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Joy among anti-abortion faithful as Michigan confronts a post-Roe world

Rachel Maes
Rachel Maes said she briefly considered abortion when she was a pregnant college student at 20, but ended up giving birth to a daughter, Avery Marie. Making abortion illegal, she argues, empowers women by forcing them to realize their own capabilities. (Courtesy photo)

In the pitch black of a cold November night, sitting alone inside her Chevy Cruze, 20-year-old Rachel Maes wept. 

The pink line on the pregnancy test had been undeniable inside a bathroom stall at Oakland Community College. So, too, were other tests she’d taken that day.

Pink.

Pink.

Pink.

Pregnant.

So there she sat that night in Waterford Township: an art student, would-be personal trainer, and Catholic daughter.

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Three years later, Maes said she is a happy, single mother. She recently left her job in the office of a kidney doctor to work for Protect Life Michigan, a nonprofit offering pregnancy resources and alternatives to abortion on college campuses.  

And Tuesday, as her daughter Avery Marie babbled happily to a toy eggplant, Maes felt pretty giddy herself.

“It’s a huge win,” said Maes, now 23, as she followed social media reports of the leaked draft of a U.S. Supreme Court opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade and nearly five decades of federal abortion protections.

“We have had people fighting for the unborn and fighting for so long,” Maes said of the likely reversal of Roe. 

But in other parts of Michigan, women awoke to a different, more fearful future in a post-Roe world.

News of the draft opinion sent Ashley Simigian, 26, of Livonia scrambling to find safe and permanent birth control. It was a search she said ended in frustration.

“Now that there may not be an option if I do ever become pregnant, it’s making me think about a lot of things,” said Simigian, who said she does not want children. 

“There aren’t many permanent options for women, especially younger women who haven’t had children before, which is adding to the stress.”

Simigian called Roe’s likely demise a wakeup call and contends “everyone deserves to be able to make their own choice, no matter the reasoning.”

“I know I’m not the only one who feels like this,” Simigian said. “Now I’m worried about what other restrictions on women's reproductive rights could come in the future.”

The leaked opinion, if it holds when released by June, would likely leave decisions on abortion rights to the nation’s 50 state legislatures. Michigan’s future is particularly tricky because it has a criminal law banning abortion still on the books that would once again be in effect should Roe fall. 

In the meantime, the state’s Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, is asking the Michigan Supreme Court to find a right to abortion within the state’s constitution, as Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel insists her office would not enforce the old law, though it could not stop local prosecutors in Michigan from doing so. 

Maes and Simigian represent urgent, earnest, if contrasting voices in an issue that has long divided Michigan, as it has much of the nation. 

Both here and across the U.S., those voices tend to tilt pro-choice, with more than half of people surveyed saying they favor a woman’s right to choose. A January poll by Lansing-based EPIC-MRA, for example, found that 56 percent of Michigan residents identified as pro-choice, compared with 34 percent who identified as pro-life, according to language used in the poll.   

But anti-abortion advocates have been persistent in their decades-long fight to end abortion. And early Tuesday, a handful stood outside the Planned Parenthood Power Family Health Center in Ann Arbor, optimistic about Roe’s impending reversal but working in the meantime to deter patients arriving that day. 

They stopped drivers before they reached the clinic’s parking lot, even as someone from the clinic stood with an umbrella trying to encourage drivers to drive past the anti-abortion group. It’s a dance that happens routinely at abortion clinics across the nation. 

Christa Kolnitys of the groups 40 Days for Life and Sidewalk Advocates for Life was among those trying to stop patients before they reached the facility. She told Bridge she believes the fight to end abortions is far from over and she still worries about abortion pills. 

While the Ann Arbor clinic provides other services such as pregnancy and STD tests, ultrasounds and counseling, Kolnitys and other anti-abortion advocates say they urge people to get services at other places that don’t offer abortions. 

(Disclosure: The Ann Arbor clinic is named in honor of Phil and Kathy Power, founders and financial supporters of The Center for Michigan, which includes Bridge Michigan. The Powers, who are donors to the clinic, were not involved in reporting or production of this article.) 

planned parenthood ann arbor with anti abortion signs
In Ann Arbor, a handful of anti-abortion activists stand outside a Planned Parenthood clinic on Tuesday, aiming to stop patients from getting an abortion. Instead, they urged the drivers to go to other places like a Catholic-affiliated health center that has pregnancy tests, ultrasounds and counseling but does not perform abortions or refer people to abortion providers. (Isabel Lohman/Bridge Michigan)

Another woman outside the clinic, Joan Pepper, told Bridge she was five months pregnant when Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, calling the decision, which found a right to abortion under the U.S. Constitution, “just such a trauma to my health and my peace of mind."

She said she understands someone may feel stressed and overwhelmed when they learn they are pregnant. But, she said, abortions shouldn’t happen because there are other options available.

Other Michigan women said they feared losing that option, perhaps forever. In Flint, lawyer Heather Burnash, 47, was working late on Monday when she learned of the Supreme Court’s draft opinion. She said she was immediately flooded with concern over the risk to her daughters’ reproductive rights. 

“I sat there thinking about what could have happened to me if that right didn’t exist, how it could have changed the course of our lives,” Burnash said. 

Burnash said she had to have an abortion when she was five months pregnant. 

“I had an incomplete miscarriage,” Burnash said. “I was married with two kids, this was a planned pregnancy. I wanted this baby.”

The miscarriage caused Burnash to begin bleeding out and she went to her hospital for help but said she was turned away because the baby still had a heart beat. 

“The hospital has a religious affiliation so they wouldn’t do the procedure,” Burnash said. “So I went to Hurley Medical Hospital and they told me it wasn’t a choice. I was going to die if they didn’t do it.”

She said she had to have a blood transfusion and was on a ventilator after the operation. 

“If abortion was illegal then, I would be dead right now and the child probably wouldn’t have survived,” Burnash said. 

“It’s unconscionable that they wouldn’t do the procedure. God doesn’t belong in my operating room. If you want God in your operating room, good for you, but you don’t get to force him into my doctor’s office.”

Maes, the former college student who reached a crossroads three years ago while sitting her truck, said she could vividly recall her own terror. She recalled thinking as she sat outside how her parents were likely inside watching TV. 

“You think it will never happen to you, and here I was, this scared 20-year-old trying not to disappoint my parents and screw up my life,” she recalled. 

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She remembers scurrying past her parents, who were indeed watching TV, and heading upstairs to weigh her options, which included an abortion. But in the end, she said, “it just didn’t seem right in my head.”

To her mind, a ban on abortion would not take away a woman’s choice, but restore it. It would force them to see their own strength. 

“The way that society is now, women are told they are not capable of making their own lives with a baby. ‘You’re not going to be able to finish school.’ ‘You’re not going to have financial (success).’ ‘There will be no time for self growth if you have that baby right now.’”

What she saw in a long opinion, leaked through the media, and causing ripples nationwide, was an opportunity to “show women that you can still have these things after the baby, even if — right now — the moment is terrifying and you feel alone.”

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