Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer Repeals 1931 Abortion Ban

Barbara Rodriguez

Originally published by The 19th

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Wednesday signed into law a bill that repeals a 1931 abortion ban, cementing access in the state and fulfilling a promise she made during her reelection campaign.

Whitmer signed the legislation surrounded by Michigan doctors, lawmakers and abortion advocates.

“This is a long overdue step, and it proves that when we keep fighting to protect everyone’s ability to make their own decisions about their bodies, we can win,” she said.

Whitmer, who has called the policy a “zombie law,” wrapped her remarks by asking the audience: “Who would like to watch me slay a zombie?”

The 1931 law, which banned most abortions except to “preserve the life” of the pregnant person and included criminal penalties for health providers, had been in legal limbo for months following the U.S. Supreme Court ruling last June that overturned Roe v. Wade, the nearly 50-year-old ruling that affirmed federal abortion rights.

“This 1931 law, it’s been sitting here, sort of ominously staring at us, waiting for the moment when the Supreme Court did the awful thing they did,” said Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lavora Barnes. “This is really how you show that Democrats deliver. We’ve been talking about doing this work, making sure that we can protect the rights of women in this state, for a very long time. And finally, today, the governor gets to sign the law that does that.”

Rep. Laurie Pohutsky, who sponsored the bill to repeal the ban, noted that the legislation dated back to 1846, before it was codified in 1931. She said documented debate back then around the policy makes it clear that it was never about the health or safety of anyone.

“It was created by men in power to control and stifle the independence of women, plain and simple,” she said. “And I’m not gonna lie, it’s really satisfying that there is a group of women holding power that are about to repeal it.”

Michigan Democrats’ work to repeal the ban goes back months before they gained a trifecta of power in state government last November. After the Supreme Court ruling, Republicans sought to revive decades-old abortion restrictions — like Michigan’s 1931 law — that were never formally taken off state statutes. Whitmer was among the Democratic governors who then took legal action and committed to shore up abortion access in their states.

Even before the Supreme Court’s ruling, Whitmer was vocal about what she saw as the importance of campaigning on abortion.

“I don’t think there’s a choice here. We have to talk about it,” Whitmer told The 19th just days before the Supreme Court overturned Roe. “This is going to have a dramatic impact on the lives of millions of people in my own state and not much less across the country. Abortion care is health care.”

The legal questions about the 1931 law were playing out at the same time that advocates in Michigan got enough public signatures to bring a ballot measure to voters that would enshrine abortion protections to the state constitution. The measure overwhelmingly passed, one of several ballots around the country that favored abortion rights. The ballot measure ensured that the 1931 law would not go into effect. The repeal bill cemented that.

Among the attendees at Wednesday’s signing was Dr. Omari Young, an obstetrician gynecologist from Flint, Michigan, and a member of the Committee to Protect Health Care, which advocated for the ballot measure.

Young called the signing a “significant” day for physicians and patients in the state given how uneven the access landscape has become following the overturning of Roe. He noted that surrounding states have further restricted abortion, making Michigan a haven for out-of-state residents.

“The efforts by physicians, advocates, Governor Whitmer and our policymakers showed that there’s overwhelming support for access to safe abortion care and allowing patients and women to make informed decisions with their providers and their family regarding access to abortion care,” Young said.

Whitmer signing the legislation comes a day after liberals flipped control of the state Supreme Court in neighboring Wisconsin, where abortion is currently inaccessible. The Wisconsin high court, soon to be dominated by liberal justices, is likely to hear a legal challenge to the state’s 1849 abortion ban that went back into effect when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

Whitmer said the repeal law in Michigan and the election results in Wisconsin are not a fluke.

“There are a lot of states that are moving backward on access to health care and personal freedoms. Midwesterners, though, have shown we are the practical people we always knew,” she said. “We don’t get discouraged, we get to work.”

Barnes said if Democrats win political power in other states, they should heed that advice. She noted the range of policy moving through the Michigan legislature this year.

“These folks ran on these issues, made promises to the voters that they would take care of these issues — LGBTQ issues, abortion, right to work, the whole list … I think that’s the message that other Democrats around the country could pick up: Let’s get it done” she said.

Barnes also predicted that abortion would continue to impact elections around the country.

“I think that voters are going to hold Republicans accountable at the ballot box again for attempting to block women’s rights to this sort of health care, this sort of access,” Barnes said. “This is going to continue to be a conversation they have not just here in Michigan but nationally.”

Grace Panetta contributed to this report.

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