Beth Morris is a 63-year-old homemaker whose pink Planned Parenthood shirt and clipboard would hardly betray her as a moderate Republican.
But here she is, in the middle of an abortion rights rally on the University of Michigan’s campus in Ann Arbor, collecting signatures to support a constitutional amendment to keep abortion legal in one of America’s swingy “purple” states.
“The Republican party in Michigan has just been hijacked by the extreme right. Somehow, Christian values are things they want,” said Morris.
She feels moderates like herself are “endangered”, and that many of her Republican friends have grown more extreme, and now even oppose birth control.
A mother of three adult children, Morris said she has donated to Planned Parenthood every year since college, when the organization helped her get a prescription for the pill. Now, she is part of a high-stakes drive to keep abortion legal in Michigan by putting the question to voters, when the right has never appeared more threatened.
A leaked supreme court draft opinion showed the court is on the precipice of reversing Roe v Wade, a landmark ruling that in 1973 invalidated dozens of state abortion bans, including in Michigan. Without the protections provided by Roe, a criminal abortion ban dating back to 1846 would reanimate, making abortion punishable by manslaughter in a state that 2.2 million women of reproductive age call home.
“If you don’t want to do any of these options, that’s obviously your prerogative. But I don’t feel I should tell someone else what to do,” said Morris.
Michigan would be one of 26 states that would be certain or likely to ban abortion if Roe were reversed. It’s also the only one of those states where a coalition of groups has undertaken a ballot initiative to try to establish the right, and indeed expand it, in the state constitution.
The coalition, which includes the American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood and the Black women-led Michigan Voices, want voters to support a constitutional amendment to protect an expansion of reproductive rights, including but not limited to abortion.
“It’s not just about reproductive freedom in the sense most people understand it, around abortion access,” said Chris Melody Fields Figueredo, executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, a non-profit that works on progressive state referendums.
“It’s also about how you want to parent, and your pregnancy, including abortion, prenatal care, childbirth. That, to me, is really remarkable”.
Short of flipping the Republican-controlled Michigan house and senate, which would be a mighty feat as districts were gerrymandered to favor Republicans, the ballot initiative is the most direct way to protect abortion access. Right now, the focus of 25,000 volunteers is clear: to collect 425,059 signatures, thereby getting the measure on the ballot.
“A lot of people want to sign this one,” said Yvonne Wyborny, 65, a retired accountant wearing a pink polo shirt and sensible black sneakers and thrusting her clipboard at people in Detroit’s Eastern Market. It’s Flower Day, an event that draws tens of thousands of people from all over the state. “Especially young women, they tend to grab it out of my hands.”
Whether this ballot initiative will become a national model remains an open question. Only 26 states have some form of direct democracy, and just 18 have a provision that allows citizens to initiate a constitutional amendment, according to Ballotpedia.
However, ballot initiatives often become the forerunners of broad political and legal change, as they did before gay marriage, said Fields Figueredo. The fact that the petition is being signed by a broad, and surprising, assortment of Michigan residents is something the organizers hope may reflect a similarly broad public shift: even people uncomfortable with the procedure don’t want to dictate medical decisions to fellow Americans.
“My moral compass leads me to pro-life,” said Jacqueline Washington, 31, of Warren, who signed the petition in Eastern Market. “But I have no reason to decide for other people.”
More than two-thirds of Americans support access to abortion under most or all circumstances. Criminal bans are a generally unpopular policy to which Republicans have tied themselves by zealously advocating against abortion. Other failed referendums to criminalize abortion, from South Dakota to Colorado to Mississippi, reveal possible electoral peril for Republicans.
Remarkably, this is the second time activists in Michigan have attempted to make abortion legal through a ballot initiative. The first came in 1972, the year before Roe v Wade.
At the time, Renee Chelian – now founder and CEO of Northland Family Planning Centers, three independent abortion clinics outside Detroit – was an abortion provider in a state where it was still illegal. On the weekends she would travel to Buffalo, New York, to perform legal abortions with a Detroit OBGYN. They met at the airport before dawn on Fridays, and returned home late on Sundays after every patient had been served.
“Patients flew, they hitchhiked, they took a bus – they did whatever they had to do to get there,” said Chelian. “And they came from, what I can recall, a six-state area and Canada.”
In 1972, it appeared as if a reprieve was imminent. A referendum question called “Proposition B” was on the fall ballot, asking voters whether to legalize abortion up to 20 weeks gestation. The question polled so well that a new abortion clinic was founded in Detroit, anticipating new patients.
“I was young, and I was working seven days a week, but I knew there was a referendum – I knew the polls looked like we were going to win,” said Chelian.
However, a vocal anti-abortion campaign funded by the Catholic church ran wall-to-wall commercials, commented in newspaper articles and sent Catholic high school students out to canvass against the measure – and it failed, terribly. Voters rejected the measure 61% to 39%, and abortion remained illegal in Michigan.
“We lost, and I went right back to work in Buffalo,” said Chelian. “There wasn’t even time to be disappointed.”
Roe followed just a few months later in January 1973, and seemingly made the history of the first referendum moot. But Chelian, who had an illegal abortion herself at 15, is now worried history may repeat. A supreme court decision is expected in June, meaning abortion could be illegal in Michigan for several months before voters get their chance in November to vote on the ballot initiative.
“I don’t want to end my career back where I started it, providing abortions in another state,” Chelian said.
“My daughters are second-generation providers, and I want them and the women who have worked for me for a long time to be able to run these clinics and take good care of pregnant people long after I’m gone.”