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Abortion rights take center stage in race between two women vying for Michigan governor

Side by side photos of a woman holding a baby, and a woman waving next to another woman.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, left, holds a baby as she campaigns at Cass Technical High School in Detroit. Her Republican challenger, Tudor Dixon, greets well-wishers after an event at Faith Baptist Church in Clinton Township.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)
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Linda Ostrander has a dozen signs in her front yard supporting Republican candidates up and down the ballot, including Tudor Dixon, a former conservative news anchor running for governor.

There’s one sign she won’t be adding: No on Proposal 3, the ballot initiative that would enshrine reproductive rights in the state constitution. She plans to vote yes.

“Whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, it’s what you believe in your heart,” said Ostrander, a 60-year-old retired child-care worker from Lapeer, a county about an hour north of Detroit that voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump in a state Joe Biden won in the 2020 presidential election. “I’m my own person.”

Signs supporting Republican candidates are seen in the front yard of Linda Ostrander.
Signs supporting Republican candidates are seen in the front yard of Linda Ostrander, 60, in Lapeer, Mich.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)
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Perhaps more than in any other state, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling overturning 1973’s landmark Roe vs. Wade ruling, which established the constitutional right to an abortion, has upended the political landscape in Michigan. Here, the two women running for governor are on opposite ends of the debate, and a reproductive rights ballot initiative has given voters a chance to weigh in on abortion rights, reflecting opinions that often — but don’t always — fall along party lines.

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A state court judge issued a permanent injunction in September blocking prosecutions under a 1931 statute that banned abortion unless it would save the life of the patient, a law previously unenforceable under Roe vs. Wade. Incumbent Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has also petitioned the state Supreme Court, asking it to reaffirm that the state constitution protects abortion.

Dixon has said that she supports abortion only if it would save the life of the woman, and doesn’t support exceptions in cases of rape or incest. In August, Dixon said that rape and incest victims who give birth can find “healing” through the child, after being asked by a local news station about a hypothetical situation in which a 14-year-old raped by an uncle seeks an abortion.

Whitmer has said she would support Proposal 3. Dixon would not, claiming during a recent gubernatorial debate that it would be “the most radical abortion law in the country.”

Organizer Alex Cascio talks to volunteers.
Organizer Alex Cascio, left, helps volunteers sign in and pick up yard signs in support of Proposal 3 at a campaign office in Royal Oak, Mich.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Also known as Reproductive Freedom for All, Michigan’s Proposal 3 is one of five state ballot initiatives on abortion and reproductive rights being considered across the country on election day, three months after Kansas voters defeated a proposal that would have overturned a state Supreme Court ruling affirming that the state constitution protects abortion. Kentucky voters will consider a similar measure, while Montana will consider a referendum on a state law requiring health providers to treat infants born alive during failed abortions.

Voters in California and Vermont will also have a chance to enshrine abortion protections in their state constitutions.

But the Michigan proposal goes a step further, explicitly protecting the right to “prenatal care, childbirth, postpartum care, contraception, sterilization, abortion care, miscarriage management, and infertility care.”

Some supporters of the proposal, including Whitmer, have said that it simply restores protections that were previously available under Roe vs. Wade. But Proposal 3 would explicitly protect more rights in the state than before, making the state a leader in reproductive rights.

“The reality is Roe was the floor, it was never the ceiling,” said Chris Melody Fields Figueredo, the executive director of the liberal Ballot Initiative Strategy Center. “What is really important about Michigan is it’s looking much more expansively [at] what it means to have reproductive health and rights.”

Opponents have argued the proposal is confusing, overly broad and could lead to unintended consequences with parental consent laws and the Legislature’s ability to regulate abortion. Antiabortion groups have made similar arguments against California’s Proposition 1.

Side by side photos of a sign against Michigan Proposal 3, and campaign buttons for Michigan Proposal 3.
A sign against Michigan Proposal 3 at St. Paul on the Lake Catholic Church in Grosse Pointe Farms, left, and campaign buttons in favor, right.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)
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“It’s not enough for proponents to say, ‘Oh, this simply returns it to Roe,’ when there’s so much language in this that very clearly goes beyond Roe,” said Christen Pollo, the spokeswoman for Citizens to Support MI Women & Children, the main group opposing the measure. “I think that we’re gonna see people on both sides of the political spectrum, and both sides of the governor’s race, who are going to vote no on Proposal 3.”

But constitutional lawyers say those arguments are unfounded. A constitutional right doesn’t give a person an absolute right to do something, said Cary Franklin, a UCLA constitutional law professor and director of the Center on Reproductive Health, Law, and Policy.

“We have tons of regulation that implement and work out the details — and restrict — constitutional rights, because constitutional rights are the broadly worded fundamental principles of a society,” said Franklin. “They’re not specific, and they don’t work at all the details. You expect a legislature is going to do that.”

A recent WDIV/Fox News poll found that 52% of those surveyed supported Whitmer compared with 43% who backed Dixon. While 40% of voters said inflation was their main motivation for voting and 31% said it was abortion, 46% of women said abortion was their primary driver. The same poll found that 55% of voters support Proposal 3, including 63% of women.

In interviews with the Los Angeles Times, Democratic voters said abortion is their top issue, describing it as an economic issue, a healthcare concern and part of a broader discussion about rights and freedoms. Republicans have rejected the idea that abortion is a top issue, pointing to inflation and immigration as higher priorities.

Michelle Bortnick walks down a sidewalk next to a man mowing a lawn.
Volunteer Michelle Bortnick canvasses in support of Michigan Proposal 3.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Michelle Bortnick, a 38-year-old middle school math teacher, spent a recent Sunday afternoon canvassing for Proposal 3 near her home in Royal Oak, a suburb of Detroit. She learned of the initiative after a draft version of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, which would overturn Roe vs. Wade, was leaked in May. She helped gather thousands of signatures to help get the proposal on the November ballot.

For Bortnick, a mother of two, abortion access and reproductive rights are deeply personal. She was born with a chromosomal abnormality that has affected her ability to have children, she said.

“I’ve had more miscarriages than children, and I’ve passed this condition on to my daughters,” she said. “So the idea that they would have to go through what I went through without having access to proper healthcare motivated me to get out and make sure that this comes through.”

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The end of Roe has given people permission to discuss abortion in more nuanced ways, particularly as it relates to pregnancy complications and healthcare concerns, said Democratic state Sen. Mallory McMorrow.

“That’s what we’re hearing from voters, who say, ‘This may not be something I personally believe in, but I don’t want to see any woman or family would get hurt if the 1931 law were to go into effect,’” McMorrow said.

Dixon has argued that the next governor won’t have a say in abortion access, because it will be decided by Proposal 3 or the courts. But abortion rights advocates note that the next governor will sign or veto laws that shape the interpretation of the proposal if it passes.

A woman stands near a blown-up photo of kids and a big American flag.
Michigan Republican gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon campaigns at Faith Baptist Church in Clinton Township.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)
 People bow their heads for prayer at a church.
People pray at Faith Baptist Church, where Dixon made a campaign appearance.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

On the campaign trail, Dixon has focused on education, including learning challenges during the height of the pandemic and the broader conservative opposition to discussing sexual orientation or gender identity in schools. During a campaign event last month held by Stand Up Michigan, a conservative grassroots group that opposed COVID-19 mask and vaccine mandates, Dixon mentioned abortion just once, to dig at Whitmer.

“I saw a tweet come through from Gretchen Whitmer saying, ‘I’m fighting for abortion and I’m fighting for voting rights,’” Dixon said at Faith Baptist Church in Clinton Township. “And I was thinking, keep doing that. Because I think people are a little concerned about the cost it is to fill up a tank of gas.”

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Nancy Tiseo, a retired healthcare worker and Republican activist from Clinton Township in Macomb County, part of the Detroit metro area that went for Trump in the 2020 election, said after the event that part of her opposition to Whitmer stems from her handling of the pandemic.

Abortion, she said, is “maybe No. 6” on her list, naming her top issues as inflation, the border and education.

“A lot of things are way more important to me than abortion,” she said. “I’m pro-life, but I have exceptions, I do.”

Others told The Times they shared Dixon’s opposition to abortion exceptions for rape and incest.

Naomi Stiekes, a 74-year-old financial advisor from nearby Sterling Heights who also attended the Dixon event, said she also supports abortion only if it will save the life of the patient.

“They keep waving incest and rape,” Stiekes said of the common exceptions mentioned by people who support abortion access. “From a mom’s perspective, and a grandma’s perspective, why do we punish the baby?”

The coalition opposing Proposal 3 consists of antiabortion groups and religious organizations including the Michigan Catholic Conference, a public policy arm of the church. In response to Whitmer’s promise to “fight like hell” to protect abortion access, Earl Boyea, the bishop of the Diocese of Lansing, said he promised to “fight like heaven.” The church is hoping the state’s 1.8 million Catholics will help defeat Proposal 3.

There’s also a contingent of antiabortion Democrats involved. Monica Sparks, the president of the board for Democrats for Life of America, said she considers herself to be a “whole life” Democrat — her group opposes abortion, euthanasia and capital punishment. Sparks, who is a Democratic commissioner in Kent County, home of Grand Rapids, is featured in a video released by the Diocese of Lansing urging opposition to the proposal. Still, she plans to support Whitmer’s reelection.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer greets supporters.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer greets supporters at an event at Cass Technical High School in Detroit.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)
Supporters cheer for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
Supporters cheer at Whitmer’s campaign event at Cass Technical school.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

“I try to support my party,” Sparks said. “However, I can tell you this, Gov. Whitmer will be losing a lot of support because she’s not listening to the moderates.”

But even along faith lines, views on abortion aren’t cut and dried. During a “State of the Hood” event last month at Detroit’s Church of the Messiah, Proposal 3’s faith outreach coordinator shared her story about how an abortion saved her life.

Barry Randolph, the longtime pastor of the church, said the biggest issue in the election is “liberty and freedom.”

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“We think that people of faith have the ability and the right to be able to choose, and they should have that right,” he said.

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