After months of court battles and uncertainty over abortion rights, the US swing state of Michigan has passed a ballot measure enshrining reproductive rights in its constitution.
The move, part of Tuesday’s midterm elections, effectively restores rights that were challenged in June when the United States Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the 1973 landmark that protected abortion access for nearly half a century.
Proponents of the measure, known as Proposition 3 (PDF), rallied a base of support, gathering more signatures than any other ballot initiative in the state’s history to put the issue to a vote.
“We saved lives in Michigan by passing this,” said Darcy McConnell, an advocate for Reproductive Freedom for All, the group that launched Proposition 3.
The measure would block enforcement of a 1931 state law banning abortion except to save the life of the parent. If Michigan had banned abortion, researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the state’s maternal mortality rate would have increased by 25 percent. That rate is significantly higher for black women, who already face high maternal mortality rates in the US.
Michigan was one of five states that put abortion on the ballot in the midterms, and all five states voted to support abortion access.
The result was expected in left-leaning states like California and Vermont, where voters passed ballot measures to amend their state constitutions and guarantee the right to reproductive rights, including abortion.
But conservative states saw surprising victories for abortion advocates. When the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, it triggered a Kentucky law that banned immediate abortions except for medical emergencies. Along with the ban, anti-abortion activists pushed for a ballot measure to amend the constitution to ban the right to abortion.
This past Tuesday, Kentucky voters blocked the measure, but abortion remains illegal in Kentucky. A lawsuit challenging the ban will be heard by the Kentucky Supreme Court next week.
Montana voters narrowly rejected a ballot measure that would have required health care professionals to take “all medically appropriate and reasonable steps to preserve the life” of any infant born alive. This applies to rare cases of live birth after miscarriage, often caused by a birth defect or maternal complications. However, infanticide is already illegal in Montana.
Doctors and nurses who fail to treat face felony charges with a $50,000 fine and up to 20 years in prison.
The Montana Medical Association opposed the measure, urging doctors to “provide resuscitation efforts to any infant born with a heartbeat, breathing or movement, regardless of gestational age or medical conditions.” The association fears that the rejected measure would outlaw palliative care in cases of fatal fetal birth defects or pre-viable preterm births.
In Michigan, a Rust Belt state with a Republican-led legislature and a Democratic governor, doctors have 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 was reverting to a 1931 law that banned abortion in most cases. But before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Planned Parenthood of Michigan filed a lawsuit asking a state court to declare the 1931 law unconstitutional and block the law’s enforcement.
For a few days in August, amid court battles, there was uncertainty about whether abortion was legal or not. “Women’s health providers didn’t know what the legal protections were for our patients,” Detroit-based OB-GYN Dr Gregory Goert told Al Jazeera.
Doctors like Goert insisted on what to do if a patient has a miscarriage with heavy bleeding.
“Physicians have to say, ‘OK, how much blood does this patient have to lose before I can provide safe, evidence-based care without going into custody?'” he explained a hypothetical scenario.
“If the 1931 law banning virtually all abortions goes into effect, there is no question that women in the state of Michigan will immediately receive substandard care.”
The battle over the 1931 law is still playing out in Michigan’s courts.
“The status of those court decisions is uncertain because the appeals haven’t worked their way through the system,” said Steve Leidell, an attorney for the group that launched Michigan’s successful ballot initiative. “Meanwhile, voters approved Proposition 3, which, while not expressly repealing the 1931 law criminalizing abortion, would prevent that law from being enforced under Roe.”
When Proposition 3 goes into effect on Dec. 24, “we’ll be back to where we’ve been for almost 50 years,” Leidell said.
“I think Roe protections are now back with us and our patients have those protections, those rights,” Goert said. Proposition 3 means pregnant women can make decisions with their health care providers “without interference from politicians or the government,” he said.