‘It provided hope’: Michigan advocates look ahead after abortion rights vote in Kansas

Michigan voters likely will see a reproductive rights measure on the Nov. ballot

By: - August 7, 2022 3:32 am

Dawn Rattan, right, cries and applauds Aug. 2, 2022, at the Kansans for Constitutional Freedom watch party after learning Kansans had defeated a constitutional amendment to remove abortion rights. | Lily O’Shea Becker/Kansas Reflector

After the U.S. Supreme Court in June struck down Roe v. Wade, Mary Wehrman called the reproductive rights group Kansans for Constitutional Freedom. She was enraged.

A resident of Pittsburg, Kan., a small city near the Missouri border, Wehrman wanted to volunteer with the organization fighting a proposed amendment to the state’s constitution that would allow state lawmakers — many of whom have increasingly been immersed in right-wing extremism — to restrict or ban abortion. 

So, in a reliably Republican county — former President Donald Trump in 2020 secured just over 60% of the vote in Crawford County, where Pittsburg is located — in a deeply conservative state that hasn’t sent a Democrat to the U.S. Senate since 1932, Wehrman started knocking on doors. And she spoke to people — many of them conservative — about the amendment in the Tuesday primary that would be the first public referendum on abortion following the Supreme Court’s unpopular decision and was being closely watched by abortion rights and anti-abortion organizations alike.

“People told me very, very personal stories — stories about miscarriages and ectopic pregnancies; it gives me goosebumps telling you about it,” Wehrman, 60, said of those whose doors she knocked on. “It was so moving that people would tell me that.”

Ultimately, Wehrman knocked on about 600 doors and an informal group of volunteers from Pittsburg that Wehrman and three other women led knocked on about 1,600 doors. Those efforts, Constitutional for Freedom spokesperson Ashley All said, translated to victory for abortion rights.

“We won the county,” All said, referring to the fact that 55.4% of Crawford County voters rejected the anti-abortion amendment in Tuesday’s primary election.

Crawford certainly wasn’t alone. More than half a million Kansans – 538,775 people, to be exact — voted against the amendment, while 376,040 voters backed it, according to unofficial election results. Many of them — about one in five who cast primary ballots — came to the polls Tuesday solely for the amendment, voting on that alone and not for any of the candidates running in the election.

Mary Wehrman, pictured at far left, and a group of volunteers at their July 9 canvass kickoff in Pittsburg, Kansas. Wehrman and other volunteers knocked on about 1,600 doors in Pittsburg to defeat an anti-abortion constitutional amendment that voters rejected in the Aug. 2, 2022 primary. | Photo courtesy of Mary Wehrman

This resounding win for abortion rights in Kansas has resonated across a country grappling with the fallout from the end of Roe, with the sounds of victory making their way to Michigan — where residents are poised to vote in November on the “Reproductive Freedom for All” ballot initiative that would enshrine the right to abortion in the state constitution. The Michigan initiative, for which organizers submitted a record-breaking 753,759 signatures to get it on the ballot, has yet to be certified by the Bureau of Elections. That certification, which entails approving the submitted signatures and allows the initiative to go on November’s ballot, is expected to take place at the end of August.

“Kansas did good,” said Nicole Wells Stallworth, executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan, part of the coalition behind the Reproductive Freedom for All ballot initiative, with the other coalition members including the ACLU of Michigan and Michigan Voices.

“It provided hope,” she added.  “… And it validated all the things we’ve been saying: People don’t see this [abortion access] as a political issue but a personal, medical decision that should not be interfered with by politicians or government.”

Abortion has remained legal in Michigan after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, but Republicans are attempting to implement a state law from 1931 that makes it a felony to provide an abortion. The 91-year-old law provides an exception to save the life of the “pregnant woman,” but lacks exceptions for health, rape or incest.

Before the Supreme Court’s decision, Court of Claims Judge Elizabeth Gleicher in May issued an injunction on the 1931 abortion ban — which has so far been upheld, leaving health care workers able to perform abortions in Michigan. But state Republican lawmakers and prosecutors and anti-abortion groups have been strenuously attempting to overturn it in court. 

As some states across the country are tightening or banning abortion, Michigan’s GOP nominees for governor, Tudor Dixon; attorney general, Matthew DePerno; and secretary of state, Kristina Karamo, all advocate that abortion should be illegal. In November, they face three incumbent Democrats who all support abortion rights: Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Attorney General Dana Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson.

This tenuous legal position of reproductive rights in Michigan has been of deep concern to doctors and other health care workers, Democratic elected officials and reproductive rights advocates. 

Nicole Wells Stallworth, executive director at Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan | Ken Coleman

In the wake of the Kansas vote, however, there is, like Stallworth said, added hope that abortion could remain legal in Michigan — and that there could be a groundswell of support for the ballot initiative from people throughout the political spectrum.

“The defeat of the Kansas ballot initiative proves what we’ve been hearing from constituents across Michigan: The right to manage one’s own body and reproductive care without interference from government is one that a majority of Americans support, and that support transcends party affiliation,” Nessel said in a statement sent by her reelection campaign to the Advance. 

The result of the Kansas primary confirms that voters are energized and motivated to fight back to protect their rights and health,” Nessel continued. “They do not want to go backwards. We are confident that, like in Kansas, Michigan voters will come out in droves and cross party lines to support the Reproductive Freedom for All ballot initiative in November.”

Dr. Melissa Bayne, an OB-GYN in West Michigan and a member of the Committee to Protect Health Care’s reproductive freedom taskforce, said the Kansas vote would have ripple effects throughout the country.

“This is a resounding victory for reproductive freedom not just in Kansas, but nationwide,” Bayne said. “Voters in Kansas made it abundantly clear they don’t want the government making deeply personal decisions about reproductive care for them.

“Just as doctors trust our patients to be able to make their own decisions about their bodies, Michiganders also trust women with the freedom to make their own decisions around pregnancy and reproductive care,” Bayne continued. “We’re excited and encouraged by this enthusiasm, and hopeful that Michigan voters will overwhelmingly pass Reproductive Freedom for All in November to protect women’s freedom.”

‘Voters do not view abortion the way politicians view abortion’

As states, including Michigan, gear up for their own abortion rights battles, All discussed what made the Kansas campaign against the anti-abortion amendment successful: Staying away from partisan rhetoric, encouraging nuanced conversation around abortion, centering the idea that government should stay out of personal medical decisions, and working with a wide range of local and state organizations, including conservative ones.

While Kansas has long backed Republican presidential candidates — it has voted for Republicans in every presidential election for the past five decades — and has elected increasingly conservative Republicans to the state legislature, the state also has a large chunk of unaffiliated voters and its current governor is a Democrat, Laura Kelly. Which means, All said, the campaign to defeat the constitutional amendment had to discourage partisan language.

“Kansas tends to be more Republican; we really did have to make sure we were engaging across party lines,” All said. 

When abortion rights advocates began to organize across the state, it became clear that giving people the space to talk about and process abortion without using partisan language was gaining them supporters. 

With nearly one in four women in the United States having an abortion by the age of 45, according to the Guttmacher Institute, abortion is a common medical procedure but still stigmatized — which meant being able to have thoughtful discussions about complicated emotions, including ones rooted in religious beliefs, around abortion was crucial to the Kansas reproductive rights movement, All explained.

“With the fall of Roe and all the stories we’ve seen since then, I think it will further galvanize people around the right to choose and personal freedom,” All said. “We’ve seen women’s health care be denied or delayed, and when you see those stories, it becomes very real.”

Ashley All, spokeswoman for Kansans for Constitutional Freedom, gives a speech Aug. 2, 2022, at a watch party in Overland Park after primary results verified Kansans voted to preserve abortion rights. | Lily O’Shea Becker/Kansas Reflector

Those stories — the personal ones in which pregnant people’s lives become often life-threateningly entangled in a web of right-wing-controlled government red tape — are the ones that people across the country are increasingly telling, and hearing, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision. 

And, All said, these stories, combined with the idea that government should not be involved in an individual’s decision about their health, are in large part why people across the ideological spectrum voted in favor of abortion rights in Kansas. (Reproductive rights advocates in Kansas also partnered with a politically diverse group of organizations, like the state’s Mainstream Coalition, which is made up of moderate Republicans, including former state lawmakers, whose stated goal is to challenge extreme ideology among Republicans, to defeat the amendment.) 

“When we started talking to voters and figuring out how they viewed this issue, the vast majority of voters do not view abortion the way politicians view abortion,” All said. “It is an incredibly private and personal issue; it’s a complicated issue for a lot of people. We tried to communicate in a way that gave space to a broad group of perspectives on the issue while at the same time [emphasizing] the majority of people believe it should be legal and accessible.”

Wehrman, who works in technology at Pittsburg State University, would tell people she met while canvassing that the proposed amendment “is an overreach by the legislature.”

And while she would talk directly about abortion, there were also plenty of conversations in which she would focus on Republican state lawmakers cutting funding for education or refusing to expand Medicaid.

“When you’re talking to teachers, you say, ‘Our legislature has failed to fund education until they’re court-ordered to do so,’” she said. “Our legislature has failed to expand Medicaid. We’ve missed out on a ton of federal dollars during COVID. People are hurting because our legislature failed to make good decisions. Why would we give them more responsibility?”

When we started talking to voters and figuring out how they viewed this issue, the vast majority of voters do not view abortion the way politicians view abortion. It is an incredibly private and personal issue; it’s a complicated issue for a lot of people.

– Ashley All, Kansans for Constitutional Freedom spokesperson

When Wehrman would frame the amendment vote as a statement on whether or not to give more power to state lawmakers, she was often met with vehement agreement.

“A teacher will physically stand and shake their head in agreement with you and say, ‘Oh yeah, you’re right; the legislature did not do their job,’” Wehrman said. “When you start talking about the real consequences of what’s going to come, it makes people start to wake up a little bit. We don’t even need to talk about abortion; we just need to talk about what’s going on right now.”

For organizers in Michigan and other states set to have their own votes on abortion rights, Wehrman said the most effective thing they can do to win is “walk and talk, walk and talk.”

“You have to canvass,” Wehrman said. “You have to be willing to talk to people. … Don’t bother with protesting. Protesting isn’t going to change anything. Canvass, canvass, canvass. Get out buttons; get out signs.”

The gap between Republican lawmakers and GOP voters

Academics who study abortion politics told the Advance that in Michigan and across the country there’s a sizable number of Republican voters who back access to abortion, while a vocal contingent of their elected officials do not. 

In Michigan, for example, GOP lawmakers have asked the Court of Claims to lift the injunction on the 1931 abortion ban, and the three candidates running for Michigan’s highest offices have said they support making abortion illegal in Michigan and would work to do so if elected. Those candidates — Dixon, DePerno and Karamo, all of whom have also espoused the lie that the 2020 election was stolen — did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story.

These anti-abortion stances stand in contrast to the majority of voters’ beliefs.

A recent Data for Progress poll reported 80% of Michiganders said the government “should not have a say in personal matters like a person’s sexual preference or gender identity.” That’s consistent with earlier surveys, like an August 2020 poll done by North Carolina-based Public Policy Polling that found 77% of Michigan voters agree that any decision about pregnancy should be made by the pregnant person. 

That voters, including conservative ones, are not aligning with their Republican elected officials on abortion — is becoming increasingly apparent across the country, including in Michigan, said Carla Pfeffer, director of the Consortium for Sexual and Gender Minority Health and an associate professor of social work at Michigan State University. 

“We’re finding the Supreme Court justices who struck down Roe v. Wade and some of these lawmakers putting forward these [anti-abortion] ballot initiatives are far more conservative than their constituents,” Pfeffer said. 

Siobán Harlow, a professor of global public health, obstetrics and gynecology, and epidemiology at the University of Michigan, said the “very conservative anti-abortion” segment of the population is “a relatively small portion of the electorate.”

“I think the Kansas vote reflected an important statement on what the broader will of the people of the United States is,” Harlow said. “I think this vote really reflects what the center-of-the-road, middle America wants.”

Hundreds of people braved the heat in Lansing to protest the Supreme Court’s decision to remove abortion protections for millions of people on June 24 2022. | Photo by Andrew Roth

Michigan Republican candidates’ views on abortion

But what “center-of-the-road, middle America” wants is apparently not the same as the Republicans running for office in Michigan.

In a July interview with Charlie LeDuff, Dixon was asked if she would support an abortion for a 14-year-old who was raped and impregnated by an uncle. No, Dixon said.

“A life is a life for me,” said Dixon, a right-wing commentator who won the Republican gubernatorial primary on Tuesday. 

Tudor Dixon at a GOP gubernatorial debate in Warren, June 30, 2022 | Laina G. Stebbins

She further clarified that she would not support abortion in any case except to save the life of the mother. 

Karamo, meanwhile, has described abortion as a “satanic practice,” and DePerno has said he is against abortion, including in cases of rape, incest and to save the life of the mother. 

They also have all said they are against the Reproductive Freedom for All ballot initiative.

These kinds of statements, political experts said, could end up bringing a surge of pro-choice voters to the midterm election, both for the ballot initiative and for candidates who back abortion rights, including Whitmer, Nessel and Benson.

“This issue of reproductive freedom is going to be one of the major issues of the fall campaign,” Harlow said. “I think it’s going to definitely play into voting at the level of governor and across the state.”

Abortion has dominated the gubernatorial race since the primary, during which Dixon and the other Republican candidates routinely highlighted their opposition to abortion. In campaign events this week, Whitmer has emphatically stressed the differences between Dixon and herself on abortion. And on Thursday, the group Put Michigan First, which is tied to the Democratic Governors Association, launched its first general election ad attacking Dixon’s anti-abortion stance. 

Following the release of that ad, as well as a flurry of media attention around her anti-abortion views, Dixon claimed on social media that the press was taking her statements on abortion out of context to “push a fake story.” She specifically cited media attention around her saying “perfect example” after LeDuff asked her if a 14-year-old rape victim should be able to access abortion. Dixon tweeted on Friday that she meant it was a “perfect example” of “why eliminating parental consent [on abortion] for minors endangers children.” 

Pfeffer said she isn’t surprised to see candidates, especially Dixon, back away from previous statements about abortion to appeal to voters.

“As we move towards the general election, these candidates will start to soften stances or even reverse some of them,” Pfeffer said

That kind of retreat also could be seen when Dixon appeared Wednesday on the Spicer & Co. show, hosted by Trump’s former press secretary Sean Spicer, following her primary victory. Asked by Spicer if she is concerned about the Kansas vote, Dixon went on to say that abortion “has not been a top topic of discussion.”

“Everyone is concerned with how much gas is costing; everyone is concerned with their groceries,” Dixon said. “… Those are the issues I hear about.”

The defeat of the Kansas ballot initiative proves what we’ve been hearing from constituents across Michigan: The right to manage one’s own body and reproductive care without interference from government is one that a majority of Americans support, and that support transcends party affiliation.

– Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel

According to a Detroit News poll from July, however, about 86% of respondents said a candidate’s position on Roe would factor into their decision on who to support in the election. That same poll reported that 58% of Michigan voters opposed the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. Among likely independent voters, 68% said they opposed the Supreme Court decision, and women opposed the Roe ruling 63% to 30%.

Democratic elected officials, including Whitmer, Nessel and Benson, meanwhile, have all emphasized their track record when it comes to supporting access to abortion and reproductive health care.

Whitmer, who has been advocating for abortion rights in Michigan courts in the leadup to and following the Supreme Court decision, is “fighting like hell to protect the right to choose in Michigan,” said Maeve Coyle, a spokesperson for the Whitmer campaign. 

“The contrast could not be clearer: Tudor Dixon has committed to banning abortion with no exceptions for rape, incest or health of the mother and throwing nurses and doctors in jail,” Coyle said.

Like reproductive rights advocates across the country, Whitmer has emphasized the profound economic impact an abortion ban would have on pregnant people in Michigan — including hindering their employment and earning prospects in a state with often debilitatingly high childcare costs and no national paid leave.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer gives the keynote address at the 2022 Mackinac Policy Conference on June 2, 2022 | Allison R. Donahue

“You know, the most profound economic decision a woman will make in the course of her whole lifetime is whether and when to have a child,” Whitmer told the Advance in a previous interview. “And as we reel from the disparate impact COVID had on women in the ‘she-cession,’ we know that if you want to get women back in the workplace, if you want to make Michigan a place where we can draw and lure and keep talent, women have to be able to make their own health care decisions.”

Pregnant people having access to abortion has “contributed to women being able to participate in the workforce in the numbers that have been able to in the last 50 years,” Whitmer said.

While giving her keynote address at the 2022 Mackinac Policy Conference, Whitmer received a standing ovation from a more conservative audience that included business leaders, lobbyists and legislators when she mentioned her goals to protect reproductive freedoms in Michigan.

“As we chase our collective success, we must also be a state where women have bodily autonomy and equal rights,” Whitmer said during the address.

Nessel also criticized her opponent, DePerno, on abortion. 

“I will continue to fight tooth and nail to ensure that the state is not able to insert itself into a decision that is between patients and providers, especially given my opponent’s ‘no exceptions’ stance on abortion and promise to enforce the state’s draconian 1931 abortion ban if elected,” Nessel said in her statement for the Advance. 

‘Make sure the message stays in front of voters’

After the Supreme Court draft decision on Roe v. Wade was leaked in early May, the Reproductive Freedom for All initiative saw a surge in volunteers — and since the leak some 60,000 people have signed up to volunteer, Stallworth said. 

Now, she said, the momentum from the Kansas vote means they are working to keep the issue of access to abortion as a priority for voters.

“We had over 2,000 volunteers helping to circulate the petition in the last days of the campaign, and we’re going to be working to ensure we are leveraging those volunteers and the momentum we saw with the Kansas vote,” Stallworth said. 

Michigan Reproductive Freedom For All coalition announced Monday morning that would be filing more than 750,000 signatures during a press conference on July 11, 2022 | Allison R. Donahue

Right now, large-scale organizing efforts around the ballot initiative are being planned, and volunteers are also “hosting presentations to destigmatize abortion” and “make sure the message stays in front of voters,” Stallworth said.

As in Kansas, Michigan organizers are encouraging voters from across the ideological spectrum to back the ballot initiative and access to reproductive health, the Planned Parenthood leader explained. 

“The issue of abortion and choice has become a political issue, and it should not be,” she said. “Voters believe it’s a personal decision and a medical decision.”

Stallworth said the hundreds of thousands of people who signed the petition to get the Reproductive Freedom for All initiative on the ballot “came from all parts of the state, all counties in the state, all backgrounds and all walks of life.” 

Pfeffer said Democrats are also likely to benefit from public awareness being raised about abortion by the Reproductive Freedom for All organizers collecting signatures months before the Nov. 8 general election.

“You’ve got that groundswell of organizing happening already; you’ve got canvassers out there collecting nearly 800,000 signatures to get this ballot initiative on the ballot for the November election,” Pfeffer said. 

“This could be the start of better political organizing for Democrats in Michigan,” Pfeffer continued. 

I think the Kansas vote reflected an important statement on what the broader will of the people of the United States is. I think this vote really reflects what the center-of-the-road, middle America wants.

– Siobán Harlow, a professor of global public health, obstetrics and gynecology, and epidemiology at the University of Michigan

Lonnie Scott, the executive director of Progress Michigan, a Lansing-based liberal advocacy group, said the Reproductive Freedom for All ballot initiative and Republican candidates’ extreme stances on abortion will draw voters to the polls in November.

“In states across the country, right-wing extremists are working to erode reproductive freedom and take away access to abortion — and voters are refusing to back down,” Scott said in a prepared statement sent to the Advance. “The voices calling for abortion bans and spreading inflammatory misinformation are loud, but at the end of the day they’re a vocal minority.

“Seeing voters in Kansas, which is generally seen as a red state, show up to defend their rights and defeat this ballot measure is an inspiration to us here in Michigan, because it shows what can happen when voters have their say,” Scott continued. “The Reproductive Freedom For All coalition has already done incredible work and I have no doubt that work will continue until the November election. Michigan voters are angry, and they’re hurt by the looming threats to abortion access in our state — and they’re ready to fight for their freedom this November.”

Stallworth also praised Whitmer and said the governor has “been a great champion” of abortion access. 

“She recognizes, like we all do, that this is a public health issue,” she said. “It’s beyond a political issue. We all have a duty to the citizens of Michigan to do everything we can to protect our rights. … I want people to understand we can save abortion and we have the chance in Michigan to do that.”


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Anna Gustafson
Anna Gustafson

Anna Gustafson is a former assistant editor at Michigan Advance, where her beats included economic justice, health care and immigration. Previously the founder of the Muskegon Times and the editor at Rapid Growth Media in Grand Rapids, Anna has worked as an editor and reporter for news outlets across the country.