Activists pressure Detroit lawmaker opposed to Michigan abortion bills
- Democratic lawmaker Karen Whitsett voted ‘no’ last week on bills aiming strip abortion restrictions from state law
- The bills’ future is now uncertain, with a thin Democratic majority and little hope for Republican support
- On Monday, abortion advocates ramped up public pressure on Whitsett
A coalition of abortion rights supporters, including several church leaders, publicly took on a single lawmaker Monday, calling on Detroit Democrat Karen Whitsett to drop her opposition to Democratic efforts to repeal several restrictions on Michigan abortions.
“One politician could stop this critical legislation from moving forward,” Paula Thornton Greear, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan President & CEO, told reporters Monday afternoon to raise public pressure on the lawmaker.
Whitsett’s opposition was “surprising” and “deeply out of step with the will of her constituents,” Thornton Greear said.
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Religious leaders also stepped into the public campaign, arguing that Whitsett’s objections ran afoul of not only the will of voters, but of God.
“There are a million times that faith has been misused, and the Scriptures, when it's clear that we should be the voice for those that had been muted,” said Velma Overman, pastor of outreach at Christ Temple City of Refuge Inkster and chair of religious affairs for the Michigan Conference of NAACP.
Overman, who joined the press call alongside Thornton Greear, said she was speaking for herself and others who could not speak for themselves.
“I believe that when we speak about my body, that I should be the very first advocate for it — whether it is my health, my wealth, whatever,” she said.
Pastor John Duckworth, of Gethsemane Missionary Baptist Church in Westland, also joined the press conference. He noted state voters’ passage of Proposal 3 last year, which enshrined abortion rights into the state Constitution.
“The voters spoke,” Duckworth said. “There's nothing else to be said… God has given us (a) choice. No one should ever take that choice away from us.”
Whitsett did not return calls on Monday. But last week, she told Bridge she too voted for Prop 3 and supports the right to an abortion. But she said that doesn’t mean she has to agree with fellow Democrats on every restriction the party wants to remove from state law.
Whitsett’s vote last week foiled what was thought to be quick committee passage of a sweeping, 11-bill package known as the Reproductive Health Act. Her “no” vote, which she attributed to her opposition to a few provisions in the package, surprised Democratic leaders. With the party holding a slim, two-seat majority in both the House and Senate, any defection could torpedo the legislative package.
Whitsett said she opposes using government funds — specifically, state dollars through Medicaid coverage — for abortion. She also had concerns about repealing the state’s “informed consent” law, which includes a 24-hour waiting period between an abortion consultation and the actual procedure. And she said other restrictions regulating facilities where abortions are performed had some value.
Whitsett told Bridge Michigan last week she believes it’s “not too much to ask” that people seeking abortions take their time to consider the decision. Her surprising vote came during a Health Policy Committee hearing last Wednesday. She told reporters afterward she will not budge on the House floor without major changes.
“They’re just things that we need to have conversations about,” Whitsett said. “I have a responsibility to people. This can’t be undone once this happens. We need to make sure we get it right.”
A Bridge analysis of precinct-level voting data in her district shows 74.3 percent of voters supported Proposal 3. That does not mean they necessarily support doing away with all restrictions targeted by the Democratic bills, but abortion rights advocates spun it that way.
Planned Parenthood’s Thornton Greear cited the voting data in a bid to show Whitsett is out of step with her constituents, saying it is “a margin that is so high, it is virtually unheard of in today's deeply partisan environment.”
But so is Whitsett’s standing in her district. She earned 87 percent of the vote in the 2022 general state House election. The district includes part of Detroit and part of Dearborn, where Proposal 3 passed by just 50.5 percent.
What Democrats want
Allowing state Medicaid funding to be used for abortions would increase state Medicaid costs by $2 million to $6 million a year, according to the nonpartisan House Fiscal Agency.
The Democratic bill package would also:
- Repeal the state’s “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” rather than protect patient safety.
- Allow universities to refer students to abortion providers
Legislative Democrats leading the charge for repealing abortion restrictions told Bridge on Friday “all options are on the table” as they try to get majority support on the package, a tough task with only a two-seat advantage in the House and Senate and at least one Democrat on the fence.
Sponsoring Rep. Laurie Pohutsky, D-Livonia, said she’s willing “to try and meet people where they are” and didn’t rule out modifications to the plan, but said laws that treat abortion differently than other types of health care post-Proposal 3 could leave the state open to legal challenges.
“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,” she said last week.
Pohutsky added that she’s “not looking to delay this too much longer,” likening the situation to a “couple of bumps in the road, but obviously nothing that we’re not willing and able to work through.”
Most, if not all, legislative Republicans are opposed to the plan.
Rep. Julie Rogers, D-Kalamazoo, said Friday she isn’t ruling out the possibility of Republican support, noting that two Republicans 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.
But those two lawmakers, Reps. Donni Steele, R-Orion Township, and Tom Kuhn, R-Troy, told Bridge on Monday they would vote no on the package as it currently stands.
Steele said she shared Whitsett’s opinion that state health care funds would be better spent on seniors and also supports keeping the 24-hour waiting period, adding that House Democrats haven’t sought out her views on the bills.
“We are getting so carried away with this abortion issue, and it's becoming so divisive,” Steele said. “It's keeping our eyes off the ball of what is really going on in the state of Michigan…I think it's detrimental to our state.”
Bridge data reporter Mike Wilkinson contributed to this report.
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