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Whitmer signs law to repeal Michigan’s dormant abortion ban

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addresses the crowd during inauguration ceremonies, Sunday, Jan. 1, 2023, outside the state Capitol in Lansing, Mich.
Al Goldis
Associated Press
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addresses the crowd during inauguration ceremonies, Sunday, Jan. 1, 2023, outside the state Capitol in Lansing, Mich.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed legislation to formally strike Michigan’s unenforceable abortion law from the books. That law was preempted by an amendment adopted by voters last year.

The mood was festive and the dress code was pink as people showed up sporting their movement’s color on t-shirts, scarves, ties and, in Governor Whitmer’s case, a business suit. And the Democratic governor got down to business as she sat down to sign the bill to formally repeal Michigan’s 1931 abortion ban.

“Who would like to watch me slay a zombie?”

Whitmer called the ban a “zombie law.” That’s because it was dormant before Roe V Wade was overturned, then through court battles and, now, because Michigan voters in November approved a sweeping reproductive rights amendment.

The amendment to the state constitution overrides the abortion ban, but that law, which had no exceptions for rape or incest, would have otherwise remained on the books. And it could have been re-activated if the reproductive rights amendment is ever repealed or overturned. Whitmer said the lawbooks should reflect the voters’ intentions when they adopted the amendment.

“This is a long-overdue step and it proves that when we keep fighting to protect everybody’s ability to make their own decisions about their bodies, we can win.”

The November election also swept Democratic majorities into the Legislature as Whitmer won a second term. The repeal was framed as the next step in a national movement to protect abortion rights following the US Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision.

Minni Tammaraju, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, joined the celebration. She says the victory this week of an abortion rights supporter to the Wisconsin Supreme Court establishes the Upper Midwest as a place where abortion rights candidates and policies can be a political winners.

“Let’s give it up for Wisconsin for a minute. We are in reproductive freedom territory now, y’all. We are!” 

In Kansas, another Midwestern state, however, the Republican-controlled Legislature has sent Democratic Governor Laura Kelly a bill that could subject healthcare providers to lawsuits and criminal charges if certain types of abortion procedure goes awry. Kelly could veto the bill. But Republican have enough votes for a super-majority to override the veto.

And it also seems unlikely that political fights in Michigan over abortion rights are a thing of the past.

Nicole Stallworth is the president of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan. She says there are more laws that may need to be scrubbed from the books to ensure reproductive rights.

“This is only the beginning. We’ve had over 40 years of laws that have been put in place here in Michigan that make it difficult for people to access their reproductive freedom.”

And abortion rights opponents say they’re not giving up. Genevieve Marnon of Right to Life of Michigan says her organization intends to fight in the Legislature and in courts for abortion restrictions that may not be precluded by the new reproductive rights amendment.

“We should have some bans or regulations prohibiting extreme late-term, third-trimester abortions in this state of Michigan. Most people don’t want third-trimester abortions. We should keep parental consent laws in place, for example, and strengthen those.”

So there may still be legal questions about how the amendment will affect existing laws or, possibly, new ones. More than two dozen bills have been introduced by Republicans in the Legislature with the aim of making sure that the governor’s signature is not the final word on abortion and reproductive rights in Michigan.

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