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Abortion rivals say Roe reversal could have surprising impact in Michigan

Barbara Listing
The 1973 Roe decision propelled then-high school teacher Barbara Listing into the Right to Life of Michigan movement, and she’s led the organization for more than 40 years. She’s 81. (Bridge photo by Bryan Esler)

Update: Roe v. Wade overturned in blockbuster ruling. What to know in Michigan

Anticipation that the U.S. Supreme Court is about to overturn nearly 50 years of federal abortion protection has led to rejoicing for some, fury for others.

But two veterans of Michigan’s abortion wars — one fighting for abortion rights, the other battling to end the practice — say their expectations (and fears) are more complicated as they await the ruling. 

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Barbara Listing, 81, has led Right to Life of Michigan for more than four decades. One might think she’d be thrilled the Supreme Court appears poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark case that established a right to abortion in the U.S. Constitution. But if a leaked draft of the court’s opinion holds, the court won’t strike down abortion access across the land; rather, it would leave the issue  to individual states.

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That, Listing fears, could spell trouble in Michigan.

“The best outcome, and one that we always sought, is that the unborn child is protected under the Constitution, not simply returned to individual states making those decisions,” Listing told Bridge Michigan this week.

She worries that abortion-rights groups, enraged and galvanized by the draft ruling, will find a way to get abortion rights enshrined in the Michigan Constitution.

That’s an outcome Renee Chelian would surely welcome. But Chelian, 71, whose devotion to abortion access — she currently operates three clinics in Michigan — sprang from the terror of her own illegal abortion when she was a teen, is not short on worries herself.

Renee Chelian
Renee Chelian’s illegal abortion in 1966 when she was 15 years old inspired her to devote her life to abortion-rights advocacy. She’s now 71. (Courtesy photo)

If Roe falls, one or more pro-choice strategies must succeed for abortion to remain legal in Michigan. A petition drive supporting abortion must get on the November ballot. A 1931 state abortion ban must be set aside. Other lawsuits abound. And the state’s own Supreme Court will likely have to sort out the legal challenges.  

Nothing, Chelian said, is guaranteed. 

Abortion access “is complicated in a lot of places,” she said. “But it’s particularly complicated in Michigan.” 

Old laws, new battles 

Chelian and Listing have spent nearly a half-century in opposing trenches. 

Chelian was just 15 in 1966 when her parents arranged her abortion. The procedure was illegal back then, and she has recalled the ordeal countless times: a terrifying ride, blindfolded, to a Detroit warehouse, and her parents’ instructions afterward that she never to speak of it again. 

That was before the Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling in Roe, in which the court determined the U.S. Constitution protects a woman’s right to abortion.

After her illegal procedure, Chelian began assisting other women traveling from Michigan to Buffalo for abortions. She later founded Northland Family Planning Centers, which runs three independent abortion clinics outside Detroit.

The same Roe decision compelled high school teacher Barbara Listing to act, and by 1980 she was leading a nominating committee to find a new leader for Right to Life of Michigan.

“I was a history teacher and I think that I’ve always felt our country’s better than giving this choice to women to kill their unborn babies,” Listing said.  “There’s just something wrong with a society that decides a child should not be protected.”

Listing’s initial candidate to lead the organization did not work out.

“She was sitting in the chair waiting for me,” Listing recalled of the meeting. “She said, ‘I am pregnant  .. and my doctors have told me that this is going to be a difficult pregnancy and I simply can’t take over the responsibilities of a statewide organization.”

So, Listing said, “I was elected by default.” She’s held the post ever since, reappointed each year by the Right to Life board.

The draft decision, leaked from the Supreme Court in May, would strike down Roe, setting the stage for pitched abortion battles across many states, including Michigan.

Even if the Supreme Court ends up preserving Roe, anti-abortion forces have been successful in enacting more restrictions, state by state, court decision by court decision, state law by state law, Chelian said.

Northland, along with Planned Parenthood and abortion advocates across the country, are already making contingency plans if Roe falls.

If Michigan continues to offer abortion access, even temporarily, Northland and other clinics plan to add staff to accomodate patients from states with abortion bans. Northland, she said, is already adding staff, though she said her clinics would serve Michigan people first if patient levels rise.

If Michigan ultimately bans abortion, she said her clinics will work with out-of-state providers to ensure women get legal abortions. Northland may even open clinics in abortion-legal states to serve Michigan women.

Michigan now has a law on the books from 1931 that would ban abortion in nearly every instance. That law was nullified by Roe, but would bounce back into effect upon Roe’s demise. Or it would have, had a Michigan Court of Claims judge not granted Planned Parenthood’s request to preemptively suspend the law’s enforcement in May, citing “a serious danger of irreparable harm” if people can’t access abortion services after Roe.

That ruling — and a suit by Republican lawmakers to overturn it — will likely end up before the state Supreme Court, as will Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s direct petition to the Michigan Supreme Court to affirm abortion rights in the Michigan Constitution.

It’s why both Listing and Chelian are loath to predict how the legal winds will settle. 

“There’s a climate change because of the governor and the lawsuits by the governor and Planned Parenthood,” Listing said. “That election four years ago (of Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel, Democrats who strongly support abortion rights) really started the path toward more complications for us.”

But the longer-term future of abortion access is more likely to turn on a petition drive by the group Reproductive Freedom for All. If approved by voters, the drive would amend the Michigan Constitution to establish a “new individual right to reproductive freedom,” including to an abortion, permanently guaranteeing abortion access.

Listing worries the petition’s success would unspool decades of small victories by anti-abortion groups in Michigan, including laws that require minors to obtain parental consent and significant regulations on how abortion clinics operate.

How the Michigan Supreme Court eventually rules on the 1931 abortion ban is important, “but there's a difference between eliminating the 1931 law … versus what the petition drive attempt will do,” Listing said.

“If the 1931 law is overturned, and the Court should find the right to an abortion in the Michigan Constitution (the outcome sought in Whitmer’s suit), we would be much like we are today with (regulations). It would be kind of like if Roe v Wade was still in effect.”

In contrast, she said, “the petition and its attempt to allow new fundamental rights in the Constitution would eliminate probably all or most of the (regulations)…. we have right now,” she said.

“That would be the most difficult thing for us, and of course, from our opponents’ point of view, that's probably their best avenue,” she said.

Chelian disagreed on this point. In her view, a successful petition drive will not take away the abortion regulations already on the books. Rather, it simply means protections now will remain in place, she said.

“Nothing will change,” she said. “This offers protections for abortion and reproductive rights, but it changes none of the current laws.”

The petition drive is the best way, in her mind, to protect women’s reproductive rights in Michigan, she said.

But after decades of battle against Listing and others, Chelian said she is taking no outcome for granted. “I think we have a good chance of winning that fight,” she said. “But I’d guess Right to Life feels, too, that they would win.” 

Others around the nation are watching closely, she said.

“In many ways, there is a bright light shining on this state for the whole country. We hold the hope for lots of other states and for women all over the country to bring (abortion) access back to their states, should it be lost,” Chelian said. “Failure is not an option.” 

Fear over how the battle ends 

Both women say that anger and tension over the impending U.S. Supreme Court ruling has sharpened emotions and triggered threats — so much so that they worry that Michigan’s efforts could erupt in bloodshed, something that neither wants.

“One of things we are concerned about is the level of violence that's happening across the country” attributed to abortion-rights groups, said Listing, concern also raised by the Michigan Catholic Conference. Right to Life noted, for instance, that the Lennon Pregnancy Resource Center in Dearborn Heights was vandalized June 19. Such efforts “will not deter us,” Listing said in a statement.

Chelian, meanwhile, said protesters continue to blockade her clinics.

“We have been in touch with FBI agents and the Department of Homeland Security as we approached the Supreme Court decision. No one is taking this lightly,” Chelian said.

As both women await the ruling, they recognize it won’t mark an end game for either side. How long they will remain part of the fight is unclear.   

At 81, Listing said she’s been searching for her replacement for several years, a need underscored when she was hit with severe COVID last year. 

“I had several (possible replacements) in mind, but for a variety of reasons they’ve decided there’s a different path for them,” she said, noting that a final decision on her replacement is up to the Right to Life board.

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Chelian, a decade younger, said she wants no part of retirement.

“I have two daughters who are second-generation (abortion) providers, and a woman who has been with me more than 30 years and could certainly take care of this clinic,” she said. “They have asked me if I step back would I stay on in an advisory capacity.”

But she’s not sure she can step back. “This is my life’s work,” Chelian said. “I don’t see myself walking away from it.”

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