban a common abortion procedure, one day after the state House and Senate passed bills that would outlaw the practice and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer vowed to veto them.

The anti-abortion advocacy group said Wednesday it formed a new ballot committee, starting the process for a 2020 ballot drive.

The ballot petition will be similar to language in identical House and Senate bills that were adopted Tuesday, the group said. The bills would make it a felony for medical providers to perform what’s known as a dilation and evacuation abortion, a procedure that is commonly used in the second trimester.

Proponents of the legislation, including Right to Life, call the practice “dismemberment abortion.” The procedure involves dilation of the cervix and using forceps or other medical tools to remove the fetus from the uterus.

The legislation’s opponents, including most Democrats, say the legislation would infringe on a woman’s autonomy and unjustly restrict access to a procedure that’s often necessary to protect women’s health.

“Governor Whitmer still has the chance to change her mind and do the right thing,” Right to Life of Michigan President Barbara Listing said in a statement. “If she won’t sign these bills to stop babies from having their arms and legs torn off, we’ll find 400,000 Michigan citizens who will sign it.”

The group says its ballot committee will be called “Michigan Values Life,” and it will include the tagline “End Dismemberment Abortions” throughout the ballot campaign.

Right to Life is at least the second potential ballot initiative aiming to make the November 2020 ballot, after another ballot group seeking to require employers in Michigan to offer workers paid sick leave said it filed petitions.

Michigan allows groups to propose legislation through the citizen initiative process. If the group gets enough petition signatures to put proposed legislation on the ballot, the state legislature can decide whether to approve it.

If it chooses not to, the issue goes to the public on the next general election ballot. If it does approve it, it becomes law and cannot be vetoed by the governor. This route offers far better prospects for Right to Life, given that Republicans still control both chambers of the legislature while Whitmer, a Democrat, occupies the governor’s office.

Right to Life of Michigan says it has already done four such successful campaigns for citizen-initiated legislation and it’s confident it would be able to gather enough signatures.

Right to Life’s last ballot drive was in 2013, to prohibit health insurers from covering abortion services without purchase of separate insurance coverage. The Legislature adopted the petition in 2013, meaning it was not put to voters on the November 2014 ballot.

However, the bar will be a little bit higher in 2020 than in the past. Republicans recently passed a measure that requires ballot initiatives to secure more voter signatures than in the past. Groups pushing legislative initiatives need to get signatures equal to at least eight percent of total votes cast for the highest office in the last election.

For 2018, that was the governor’s race, which means Right to Life would need 340,047 signatures to make it (nearly 90,000 more than last election). RTL said its goal is to collect 400,000 signatures.

The group said it is also undaunted by recent Republican-led changes to the citizen initiative process passed during the lame duck session. The new law requires that a maximum of 15 percent of a group’s petition signatures can come from any one congressional district.

Earlier this year, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson asked Attorney General Dana Nessel (both Democrats) to issue an opinion on the constitutionality of the law. Nessel said the law “puts a limit on the peoples’ voice.” The request remains pending.

“We’d be good under both sets of rules so we’re not concerned about that,” Chris Gast, spokesman for Right to Life of Michigan, told Bridge Tuesday. “But there is some uncertainty about what rule we’d be operating under.”

Gast said the group did not collect more than 15 percent of signatures from any one congressional district during its last petition drive.

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

Michigan is one of several states to join the enduring political battle over abortion. Just this week, Alabama passed a law that outlaws virtually all abortions, even in instances involving rape or incest. The U.S. Supreme Court, meanwhile, is weighing whether to hear challenges to strict abortion laws in Louisiana and Indiana.

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