Susan J. Demas: Michigan has a 1931 law banning abortion. Now voters can decide if it stands.

September 14, 2022 3:35 am

Bans Off Our Bodies protest in Lansing on May 3, 2022 | Allison R. Donahue photo/Susan J. Demas illustration

It’s been a confusing time for women since June, when the far-right U.S. Supreme Court gleefully chucked almost 50 years of precedent and overturned Roe v. Wade.

Suddenly, one in three women across America are no longer able to make intimate health care decisions for themselves and their families. There have been so many heart-wrenching stories, from a 10-year-old rape victim who had to flee Ohio to get an abortion to a former staunchly pro-life woman whose doctor warned her not to get pregnant again in Texas after she needed a life-saving abortion.

It’s been particularly bewildering if you live in Michigan, as you’ve had to check several different court dockets just to determine if you still have reproductive rights.

That’s because Michigan, like many states, still has an abortion ban on the books from the pre-Roe days. Ours was written 91 years ago during the Great Depression, about a decade after women had won the right to vote, and is rooted in a pre-Civil War era law from 1846. Even steadfast supporters freely admit the ban is “archaic.”

The draconian law also makes doctors and women potential criminals. 

It’s been particularly bewildering if you live in Michigan, as you’ve had to check several different court dockets just to determine if you still have reproductive rights.

– Susan J. Demas

Almost all abortions would be considered a felony punishable to up to four years in prison, meaning that physicians who assist in abortions and pregnant patients who self-administer abortion medication could be charged. Some Republican prosecutors have already announced they’re eager to enforce the law, which has scared patients.

Anti-abortion groups have long touted Michigan’s law as one of the strictest in the country. That’s because there are no exceptions for rape, incest or the mother’s health — only to save the life of the “pregnant woman,” which legal experts warn is too vague to help many with serious medical issues.

Now Michigan has been embroiled in two key legal battles over the 1931 law. Right to Life of Michigan and GOP state lawmakers have been fighting for it to go into effect, while Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Planned Parenthood argue it’s not constitutional and harmful to women.

Abortion has become the dominant issue in the governor’s race, with Whitmer emerging as a leading national abortion rights voice and her opponent, Republican Tudor Dixon, supporting the 1931 law and repeatedly saying she doesn’t believe in exceptions for rape, incest and the mother’s health. 

In a chilling TV interview last month, when she was again asked whether a 14-year-old rape victim should be allowed to get an abortion, Dixon said no because she knows of cases where “there was healing through that baby.” That’s some pretty twisted victim-blaming.

Right now, there’s an injunction against the 1931 law, which means we’re in a state of indefinite limbo until cases are resolved, likely in the Michigan Supreme Court. And that could take awhile.

Detroit’s Palmer Park protest of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling to end constitutional protection for abortion. | Ken Coleman

With the stakes this high, it’s no wonder that abortion has become the top issue for Michigan voters this election, especially for women, who are, not surprisingly, turning against the GOP.

But now residents won’t have to wait for long, drawn-out court action to get legal clarity on their health care rights. On Nov. 8, Michigan will get to vote on Proposal 3 that would enshrine the rights to abortion, infertility care and birth control in Michigan’s Constitution. That would supersede the 1931 ban.

For awhile, it looked like Republicans were even going to deny voters the chance to weigh in this election, as they’re terrified ever since conservative Kansas voters in August shot down an abortion ban. 

Michigan anti-abortion groups challenged the petitions claiming there were “spacing” problems, even though the Reproductive Freedom for All coalition turned in a record-breaking number of signatures. And Republicans on the state canvassing board fell in line, booting Proposal 3 off the ballot.

So last week, the Michigan Supreme Court had to take the extraordinary step to order that measure — as well as Proposal 2 expanding voting rights — on the ballot. 

Retiring Chief Justice Bridget McCormack, who’s hailed by liberals and conservatives alike as a methodical and fair jurist, called out the challengers for attempting “a game of gotcha gone very bad” that would disenfranchise millions of Michiganders. “What a sad marker of the times,” she concluded.

Now that Michiganders will be able to decide whether abortion should be legal in the state, Right to Life of Michigan stands ready to shell out $16 million in the election, on top of the millions other groups will spend to elect anti-abortion Republicans.

What opponents to Proposal 3 won’t do is level with you that they’re trying to ban abortion.

– Susan J. Demas

They know they have a tough road ahead, as 67% of Michigan voters said they’ll vote for Proposal 3 and only 24% said they’ll vote against it in polling last month.

It makes sense. Regardless of your personal views on abortion, the vast majority of Michiganders don’t want the government to make the decision for them. They want the choice to decide what’s right for their health and their families, which you can do if Proposal 3 passes.

Unsurprisingly, the scaremongering in ads and conservative media stories has already begun. They’re pretending the measure is about getting rid of parental consent and late-term abortion laws, even though legal experts have patiently explained that’s not true.

What opponents to Proposal 3 won’t do is level with you that they’re trying to ban abortion. They won’t tell you that they’re dumping money into the legal fight to ensure the 1931 abortion ban again becomes the law of the land in Michigan.

In the last three decades, I’ve covered a number of ballot measures in the state and this one is remarkably uncomplicated. If you want abortion to be legal in Michigan, vote yes. If you don’t, vote no.

It’s one of the simplest decisions you’ll have to make on Nov. 8.


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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 22-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQ+ people, the state budget, the economy and more. She previously served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 90 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 5,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 80 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two kids along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.