After months of court battles and uncertainty over abortion rights, the US swing state of Michigan has passed a ballot measure that will enshrine reproductive rights in its constitution.
The move, part of Tuesday’s midterm elections, effectively restores rights that were called into question in June when the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that protected abortion access for nearly half a century. .
Supporters of the measure, known as Proposition 3 (PDF), gathered a groundswell of support, collecting more signatures than any other ballot initiative in state history to bring the issue to a vote.
“We saved lives by passing this in Michigan,” said Darci McConnell, a spokeswoman for Reproductive Freedom for All, the group that started Proposition 3.
The measure will also block enforcement of a 1931 state law that banned abortion except to save the life of the father. If Michigan had outlawed abortion, researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the state’s maternal mortality rate could have increased by 25 percent. That rate would have been significantly higher for black women, who already face disproportionately high maternal mortality rates in the US.
Michigan was one of five states to put abortion on the ballot in the midterm elections, and all five states voted in favor of abortion access.
The result was expected in left-leaning states like California and Vermont, where voters have approved ballot measures to amend their state constitutions to guarantee reproductive rights, including abortion.
But conservative states also saw surprising victories for abortion advocates. When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade, it triggered a Kentucky law that immediately outlawed abortion, except in medical emergencies. In addition to the ban, anti-abortion activists have proposed a ballot measure that would have amended the constitution to ban abortion rights.
Last Tuesday, Kentucky voters blocked the measure, but abortion remains illegal in Kentucky. A lawsuit challenging the ban will be heard by Kentucky’s superior court next week.
Montana voters also narrowly rejected a ballot measure that would have required health care professionals to take “all reasonable and medically appropriate steps to preserve the life” of any baby born alive. This would have applied to rare cases of live births following abortion, often as a result of a birth defect or maternal complications. However, infanticide is already illegal in Montana.
Doctors and nurses who failed to provide treatment would face felony charges, with a $50,000 fine and up to 20 years in jail.
The Montana Medical Association opposed the measure, saying it would force doctors to “perform resuscitative efforts on any baby born with a heartbeat, breathing, or movement, regardless of gestational age or medical conditions.” The association also feared that the rejected measure would have outlawed palliative care in cases of lethal fetal congenital anomalies or predictable preterm birth.
In Michigan, a Rust Belt state with a Republican-led legislature and a Democratic governor, doctors had the right to perform abortions for nearly 50 years. But when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade, that right was suddenly in jeopardy.
The state would have returned to the 1931 law that prohibited abortion in most cases. But before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Planned Parenthood of Michigan launched litigation asking a state court to declare the 1931 law unconstitutional and block its enforcement.
For a few days in August, amid court battles, there was uncertainty about whether abortion was legal or not. “Women’s health care providers literally had no idea what legal care was to provide our patients,” Dr. Gregory Goyert, a Detroit-based obstetrician and gynecologist, told Al Jazeera.
Doctors like Goyert were forced to consider what to do if a patient miscarried with heavy bleeding.
“The doctor would have to say, ‘Well, how much blood does this patient have to lose before he can provide safe evidence-based care without risking arrest?’” he said, describing a hypothetical scenario.
“If the 1931 law banning virtually all abortions went into effect, there was no doubt that women in the state of Michigan would immediately begin receiving substandard care.”
The fight over that 1931 law is still raging in the Michigan courts.
“The status of those court decisions is uncertain because appeals have not fully opened up in the system,” said Steve Leidel, a lawyer for the group that started Michigan’s successful ballot initiative. “Meanwhile, voters approved Proposition 3 which, while it doesn’t explicitly repeal the 1931 law criminalizing abortion, would prevent anyone from enforcing that statute, just like with Roe.”
When Proposition 3 goes into effect on Dec. 24, “we’re going back to the status quo that we had for almost 50 years,” Leidel said.
“I feel great that the Roe protections are now back with us and that our patients have those protections, those rights,” Goyert said. Proposition 3 means pregnant people can make decisions with their health care provider “without interference from politicians or the government,” she added.
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