Michigan mulls putting abortion rights initiative before voters

Emotions run high in the US state as its election board considers putting abortion rights to a vote in November.

An anti-abortion rights protestor in Michigan
Abortion opponents are seen outside as the Michigan Board of State Canvassers conducts a hearing on Wednesday, August 31, in Lansing, Michigan, the United States. Groups for and against abortion rights made impassioned appeals to the board, which will decide whether to put an initiative to protect abortion on the ballot [Carlos Osorio/AP Photo]

An election board in the US state of Michigan has rejected a ballot initiative that would safeguard the right to an abortion.

The board’s verdict was delivered Wednesday after raucous protests. The panel is split between two Democrats and two Republicans and needed a majority to put the initiative on the ballot. However, the panel’s decision is likely to be challenged in the state’s Democrat-leaning Supreme Court.

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 the November elections.

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”. The election board rejected that call Wednesday, but the verdict is not expected to be the final decision.

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.

The Michigan Bureau of Elections verified late last week that the initiative had obtained enough signatures to qualify for the ballot, and recommended that the Michigan Board of State Canvassers approve the measure. However, the Board of State Canvassers can decide for or against such recommendations.

If the initiative is eventually put on the ballot, 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.

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 meant the initiative was rejected, but groups have seven business days following the board’s decision to appeal to the state’s high court, and the ballot must be finalised by September 9.

The board also rejected another initiative on Wednesday, which would have put enhanced voting access on the ballot. The measure would have expanded voter rights by allowing nine days of in-person early voting, state-funded absentee ballot postage and drop boxes in every community.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies