An election board in the US state of Michigan is considering a ballot initiative that would safeguard the right to an abortion.
The board’s verdict is expected Wednesday, and if approved, the initiative would go before voters in the upcoming November elections. The board has heard from supporters and opponents of abortion rights ahead of their decision.
During public comment, where groups for and against made impassioned appeals, Dr Jessica Frost, an obstetrician and gynaecologist in the state, told the board “we must restore the reproductive protections lost when Roe was overturned”.
Billy Putman, an opponent of the initiative, told the board “I can’t imagine a more important decision that you have to ever make in your life, because I know that you and I will kneel before Christ someday and answer for the decision you make today.”
The decision takes place as abortion rights have been thrown into flux following the United States Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v Wade, a landmark decision that had guaranteed the right to abortion since 1973. Numerous Republican-led states have passed restrictive bans since Roe was struck down, and the Democratic Party hopes the fight to protect abortion rights will galvanise its supporters ahead of November.
Michigan has a 91-year-old state law that would ban abortion in all nearly all circumstances, even in cases of rape and incest. Anti-abortion rights groups hoped the law would go into effect after Roe was overturned, but the law has become tied down in the court system.
A state judge ruled in mid-August that Republican county prosecutors could not enforce the state’s ban, saying it was “in the public’s best interest to let the people of the great state of Michigan decide this matter at the ballot box”.
In August, voters in the state of Kansas struck down an initiative that would have empowered the state to ban abortion. Kansas is a Republican stronghold, but voters rejected the ban by an overwhelming margin.
Democrats hope that it is a sign that the Republican Party may have underestimated just how unpopular such policies are, and that abortion will become a key issue for voters in the upcoming midterm elections, which will determine which party controls the US Congress.
The emotional resonance of the debate over abortion rights was on display on Wednesday in Michigan. Hundreds filled the hearing and overflow rooms, and more protested outside. At one point, the Republican board chairman asked security to tell abortion opponents to stop banging on the windows.
No matter what decision the board makes, it is likely to be challenged in the state’s Democrat-leaning Supreme Court.
The Michigan Bureau of Elections verified late last week that the initiative has obtained enough signatures to qualify for the ballot, and has recommended that the Michigan Board of State Canvassers approve the measure. However, the Board of State Canvassers, which includes two Republicans and two Democrats, can decide for or against the recommendation.
If the initiative is approved, it could boost the prospects of Democrats in Michigan, a key swing state in US politics.
In November, voters will also choose their state legislators and other key positions, such as governor and secretary of state. Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer has put abortion rights at centre stage, blasting her opponent, Republican Tudor Dixon, for her opposition to abortion in cases of rape and incest.
As long as I’m governor, I will fight like hell to ensure Michigan’s dangerous 1931 abortion ban never goes back into effect.
— Gretchen Whitmer (@gretchenwhitmer) August 30, 2022
The organisation behind the push to get the initiative on the ballot turned in more than 700,000 petition signatures — a record number for any ballot initiative in the state — including names, addresses and phone numbers that can be used as voter contacts during the campaign season.
Opponents have said that the ballot language was difficult to understand.
A deadlock in Wednesday’s vote would officially mean the initiative was rejected, but a final decision would most likely come from the Michigan Supreme Court. Groups have seven business days following the board’s decision to appeal to the high court, and the ballot must be finalised by September 9.
The board is also expected to decide Wednesday on whether another initiative, which would expand voting access, should be on the ballot. The measure would expand voter rights by allowing nine days of in-person early voting, state-funded absentee ballot postage and drop boxes in every community.