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How Right to Life has dominated Michigan abortion politics since Roe v. Wade

Kaylee Tegethoff

It was a very good summer for anti-abortion forces in Michigan. 

In June, they won the right to call a common procedure “dismemberment abortion” on ballot petitions seeking to end the practice. A second petition, also approved, would enact a “heatbeat” ban, forbidding abortions once cardiac activity is detected in a fetus. Through a quirk in Michigan, at least one of the measures stands a strong chance of becoming law next year, despite an abortion-rights advocate in the governor’s office.    

Then, in August, came news that Planned Parenthood of Michigan, the state’s largest abortion provider, would no longer receive more than $4 million in federal funds to care for low-income patients, citing what it called gag rules that prevented the group from providing information to patients about abortion.

The recent victories might seem improbable in a state that has consistently favored abortion rights in public opinion polls, reflecting a national sentiment since the 1970s, when the U.S. Supreme Court first legalized the procedure. 

In truth, anti-abortion groups led by Right to Life of Michigan have steamrolled abortion-rights activists for decades, scoring victories in Lansing and at the ballot box as they steadily chip away at abortion access.

The key has been a grassroots organization of thousands of passionate volunteers, along with what’s been called the “golden ticket” of Right to Life candidate endorsements that, over the years, have helped to build a largely anti-abortion Legislature.

“It’s a reflection of organization and the power of the Right to Life movement in the Republican primary,” said Tom Shields, a GOP strategist and founder of Marketing Resource Group, a Lansing-based public relations firm.

Bernie Porn, a former Democratic staffer and strategist and founder of Lansing-based polling group EPIC-MRA, has watched for years as Right to Life ushered in a tide of Republicans to Lansing.

“Right to Life of Michigan knows that ‒ because they’re so supported by the Republican Legislature ‒ if they initiate a petition, they have a good chance of passing any pro-life legislation,” Porn said. “And (Gov.) Gretchen Whitmer wouldn’t have a thing to say about it.”

He’s referring to citizens’ petition drives ‒ grassroots efforts to collect hundreds of thousands of signatures by ringing doorbells or approaching visitors at county fairs across the state ‒ backed by experienced, battle-hardened strategists.

In petition drives since 1987, Right to Life has ensured that government funds aren’t used to pay for the procedures; that women need to purchase a separate health insurance rider to cover abortion costs, and that minors cannot obtain an abortion without the consent of a parent

It also has pushed through other laws by working directly with legislators ‒ including measures requiring women to be counseled or to wait for 24 hours before getting an abortion. 

This past spring, as Whitmer and state Republican leaders pledged to work together to solve Michigan’s challenges, the abortion wars returned to the capitol. In a sharply partisan vote and with the voice Right to Life of Michigan behind them, the GOP-led Senate and House passed laws that would ban the most common second-trimester abortion method, dilation and evacuation ‒ which Right to Life calls “dismemberment abortion.” 

Whitmer promised to veto any such legislation, which is what prompted Right to Life of Michigan to lead what is now its fifth ballot drive since Roe (it’s currently four for four) asking voters to ban the D&E procedure. If RTL gathers enough signatures to put it on the November 2020 ballot, the Legislature has the option to approve the measure on its own rather than waiting for voters to weigh in. Significantly in Michigan, the Legislature’s passage of a citizens petition means the governor cannot veto the law. 

Knowing how to draw the line 

The dizzying pace of abortion restrictions in Michigan comes as a majority of Michiganders continue to express general support for abortion rights. 

In August, 54 percent of Michiganders said they were “pro-choice,” meaning they believed in a woman’s right to an abortion, while 40 percent said they were “pro-life,” which was defined in the poll as meaning they are against abortions except to save life of the mother. Six percent said they were undecided, according to EPIC-MRA.

Those results echo national sentiments about abortion, which likewise have not changed much over the years, according to Gallup, which has been tracking national attitudes on abortion since 1975. 

Most Americans, 53 percent, feel abortion should remain legal but with restrictions, according to its most recent poll. Another 25 percent say it should be legal, period. According to Gallup, just 21 percent of Americans feel it should be banned in all cases.

Chris Gast, spokesman for Right to Life of Michigan, noted how the group focuses on what he calls the “mushy middle” — those voters who are “uncomfortable with abortion, but they don’t know where to draw the legal line.”

Right to Life’s success has been to strategically frame the limits of what Michigan voters are willing to keep legal, or at least what they are willing to pay for. It’s why the group fought to frame its 2020 ballot proposal as “dismemberment abortion” rather than using the more clinical medical term, “dilation and evacuation.”  

Winning the rhetorical battle helps the group gather petition signatures from ambivalent, middle-ground voters. Words like “fetal heatbeat”, “partial-birth” and “dismemberment abortion” create a powerful, visceral reaction that abortion-rights activists have not always been able to match.     

Gast wouldn’t say how many signatures Right to Life has collected so far. The group plans to submit at least 400,000 signatures to the state by Dec. 23, the end of its 180-day legal window under state law since the launch of its drive, Gast said. Just over 340,000 signatures must be valid to qualify for the ballot, according to the Michigan Secretary of State’s office.

“The key are our affiliates around the state,” Gast said, referring to a statewide network of volunteers who fan out to shopping centers, church meetings and tailgate parties with petitions in hand.

The Michigan Catholic Conference is among those allies, and the office of Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron, who supports the Right to Life petition, has encouraged the state’s seven dioceses to address the issue with their parishes, according to David Maluchnik, spokesman for the Michigan Catholic Conference. That means churchgoers may hear from a priest or  follow congregant at Mass about the need to “prayerfully consider” signing the petitions.

The second, more restrictive abortion petition, from a group called Michigan Heartbeat Coalition, asks voters to ban abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected, effectively around six weeks of pregnancy, before many women know they’re pregnant.

Right to Life of Michigan and the Catholic Church have not supported the Heartbeat Coalition effort, worried that it may be more vulnerable to legal challenge and put at risk Michigan’s other anti-abortion measures.

Adrian Hemond, a Democratic political consultant and president of political consulting firm Grassroots Midwest, said Right to Life also has successfully leveraged Republican lawmakers in Lansing.

Planned Parenthood and abortion-rights advocates have not been able to match Right to Life’s muscle, he said, in part because Planned Parenthood also offers women’s health and family planning services and education throughout the state, including in largely Republican counties, which constrains the group’s advocacy on abortion rights. 

"Planned Parenthood is in a rough position from an advocacy perspective,” he said. “They have to walk a very fine line." 

Carpentier

Other abortion rights groups arguably should be more organized and more vocal, he said. But as it stands now, RTL "is an advocacy organization and this is literally the only thing they do."

The golden ticket 

In Michigan, as in much of the nation, legislative opposition to abortion has generally become synonymous with Republican opposition.  

In 2018, 78 of the 80 Republicans who won seats in the 2018 election were endorsed or somehow supported by Right to Life of Michigan, according to an analysis by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. If history is any guide, they won’t stray.  

Candidates who secure a Right to Life endorsement get more than a few words on campaign literature. They get access to the RTL’s powerful list of passionate, single-issue voters likely to turn out to the polls. The group also sends out literature on behalf of favored candidates, most effectively by pushing listings of endorsed candidates to supporters through mailings, emails, social media and its website.

Shields, the Republican strategist, said he witnessed the group’s sway in the state’s most recent U.S. Senate race, in which he worked with Sandy Pensler of Grosse Pointe. Pensler and John James of Farmington Hills faced each other in the GOP primary in a bid to unseat Democratic incumbent Debbie Stabenow last November.

Both men ran as anti-abortion, but Pensler, 61, acknowledged he had once supported abortion rights and that he would back exceptions in any future abortion ban for cases involving rape or incest. 

Right to Life endorsed James. 

“We saw the effect right away in the polls,” Shields said. James went on to win the Republican primary, though he later lost to Stabenow.

Anti-abortion activists “are loyal to the issue, and Right to Life has organized that passion,” Shields said. For a candidate, “the use of (RTL’s) lists is a golden ticket to the legislature.”

Once endorsed by Right to Life and sent to Lansing, Republican lawmakers “don’t break ranks on the abortion issue,” he said.

Picking a team 

As abortion becomes more partisan in Lansing and Washington, polls shows that Americans are more likely to declare which side they are on.

A larger percentage of Americans now self-identify as “pro-choice” or “pro-life”, and a record high in voters ‒ nearly 3 in 10 ‒ now say they will vote for a candidate for major office only if that candidate’s views on abortion match their own, according to the recent Gallup poll.

Porn, of EPIC-MRA, who began working in Democratic hallways as a college student in the early 1970s, says he sees it in Michigan too. Though abortion has always been an emotional debate, “people are so strident in their position now.”

And that means fewer abortion rights advocates among Republicans and fewer abortion opponents among Democrats, said John Gleason, the Genessee County Clerk. 

Gleason served in the Michigan House and Senate until term-limited out of state office in 2014. He belongs to a once-familiar subset of Democrats: “pro-life, Irish, and Catholic.” 

Gleason considered running for Congress after leaving the statehouse but eventually ran instead for county clerk. 

Especially among elected officials, he said, “there’s no ability to convert to a moderate anymore.”   

The state’s voting maps already give Republican candidates an edge over Democrats in reaching Lansing, Gleason noted, even as the impact of the Tea Party activism lingers in Michigan. To win a Republican primary, he said, “you have to be so extreme.”

Demands for party purity on abortion or other issues hurt Michigan voters, in his view. Elections swung by single issues such as abortion or gun control fill the statehouse with single-issue lawmakers ‒ politicians focused on the next election and beholden to special interests instead of policy leaders with the public good in mind.

Gleason said there is no easy fix, “but I also know that you’re not going to fix the roads if 110 state representatives and 38 senators got elected only on the pro-life issue. You have to have a more complex view of policymaking.”

Perhaps, but ideological nuance has not been a hallmark of modern political parties, at least not when it comes to abortion. 

In 2016, the National Democratic party reinforced the stand it had made four years earlier that Democrats “strongly and unequivocally support Roe v. Wade.” Dems also called for reversal of the Hyde Amendment, a 40-year-old law that, with few exceptions, prohibits federal funds being used in abortions. For some, it marked an aggressive shift  from the middle-ground position that Bill Clinton had once painted as “safe, legal and rare.”

Republicans hardened their stand, too, in Lansing and in Washington.

Then-presidential candidate Donald Trump in 2016 suggested criminally punishing women who got abortion in addition to abortion providers — a stance that made even some abortion opponents uncomfortable. The president doubled down in his most recent State of the Union address, portraying Democratic legislation in New York as allowing a baby “to be ripped from the mother’s womb moments before birth.” 

As the political divide deepens, Right to Life of Michigan and Planned Parenthood have increasingly relied on super PAC money to influence Lansing. Unlike traditional political action committees, super PACs can accept money from corporations, including nonprofit corporations that can raise money from donors who don’t have to be identified under Michigan campaign finance law.

Lori Carpentier, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Michigan, underscored party divides when she said during an interview on public television’s “Media Meet” that year. “Nobody in the Republican Party has come forward to support women’s health issues,” she said. “So it’s pretty clear who we’re backing.”

Meanwhile, Right to Life’s focus continues in Lansing. 

Rep. Brian Elder, a Democrat from Bay City, had Right to Life’s backing when he won state House election in 2016. In 2018, he was considered a candidate to be the next House Democratic leader. He didn’t seek Right to Life’s support in that race.

“It was surprising to me to see how the organization called Right to Life operated down here in Lansing,” Elder said in an interview. “And by the end of my first year here, I had just made the personal decision that I really wouldn’t be told what to do on any given bill. I would just make my own decisions. I didn’t want to make a big deal out of this, I didn’t want to be controversial in any way, but Right to Life was bothered by that.”

Elder said Right to Life had become more extreme in its positions and he didn’t see why a Democrat would want to associate with the organization.

In August 2018, RTL suggested in a blog post headlined “Brian Elder: Profile in Cowardice” that the representative had changed his position to help win the House Democratic leadership race. 

Right to Life of Michigan was also upset Elder had introduced a bill that would require “pro-life pregnancy centers” to post disclaimers that they are “not licensed as a health facility,” calling the bill a “blindside attack.”

“For shame, Rep. Elder.  For shame,” the blog post said.

Gunning for Roe  

Trump’s successful nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court last year has prompted speculation that the court will soon overturn Roe v. Wade. The court’s rightward shift has prompted a number of conservative state legislatures to pass highly restrictive abortion laws, including outright bans, in a bid to get Roe’s central holding back before the justices. 

That worries abortion rights advocates in Michigan, where a 1931 state law outlawing abortion remains on the books, should Roe be reversed. 

“I’ve been around Planned Parenthood for 34 years,” Carpentier told Bridge. “There was a time when (state) legislators looked at what they were going to do and gauged whether it would be deemed to be unconstitutional. But now with Kavanaugh, they don’t care. Everybody is vying to be the case sending this back to the Supreme Court.”

Genevieve Marnon, legislative director at Right to Life of Michigan, said she  remembers her mother rallying forces against a 1972 measure that would have legalized abortion in Michigan, a year before Roe made that the law of the land. Though the ballot measure failed, sustaining Michigan’s abortion ban, it was made moot the following year by Roe. 

But Marnon and Carpentier agree on this: Abortion-rights Republicans and anti-abortion Democrats are endangered species both in Washington and Lansing, replaced by the “idea that you have to align with a particular party,” Marnon said.

According to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, just two Michigan Democratic candidates for state office in 2018 were supported by RTL. One was Cynthia Luczak of Bay City, who won a contested primary but lost in the general election for Senate. The other, Rhonda Barley of Redford Township, lost in a four-way primary race for the state House.

“People don’t want to stand alone,” Barley said of why few Democrats now seek Right to Life backing. “In the political arena, everybody wants to be politically correct.”

But Andrea Geralds, who supports abortion rights, said she isn’t convinced the middle ground is disappearing, or that the issue must be so partisan that she can’t win over Republican voter support.

The Macomb County woman has been traveling the state to rally support against the petition drives by Right to Life and the Heartbeat Coalition. She is collecting names to build a “rapid response database” ‒ a list of abortion-rights supporters to recruit in case either of the two petitions restricting abortions are successful in collecting the necessary signatures. 

“You can’t expect any group to be a monolith,” she said, referring to her efforts to reach voters across the political spectrum. “It seems like a partisan issue, but we can’t assume that. You have to dig down deeper to find out what people really believe, where their limits are.”

Cheyna Roth is Capitol reporter for Michigan Public Radio Network. Craig Mauger is executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

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