Michigan voters approve abortion rights amendment to state constitution

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Michigan voters approve abortion rights amendment to state constitution

Update: Michigan voters have approved the constitutional amendment to enshrine a right to abortion in their state constitution. The vote was 55 percent in favor, 45 percent against as of early Wednesday morning, with more than 80 percent of ballots counted. Meanwhile, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who made abortion rights a major campaign issue, won reelection.

“Prop 3 has passed in Michigan. Abortion will remain safe and legal because of countless hours activists and volunteers poured into the cause. I’m so grateful for them and for everyone who showed up. Abortion is healthcare, and here in Michigan we’ve made sure it stays that way,” tweeted Laurie Pohutsky, a Michigan state representative and chair of the Michigan Progressive Women’s Caucus.

The measure is set to take effect 45 days from the election, in mid-December. It preempts a 1931 total ban on abortion that became relevant after the Supreme Court struck down the national right to abortion in June, and has been mired in legal challenges. But the court fights likely aren’t over; the amendment’s passage is likely to spark new battles over other existing laws regulating abortion, such as parental consent for minors.


Voters in Michigan will decide Tuesday whether to enshrine the right to an abortion in their state constitution — or create an opening for a 90-year-old total abortion ban to take effect.

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The outcome will have major consequences for the millions of people of childbearing age in the broader Great Lakes region. If the ballot measure, Proposal 3, passes, it would cement Michigan as a safe haven for abortion in a region where several neighboring states have tightened access to the procedure. The measure’s failure could help create an abortion desert in the heart of the Midwest. Polls show 55 percent of Michiganders were in favor of the measure in late October, down from 61 percent this summer.

The situation is a microcosm of what’s playing out across the country: As some states expand abortion care and others restrict access, gaps that existed before the Supreme Court struck down the national right to abortion have grown wider. These “abortion deserts” are defined by the medical community as areas where the nearest abortion care is at least 100 miles away.

Before the court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, nearly all women in the United States lived within a few hours drive of an abortion clinic; the day of the decision, about 25 percent of women no longer did, according to an analysis by the New York Times.

Living in an abortion desert “means that if you have money and means, you can get care at great cost. If you don’t have money and means, then you will continue a pregnancy to term you weren’t intending to have,” said Elizabeth Nash, principal policy associate at the Guttmacher Institute. “And that is an incredible burden for someone to bear.”

To be clear, abortion is currently legal in Michigan and would not immediately become illegal if the ballot measure fails. But that legality is precarious.

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The Dobbs verdict opened the door for Michigan prosecutors to enforce a 1931 law, once superseded by Roe v. Wade, that bans all abortions in the state. By the time the Supreme Court ended the national right to abortion in late June, preemptive challenges to the 1931 law were already working through state courts — with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, leading one of the suits.

In early September, a state Court of Claims judge declared the 1931 law to be unconstitutional “because its enforcement would deprive pregnant women of their right to bodily integrity and autonomy, and the equal protection of the law.”

But that isn’t necessarily the end of the legal wrangling. If Proposal 3 fails, members of Michigan’s Republican-majority House and Senate could appeal the Court of Claims ruling to the state Supreme Court. If Whitmer loses her bid for reelection, and legislators sue to reinstate the 1931 law, her Republican opponent, Tudor Dixon — who opposes abortion in almost all cases — might well support their cause.

The lower court order “is not a secure basis for reproductive rights,” said Mae Kuykendall, a professor at the Michigan State University College of Law. “The Supreme Court of Michigan could, at any given point, have an entirely different composition,” she said, or the political winds of the state could blow rightward. (Whitmer is now only about 4 points ahead of her opponent in the polls.)

That precarity motivated abortion rights advocates to get Proposal 3 — which would spell out a constitutional right to “reproductive freedom,” including abortion care — on the ballot. “The 1931 law is a real threat, even though it’s being blocked by the courts,” said Nicole Wells Stallworth, executive director for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan. Proposal 3 “is a more enduring approach that allows Michigan citizens to truly decide, versus relying on those who are in office.”

The outcome of the vote will extend beyond Michigan, which borders the more restrictive states of Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio. All three have abortion bans on the books, though court challenges have temporarily blocked Indiana and Ohio’s bans from taking effect.

“If it passes, Michigan could be a real anchor for abortion access in the Midwest,” said Nash. Failure “makes the road to protecting abortion rights harder,” she said. “If there are changes in politics down the road, access could be at risk. There’s just a lot more uncertainty.”

Opponents of the measure have spent at least $16 million on television ads in the state, arguing the proposal goes far beyond codifying abortion rights. A major claim — contested by legal experts — is that the proposal would allow minors to undergo gender-affirming care without parental consent.

Meanwhile, Dixon has largely ducked questions on abortion since the general campaign started, saying it’s “not an issue in the governor’s race,” since Proposal 3 will allow “people to decide on it.” Republicans seeking legislative seats are also downplaying abortion, focusing instead on crime and inflation.

The impact of abortion deserts

When it comes to abortion access, no state is an island.


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Bans in one state force those seeking an abortion to travel to neighboring states, which can strain clinics and extend wait times. Restrictions that span multiple states make finding abortion care out of reach for many, especially lower-income people.

Travel times to abortion facilities increased by four hours, on average, in states that enacted bans since Dobbs, according to a recent study in JAMA. States like Texas and Louisiana, which are large and border other restrictive states, saw travel times of six hours or more.

“These are distances that make abortion impossible for so many people, and those impacts are not felt equitably among different groups of people,” said Ushma Upadhyay, a public health social scientist at the University of California, San Francisco, and study co-author. Before Dobbs, about 15 percent of Black pregnant people had to travel over an hour to reach a clinic, Upadhyay said, “that skyrocketed up to 40 percent after Dobbs.”

Wealthier individuals have the means to travel such distances, she said, but lower-income people, those without access to transportation, people with limited English proficiency or adolescents often can’t make the trip, meaning they’re forced to carry pregnancies to term. In the two months after Roe fell, at least 10,000 fewer people had abortions, according to a Society of Family Planning analysis.

“We know from previous research that the consequences of being denied an abortion have very large impacts on people’s economic and physical well-being for years to come,” said Upadhyay.

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The stakes in Michigan

The squeeze on abortion in other states has already spilled into Michigan, which saw an increase of about 8 percent, the same analysis found. “That’s reflective of its geographic location. … It borders Ohio, Indiana and Wisconsin [via the Upper Peninsula], all states that have greatly curtailed the legality of abortion,” said Upadhyay. “It’s a safe haven for people in these surrounding states.”

On the ground, clinicians have noticed the uptick. “As the legal landscape has changed, we’ve seen an increasing number of patients from Ohio, Indiana and Wisconsin, and even further afield from Texas or Oklahoma, flying or driving to Michigan to seek care,” said Halley Crissman, a physician and advocacy co-chair for the Michigan section of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Still, uncertainty abounds about abortion’s future legality in Michigan given the 1931 law, and Crissman has seen a lot of confusion and angst among patients. “This polarization and politicization of their healthcare and private medical decision-making is really stressful; you can see that emotional weight on people,” she said.

The uncertainty is also leading many to speed up tubal ligation and sterilization procedures, too. “We are hearing patients who say, ‘Gosh, this is something I’ve known I wanted to do for a long time, but the political uncertainty is making me incredibly scared that I might not be able to access care I need, and thus I want to move forward with this now,’” Crissman added.

The trend appears to be national; Google data shows that searches on tubal ligation quadrupled in the week after the Dobbs verdict. Men are also getting into the act, with a similar increase in searches for “vasectomy.”

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Crissman argued that passing Proposal 3 would take much of that worry away from patients as well as providers. It would also ensure greater access for neighboring states. “It wouldn’t solve all the issues for someone in southern Ohio who is struggling to make ends meet and has to travel multiple hours and take several days off work to get care in Michigan, but it would provide some stability,” she said.

An uncertain future

Abortion rights advocates worry that if the measure fails, they won’t soon get another opportunity to reinforce protections for abortion, given the rightward shift in Michigan’s politics. The state legislature is currently controlled by Republicans, and Whitmer is in a tough race for reelection. Her opponent, Dixon, said during her primary campaign that the only exception to abortion bans should be in cases where the procedure is necessary to save the mother’s life.

“There’s lots of support among the Republican politicians for enforcing the 1931 law,” said Kuykendall, the Michigan State University law professor. Without protection baked into the state constitution, Kuykendall said, the state government or courts could change their tune.

If that happened, and ongoing efforts to limit access in Ohio and Indiana succeed, “it would open up a massive abortion desert in the eastern Midwest,” said Upadhyay.

“People in Michigan would have to travel through other states to reach abortion care,” she said. “Chicago would be the closest, but for folks living in Detroit, it could be an impossible trip.”

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Such a map would put incredible pressure on abortion clinics in Illinois, and to a lesser extent, Minnesota. “The capacity at those clinics starts to reach their limit as more people rely on them,” said Nash, of the Guttmacher Institute. “Already these clinics are scheduling out further and further. It’s not unusual to hear that the next appointment is in three or four weeks,” she said.

That’s time that many people seeking abortion care don’t have. “Michigan is this critical access point,” for the region, said Nash. “We’re all waiting to see what happens.”

The answer should come soon. Polls in Michigan close Tuesday night at 8 p.m.

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Jonathan Lambert
    Jonathan Lambert

    Public Health Reporter

    Jonathan Lambert is a public health reporter for Grid focused on how science, policy and the environment shape our collective well-being.