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 measure, part of Tuesday’s midterm elections, effectively restores rights that were called into question in June when the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade, a landmark 1973 decision that protected access to abortion on for almost half a century.
Proponents of the measure, known as Proposition 3 (PDF), rallied support, gathering more signatures than any other ballot initiative in state history to put the question to a vote.
“We saved lives by passing this in Michigan,” said Darci McConnell, spokeswoman for Reproductive Freedom for All, the group that initiated Proposition 3.
The measure will also block enforcement of a 1931 state law that banned abortions except to save the life of the parent. If Michigan banned abortion, researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the state’s maternal mortality rate could have increased by 25 percent. That rate would be much higher for Black women, who already have disproportionately high mortality rates in the US.
Michigan was one of five states that had abortion on the ballot in the midterms, and all five states voted on access to abortion.
The result was expected in left-leaning states such as California and Vermont, where voters passed ballot measures to amend their state constitutions to guarantee the right to reproductive rights including abortion.
But conservative states also saw a stunning victory for abortion advocates. When the Supreme Court struck down Roe v Wade, it inspired a Kentucky law that immediately banned abortion, except in medical emergencies. In addition to the ban, anti-abortion activists promoted a ballot measure that would amend the constitution to ban the right to abortion.
Last Tuesday, Kentucky voters blocked the measure, but abortion remains illegal in Kentucky. A lawsuit challenging the ban is set to be heard by the Kentucky supreme court next week.
Montana voters also narrowly rejected a ballot measure that would have required health care professionals to “take all appropriate and medically reasonable action to preserve the life” of any infant born alive. This would relate to rare cases of live birth following abortion, often as a result of birth defect or maternal complications. However, infanticide is already illegal in Montana.
Doctors and nurses who failed to provide treatment would face felony charges, with a $50,000 fine and up to 20 years in prison.
The Montana Medical Association opposed the measure, saying it would force clinicians to “provide resuscitation efforts to any infant born with a heartbeat, breathing or movement, regardless of gestational age or medical conditions.” The association also feared that the rejection measure would have outlawed palliative care in cases of fatal fetal birth defects or pre-viable birth.
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 would have reverted 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 Michigan initiated litigation asking a state court to declare the 1931 law unconstitutional and block its enforcement.
For a few days in August, amid court battles, there was uncertainty about whether abortion was legal or not. “Women’s health care providers had no idea what legal care was to provide to our patients,” Detroit-based OB-GYN Dr. Gregory Goyert told Al Jazeera.
Doctors like Goyert were forced to consider what to do if a patient miscarried with heavy bleeding.
“The doctor would have to say, ‘Well, how much blood does this patient have to lose before I can provide safe, evidence-based care without risking arrest?'” he said, adding down to a hypothetical situation.
“If the 1931 law banning nearly all abortions went into effect, there was no doubt that women in the state of Michigan would immediately experience substandard care.”
The fight over that 1931 law is still playing out in Michigan courts.
“The status of those court decisions is uncertain because the appeals haven’t worked their way through the system,” said Steve Leidel, a lawyer for the group that started Michigan’s successful ballot initiative. “Meanwhile, voters have approved Proposition 3 which would prohibit anyone from enforcing that statute, as under Roe, but while not expressly repealing the 1931 law that criminalized abortion.”
When Proposition 3 goes into effect on December 24, “we go back to the status quo we’ve had for almost 50 years,” Leidel said.
“I feel great that the protections of Roe are back with us now and that our patients have those protections, those rights,” Goyert said. Proposal 3 means that pregnant people can make decisions with their healthcare provider “without interference from politicians or the government”, he said.