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Lone Democrat could kill Medicaid for abortions in Michigan, other reforms

Democratic state Rep. Karen Whitsett headshot
Democratic state Rep. Karen Whitsett opposes an abortion rights package backed by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. (Courtesy photo)
  • State Rep. Karen Whitsett broke with Democrats and opposed a package of bills to erase abortion restrictions
  • The Democrats may need full support of all members to veto 24-hour waiting period, allow Medicaid funding
  • Whitsett says her main concern is the $2 million to $6 million state cost to have Medicaid cover abortions

LANSING— Abortion rights bills championed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer face a significant roadblock in the Michigan House due to opposition from a Democratic lawmaker who could effectively block the legislation.

State Rep. Karen Whitsett, D-Detroit, voted against the Reproductive Health Act in the House Health Policy Committee on Wednesday and told reporters she will not budge on the House floor without major changes.

“I will not vote and fund Medicaid abortions,” Whitsett told reporters after the committee vote, highlighting legislation that would allow the government-funded insurance program to pay for the procedure.

“That's not going to happen.”


Whitsett’s opposition presents an obstacle for the legislation in the Michigan House. Democrats hold a two-seat advantage and need every one of their 56 votes to pass bills without Republican support. 

Nonetheless, the Democratic chair of the Health Policy Committee said she is optimistic about the fate of the legislation, which would also repeal several abortion regulations Whitmer has called “antiquated” and unnecessary.

people sitting in chairs
A sweeping set of bills could expand access to abortion in Michigan. An overflowing crowd of supporters and opponents packed the 90-minute public hearing last week in front of the House Health Policy Committee. (Bridge photo by Robin Erb)

Rep. Julie Rogers, D-Kalamazoo, pointed out that two Republicans joined Democrats earlier this year in repealing a dormant 1931 abortion ban rendered unconstitutional by voter approval of Proposal 3, which enshrined reproduction rights into the state constitution.  

Rogers declined to say whether she had any commitments from Republican lawmakers on the Reproductive Health Ac but suggested “it’s on the table as a possibility.”

“She is mistaken,” said Rep. Tom Kunse, R-Clare, who told reporters he has not seen “any indication” that a Republican would support the package. 

House Minority Leader Matt Hall, R-Richland Township, wrote on Twitter that the abortion package has “hit a dead end.”

Rogers, the Democratic committee chair, said Whitsett had signaled “some concerns” before Wednesday’s panel vote but said she was “not aware that there would be a ‘no’ (vote) on all of them.”

After the vote, Whitsett said her primary concern is that having Medicaid pay for abortions could divert money from an insurance program that seniors in her district rely on for care. 

Abortion opponents also oppose the use of Medicaid funds for abortions, arguing that using state funds violates the conscience of taxpayers who see abortion as the death of a baby.

The proposal would increase state Medicaid costs by $2 million to $6 million a year, according to the non-partisan House Fiscal Agency.

“That's a huge amount of money that can be spent in other places," Whitsett said, echoing arguments she made in an Instagram post.

The governor supports the Medicaid proposal, which her office has said would ensure “everyone has access to abortion, regardless of where they live, work, or what type of insurance they have.”

Whitmer last month called on legislative Democrats to pass the Reproductive Health Act, or RHA, saying it would remove  “politically motivated, medically unnecessary restrictions on abortion” in the state. 

Whitmer renewed that call Wednesday as six of the bills advanced out of a House committee without Whitsett's support. A Senate panel is expected to take up additional bills soon.

"I urge the Legislature to pass it," the governor said in a statement. 

 The 11-bill package also would:

  • End mandatory 24-hour waiting period for patients before under Michigan’s informed consent abortion law, which includes the requirement to view a state-provided packet on fetal development, risks of abortion, and what to do if they experience complications. 
  • Repeal the “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.”
  • Reverse a ban on using state funds for abortions
  • Allow universities to refer students to abortion providers

Notably, the bill package would not repeal a parental consent requirement in Michigan.

While the lawmaker Whitsett told reporters she supports a woman’s right to seek an abortion, she expressed opposition to other key elements in the Democratic package, including the bills to repeal the 24-hour waiting period and various abortion clinic regulations.

“I do not think it is too much to ask when someone's terminating a life, a 24-hour pause to be able to say for sure this is the decision you want to make,” Whitsett said. 

The Detroit Democrat, who has also broken party ranks in the past, told reporters she's been “pressured to change” her position by House leadership but does not plan to do so. 

“I didn't get here to do an easy job,” Whitsett said. “I have a district to represent, and it's diverse.”

Planned Parenthood of Michigan President and CEO Paula Thornton Greear released a statement saying that, if the package is defeated, Whitsett will be "solely responsible for the continued enforcement of dozens of anti-abortion restrictions that disproportionately harm women of color and people who are struggling to make ends meet." 

The legislation is the latest abortion battle since June 2022, when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the federal right to abortion within the U.S. Constitution. The decision sent the legal question back to the states, triggering a more than year-long scramble across much of the country to establish or overturn state laws, with some states banning or limiting abortion and other states staking out continued access. 

Whitmer signed a bill that repealed a 1931 state abortion ban, and the Democrat-controlled Legislature passed a law that bans employers from discriminating against workers for having abortions. 

In a first hearing last week, doctors lined up on both sides of the issue, some wearing medical coats. The room was packed for the 90-minute, sometimes emotional hearing, with people wearing bright pink T-shirts or shirt stickers that read “No RHA.”

In contrast, the meeting Wednesday took less than a half-hour.

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