As Democrats run on abortion rights, more Republicans run away from the issue

By: - September 29, 2022 3:05 am

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks to the crowd gathered outside the Michigan Capitol in Lansing for a protest against the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade on June 24, 2022. | Photo by Andrew Roth

There’s been a big shakeup in Michigan election politics since the U.S. Supreme Court’s June decision overturning Roe v. Wade, as polls show increasing support for abortion rights.

Many Republicans in Michigan and across the country have been staying quiet or given misleading responses on their stances against abortion, while Democrats are running ads touting their support for reproductive rights. 

Right to Life of Michigan’s endorsement is typically considered to be a coveted one for Republicans running for the Legislature.

Rep. Jack O’Malley | House Republicans photo

But earlier this month, the group made the unusual move of revoking its endorsement of Rep. Jack O’Malley (R-Lake Ann) — who is running for reelection against Grand Traverse County Commissioner Betsy Coffia, a Democrat who is a staunch abortion right supporter — for telling constituents during door-to-door conversations that he would consider exceptions to abortion. 

Right to Life of Michigan only endorses candidates who believe in banning abortion in all circumstances, except to protect the life of the mother, such as the GOP ticket: gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon, Attorney General nominee Matt DePerno and Secretary of State nominee Kristina Karamo.

Michigan currently has a 1931 law criminalizing abortion that hasn’t gone into effect amid lawsuits. Voters will decide on Nov. 8 whether to enshrine reproductive rights in the Michigan Constitution with Proposal 3.

O’Malley has a strong anti-abortion track record. He co-sponsored legislation in 2019 known as the Fetal Heartbeat Protection Act that would make it a two year felony if a doctor providing an abortion does not check for a fetal heartbeat. He also voted in 2019 supporting legislation that would ban the medical procedure of dilation and evacuation.

In Michigan, he used his vote to keep [the 1931 abortion ban] on the books. He has a track record of very extremist votes when it comes to abortion and choice, and those speak for themselves,” said Coffia, who is running against him in the 103rd District. 

Neither O’Malley nor Right to Life of Michigan responded to a request for comment for this story.

Democrats have tried to take a number of actions in the Legislature this term to shore up abortion rights, but have failed to win GOP votes.

Betsy Coffia | Courtesy photo

Well before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Sen. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor) introduced legislation, Senate Bill 70, in February 2021 that would repeal the 1931 law criminalizing abortion that does not include exceptions for rape or incest. The bill is in the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee and didn’t receive any Republican support. 

On June 21, just days before Roe was officially overturned, Rep. Julie Brixie (D-Meridian Twp.) offered an amendment in the House Oversight Committee to tie-bar a Republican-sponsored bill to a Democratic-sponsored bill that would repeal the 1931 abortion ban. O’Malley, along with all the Republicans on the committee, voted against it.

“I think voters are smart, and they understand that it’s an election year and that Jack’s party just did an incredibly unpopular thing by stripping away reproductive freedom and overturning Roe,” Coffia said. 

On Wednesday, the GOP-led House used a procedural move to block Democrats from attaching amendments to repeal the 1931 law to other bills up for a vote.

Some doctors have criticized O’Malley for obfuscating his position on abortion. Former radiologist Dr. Charles Williams, who lives in O’Malley’s northern Michigan district, said that despite this recent shift in messaging, it “does not mean he supports exceptions for rape or incest.”

“We’re concerned Rep. O’Malley may be trying to present himself as a newly-minted moderate on the issue of abortion, when in fact, he has a clear voting track record of anti-abortion extremism” Williams said during a press conference earlier this month with the Committee to Protect Health Care. 

While Michigan Republicans are trying to redirect voters to issues they’re focusing on, like crime and inflation, Democrats are running on their support for abortion rights. 

The Michigan Democratic Party this week announced a slate of digital and TV ads highlighting the 20 Republican candidates in competitive districts around the state who have all pledged to ban abortion with no exceptions for rape or incest, including the candidates who have taken their stances off their websites.

The Michigan Republican Party did not respond to a request for comment.

Abortion rights also has been a big factor in congressional races. State Sen. Tom Barrett (R-Charlotte), who is running for U.S. House against U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Lansing), has dodged questions on abortion. 

During a WDIV-TV debate against Slotkin on Sunday, Barrett was asked four times whether he supports exceptions for rape or incest. Each time he replied: “I’m pro-life.” 

Slotkin supports abortion rights and voted this summer for legislation codifying the Roe v. Wade decision into law. She criticized Barrett during the debate.

“My opponent will not talk about children who have been raped. Will not talk about incest. Will not talk about the 1 in 4 women who has had a miscarriage — in the middle of the worst moment of her life and needs a D&C [dilation and curettage], because he’s black and white on this issue,” she said.

Barrett, who has been endorsed by Right to Life of Michigan, has a long anti-abortion record. Prior to Roe’s reversal, he sent out fundraising flyers that said he was “100% Pro-Life – No Exceptions.” In 2019, Barrett introduced Senate Bill 229, which would make it a felony to perform the rare dilation and evacuation (D&E) abortion procedure. He also joined Republicans in the state legislature in a now-failed attempt to reinstate the 1931 law.

State Sen. Tom Barrett (left) and U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (right) | Photos by Casey Hull and Andrew Roth

Last month, he took down a section of his campaign website that detailed his anti-abortion stance. Barrett told the Detroit News that he was unaware of the change to his website, but said it was likely made to focus on “the issues that were most salient right now.”

That’s been the main response from Republicans on the campaign trail in recent months: abortion is not a top priority. 

However, a Detroit Free Press/EPIC-MRA poll this month and found abortion tied with inflation as voters’ top issues ahead of the election, with 24% of those surveyed listing each as their No. 1 priority. 

Dixon, who often touted her Right to Life endorsement in the GOP primary, is running against incumbent Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who has filed suit to ensure the 1931 law isn’t enforced. Whitmer has made her support for abortion rights one of the centerpieces of her campaign.

“While other states — and even some politicians in Lansing — take steps to control women’s bodies by defending extreme restrictions on abortion and health care, I will fight like hell for reproductive freedom,” Whitmer said in a Sept. 7 statement. “To those seeking freedom and bodily autonomy — whether you’re a young professional deciding where to begin your career or a mom trying to take care of the kids you already have, my message is simple: we respect women’s rights in Michigan. This is a home of opportunity and limitless possibility.”

Dixon backs the 1931 abortion ban law and does not support exceptions for rape, incest and the mother’s health.

The Republican has said in interviews that she would not support a 14-year-old girl who was raped by her uncle to be able to get an abortion, telling podcast host Charlie LeDuff that it was a “perfect example” of why she doesn’t support exceptions. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (left) and GOP gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon (right) | Andrew Roth

Asked to clarify whether a 14-year-old rape victim should be allowed to get an abortion, Dixon told FOX-2 last month, “I’ve talked to those people who were the child of a rape victim and the bond that those two people made. And the fact that out of that tragedy, there was healing through that baby.”

After those interviews, Dixon has repeatedly tried to avoid talking about abortion, saying that abortion doesn’t fall in line with the “biggest issues” she is campaigning on.

Last week during a press conference in front of the Michigan Department of Education, Dixon told reporters that Michiganders can vote for Proposal 3, the Reproductive Freedom For All initiative, and vote for her. 

“The ballot initiative for the constitutional amendment aligns with what Gretchen Whitmer wants,” Dixon said. “So yes, you can vote for Gretchen Whitmer’s position without having to vote for Gretchen Whitmer again.”


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Allison R. Donahue
Allison R. Donahue

Allison R. Donahue is a former Michigan Advance reporter who covered education, women's issues and LGBTQ issues. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8.