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“People are tuned in”: How states are empowering voters to protect reproductive freedom
This November, Michigan and Vermont ballots will include measures to meet to the post-Roe moment — and organizers think their initiatives can serve as a blueprint for other states to follow.
It’s been almost a month since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that protected the right of pregnant people to seek abortion care. And in the weeks since, it’s become clear to pro-abortion rights Americans that Senate Democrats and the Biden administration are righteous in their anger about the decision but limited in their power to respond with a legislative solution to what many activists view as a public health crisis.
But if you set your sights at the state level though, you’ll find organizers in states like Michigan and Vermont rallying support to amend their state constitutions to restore the protections that the court’s conservative supermajority wiped away, despite 50 years of precedent.
If successful, these amendments would strengthen protections against future challenges from an anti-abortion movement that is both unsatisfied with rendering Roe obsolete and focused on a two-track strategy of advancing a nationwide abortion ban while making it illegal to cross state lines for reproductive health care.
In Michigan this November, the Right to Reproductive Freedom Initiative will appear on the ballot, and, if passed, provide a state constitutional right to own the decisions about all matters relating to pregnancy.
At the same time, Vermonters will consider the Right to Personal Reproductive Autonomy Amendment, which would add language to the state constitution that protects the right to personal reproductive autonomy and prohibits government infringement unless justified by a compelling state interest.
California, Kansas, Kentucky and Montana will also have abortion-related measures on the ballot, representing the most on the issue in a single year.
“People are very much tuned in and dialed into this,” Nicole Wells Stallworth, executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan, the statewide advocacy arm of Planned Parenthood of Michigan, said to Supercreator. “Our goal is to keep them engaged all the way through until November to ensure that they understand how they can get involved.”
Lucy Leriche, vice president of Vermont public policy at Planned Parenthood Northern New England, said the biggest lesson the recent Supreme Court decision has taught the freedom movement is that hard-won rights to abortion care, contraception and marriage equality can no longer be taken for granted.
“This is why it is so important that we continue in coalition [and] in partnership with a sustained effort for activism and community as a way of life because what we see is people in power abuse it,” she said to Supercreator. “And it happens over and over and over again.”
The proposed Vermont amendment would prohibit government interference in someone’s ability to access abortion. But it would also protect someone’s decision to get pregnant and carry a pregnancy to term, to choose to refuse contraception or to choose or refuse permanent contraception or sterilization.
Leriche told Supercreator that experts deliberately created the language so that it could be broad enough to encompass these other reproductive rights because people of color, indigenous folks and other individuals from marginalized identities experience restrictions to their freedoms in different and more acute ways. The same goes for low-income people or people with disabilities who want to become a parent but run into roadblocks from the government and regulatory process. The language also guarantees that if the amendment is ever challenged in court, it would pass the strict scrutiny standard, the highest level of judicial review.
The Michigan ballot initiative would expressly include access to contraception, protect the person’s right to be able to make decisions about whether or not to have an abortion and shield a person from criminal or other penalties for any of their pregnancy outcomes — whether that be live birth, miscarriage or an abortion.
The process began in January when a coalition, including Planned Parenthood of Michigan, ACLU Michigan and Michigan Voices, which is a coalition of BIPOC-led grassroots organizations that are focused on reproductive justice, developed a campaign to collect enough signatures to qualify for the November ballot.
The coalition collected 911,000 signatures to be submitted to the board of canvassers in order to qualify for the ballot in November. And over 750,000 validated signatures were submitted to the secretary of state, well above the 425,059 threshold they were required to meet.
“So that gives you a clear picture of the momentum, the energy and the fact that people are clearly upset and astounded by the fact that the United States Supreme Court has ruled away their right to privacy, their right to bodily integrity,” Wells Stallworth said. “This is the first time the Supreme Court has every gone back on a right that it has previously affirmed.”
The initiative would also invalidate any laws in conflict with these protections, including the 1931 ban that makes it a felony crime for anyone to perform an abortion or administer medication to procure what the law calls a miscarriage unless the pregnant person’s life is in danger. (A state judge in May issued an injunction against the ban.)
Additionally, treatment around sterility and fertility would also be shielded if the Michigan initiative passes.
“I think the reality is that the narrative around sexual and reproductive health care is very narrow right now — obviously because with the reversal of Roe v. Wade that very specifically spoke to abortion,” Wells Stallworth said. “On the surface, this measure very specifically deals with a very wide range of sexual and reproductive health care treatments [because] it’s not a one-size-fits-all for any person. Everyone’s circumstance is different. Everyone’s reproductive health care needs are different.”
Wells Stallworth added that the goal of the Michigan movement is to honor these differences and allow any related decision to be made privately by the person and whomever else they wish to include in their choice.
At the federal level, Republican lawmakers have refocused their attention on policies that they say provide pregnant people with economic support in an effort to stave off criticism that the overturning of Roe will force folks to give birth without a sufficient social safety net to catch them.
Last week, Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Kevin Cramer of North Dakota introduced the Unborn Child Support Act, which would give mothers the ability to receive child support payments while they are pregnant.
Rubio said the bill would specifically allow pregnant people to prepare and support their babies before they are born. It would redistribute some of the financial and other obligations during pregnancy to fathers, Cramer added.
“Mothers should be able to access child support payments as soon as she is supporting a child,” he said in a statement announcing the legislation. “Our bill makes this possible.”
But critics of the bill view it as a Trojan horse for the anti-abortion movement to launder its unscientific definition of personhood into federal law. It also ignores the fact that being pregnant and being a parent, while interconnected, are two separate responsibilities.
“It is sad that some people are so obsessed with the politics of abortion that they would deny financial support to pregnant women,” a spokesperson for Sen. Rubio said in a statement to Supercreator.
Sen. Cramer’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Even if these Michigan and Vermont initiatives pass this fall and pro-abortion rights lawmakers in Congress fend off GOP efforts to ban abortion nationwide, there’s an overwhelming feeling that success for the reproductive justice movement will require sustained engagement in the long term to stave off the well-funded and -organized other side of this issue.
“If they’re not after you today, don’t worry, they’re coming for you — no matter who you are, no matter what your identity is or where you are in this sort of intersectional analysis of oppression,” Leriche said. “We need to stand up for each other. We need to stand up for ourselves, yes, and things that impact us directly. But anything that infringes upon anyone else’s rights can come around to infringe upon yours too. And no one is free until we’re all free.”
The good news, from the perspective of people like Wells Stallworth, if states like Michigan and Vermont are successful, their proposals will be a model for how other states can use their democracy toolbox in their communities.
“[It will prove] that it is possible for citizens to lead initiatives to overturn any abortion ban, to overturn any oppositional oppression of rights that people inherently deserve,” she said. “We have had a broad range of supporters for our measure from all corners of our state, from all walks of life, from all socio-economic, religious, political and philosophical backgrounds because people understand that this is not a political issue — it’s a human rights issue. And people deserve to be able to make their own choices about their life outcomes.”