Whitmer urges business leaders to join 'economic' fight for abortion rights
MACKINAC ISLAND – Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Democratic allies are using a bipartisan policy conference to urge business leaders to join their fight to protect abortion rights that could soon be rolled back by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Abortion access, voting rights and gay rights are not just “social issues,” they are “economic issues” for a state competing in a global race to attract talented workers, Whitmer told Bridge Michigan in a Wednesday interview at the Mackinac Policy Conference.
“The most compelling economic decision a woman will make in her lifetime is whether and when to have a child,” Whitmer said. “And if you take a job in Michigan and you don't have that right anymore, that's gonna be a hard sell for us to say Michigan is a place where you should come and make your life.”
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Whitmer told Bridge she has already encouraged business leaders to take a stand on reproductive rights and intends to nudge them during a Thursday afternoon address at the policy conference, an annual gathering of more than a thousand business, political and thought leaders from around the state.
School safety – and whether or how to regulate firearms – is also an area where business leaders could help advocate for change in the wake of deadly shootings at Oxford High School in November, and more recently at an elementary school in Texas, Whitmer said.
“Whether they engage because they personally feel that's the right thing to do or they see that economic writing on the wall, I do think that we need leaders’ voices in a variety of realms, and the business community is included in that,” the governor said.
As she seeks re-election this fall, Whitmer has vowed to “fight like hell” to protect abortion access in Michigan in the increasingly likely event that the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision that has guaranteed a woman’s right to choose the procedure since 1973.
The first-term Democrat in April took the rare step of asking the Michigan Supreme Court to strike down as unconstitutional a 1931 state law that would ban abortion in the state except in cases where a pregnant person’s life is at risk.
A Michigan Court of Claims judge last month suspended enforcement of the law amid the legal debate, a decision abortion foes have appealed. Abortion advocates are also collecting signatures for a potential ballot proposal that would ask voters to enshrine abortion access in the Michigan Constitution.
Republican gubernatorial candidates competing to take on Whitmer have all said they support the state’s 1931 law and would seek to ensure Michigan enforces the abortion ban if the Supreme Court strikes down Roe, a decision that is expected later this month.
“It’s very important to me to protect life,” governor candidate Tudor Dixon of Norton Shores said last month in a debate. The conservative media personality and businesswoman called Michigan’s 1931 abortion ban a “good law.”
Right to Life of Michigan, a powerful advocacy group that opposes legal abortion, endorsed Dixon on Thursday, saying her "leadership will be absolutely essential in restoring the basic right to life to the most helpless members of our human family."
Michigan business leaders were largely silent last month when a draft opinion leak suggested conservatve justices on the nation’s highest court intend to strike down Roe v Wade, which would remove federal protections and make abortion access a state-level decision.
The Detroit Regional Chamber, which hosts the annual policy conference and endorsed Whitmer in 2018, broke that silence Tuesday with a statement that stopped short of taking a position on abortion access but asked policy makers to “consider “how the state’s response to the potential Supreme Court decision will impact Michigan companies in the competition for national talent.”
“Mirroring broader society, business owners and leaders have a wide range of views regarding abortion rights – some strongly in favor or opposed with the majority somewhere in the middle,” the Chamber statement said.
“Abortion rights are certainly not a usual chamber of commerce issue, but as Michigan strives to attract skilled talent – especially young talent – to meet the demands of our ever more complex economy, the Detroit Regional Chamber urges Michigan lawmakers to consider economic competitiveness issues if abortion rights are returned to the states.”
The statement was not overly forceful, and it was only posted online for two days before planned removal, but “I was glad to see they put their toe across the line,” House Minority Leader Donna Lasinski, D-Scio Township, told Bridge Michigan.
“I think we are at the beginning” of the business community speaking out, she predicted.
A majority of Michigan voters appear to support continued abortion access, according to a recent Glengariff Group Inc. poll conducted for the Detroit Regional Chamber.
Roughly 55 percent of voters support leaving Roe in place, while 26 percent want it overturned, according to the survey of 600 registered voters. Roughy 59 percent said they would support an amendment to the Michigan Constitution that would make abortion legal at the state level.
Business leaders continue to grapple with when and whether to speak out on various policy issues, said Detroit Regional Chamber CEO Sandy Baruah, who served in the U.S. Small Business Administration under former President George W. Bush.
From racial and social justice movements, to gay and transgender rights, business leaders are "clearly" speaking up in unprecedented fashion, he said.
Last year, for instance, business leaders from some of Michigan’s largest employers — including Ford, General Motors and Blue Cross Blue Shield — spoke out amid false claims about the 2020 presidential election and discouraged Michigan lawmakers from creating any new laws that would reduce participation or disenfranchise voters.
"There's never been a period of time where you've seen business leaders so engaged and sort of stepping out on public policy issues than we have right now," Baruah said.
‘There’s always some pushback’
But speaking out carries risk for companies: The Detroit Chamber polling suggests voters have mixed opinions about whether business leaders should weigh in on hot-button issues. Roughly 47 percent of voters said they support business leaders taking public positions on major policy issues, while 31 percent said they oppose it and 22 percent were not sure.
Strong Republican voters, however, were more likely to oppose business leaders weighing in on public policy debates.
Republicans were also more likely to support legislators punishing companies for taking stances on hot-button issues, which recently happened in Florida when Disney spoke out against a new "don't say gay" law regulating youth education.
“Anytime there’s sides, there’s always somebody with a different point of view, and there’s always some pushback,” said Consumers Energy President and CEO Garrick Rochow, who told Bridge Michigan his company “did a lot of internal reflection” to increase diversity and inclusion in the wake of the 2020 police killing of George Floyd, which sparked national racial justice protests.
Consumers has not yet taken a position on abortion access, but “is going to take a look at the right response” for the company and it’s employees, he said.
When weighing in on complicated issues, business leaders should focus on problem-solving Rochow said. On school shootings, for instance, “you can pick whether you’re for or against guns, but that’s not really the rallying cry,” he said. “The rallying cry is we can’t have violence in schools. So how do we solve that problem, because that may actually lead to the root cause.”
In a panel discussion at the conference, Strategic Staffing Solutions president and CEO Cindy Pasky said she “would never make a statement” that could jeopardize her company’s success, noting that public policy positions are especially tricky for international firms with employees in multiple countries.
Pasky and her business are not taking a position on abortion access at this time, she told Bridge Michigan.
“I think the govenror and the attorney general have taken good, necessary steps,” she said, referencing the ongoing legal challenges seeking to overturn the state’s 1931 abortion ban. “I think it’s appropriate to let those steps work through the process.”
The business community "has to care" about issues like abortion access and voting rights because rolling back protections would be "bad for business," Attorney General Dana Nessel told Bridge Michigan in a Wednesday interview.
Like Whitmer, the first-term Democrat has vowed to fight abortion restrictions if Roe is overturned. Nessel has repeatedly said her office would not enforce the 1931 ban if it is reinstated.
Michigan should tell women that "if you choose to come to the state, and this is where you're going to live and work... you don't lose rights when you cross the borders," Nessel said. "We consider you to be an equal and we respect the decisions you make about your bodies."
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