In Michigan, One Democrat Has Brought Abortion Reforms to a Maddening Halt

After winning a majority last election, Michigan Democrats hoped to bring state abortion laws into the 21st century. Rep. Karen Whitsett isn't helping.

In Michigan, One Democrat Has Brought Abortion Reforms to a Maddening Halt
Photo:MANDEL NGAN/AFP (Getty Images)

Michigan state Rep. Karen Whitsett (D) recently (and annoyingly) voted against multiple bills that sought to repeal abortion regulations in the state, thereby joining a troubling trend of supposedly “pro-choice” politicians looking to curb legislative gains in abortion access. Whitsett, who represents areas of Detroit and Dearborn, voted against the Reproductive Health Act (an 11-bill package) in committee last week, wielding her one vote to potentially upend a major Democratic priority after a decade of Republican rule.

Currently, in Michigan, abortion is legal until viability, but that doesn’t mean later-in-pregnancy abortion is accessible in the state. There’s a 24-hour waiting period, necessitating at least two appointments for patients; private insurance and state Medicaid dollars are largely banned from paying for the procedure; and for those under 18, you either need parental permission or to obtain judicial bypass through the courts.

The Reproductive Health Act—the 11-bill package Whitsett voted against—will, among other things:

  • Eliminate abortion criminalization laws still on the books (there are still manslaughter penalties in connection with abortion)
  • Repeal waiting periods before abortion
  • Allow universities to make referrals to abortion clinics for students
  • Allow state Medicaid funds to pay for abortion care

One of Whitsett’s sticking points is the repealing of the state’s 24-hour waiting period before an abortion, with Whitsett telling Axios Detroit that she herself has gone through the waiting period. “To attack me? Someone who’s actually been through the 24-hour waiting process to receive the procedure — I’m the person preventing this?” the state representative said. “I just need to know why they feel like that safeguard should be repealed.”

Whitsett elaborated on her “no” vote to Catholic News Agency on Tuesday. She sees waiting periods as a way to root out coercion. “I don’t see anything wrong with being asked if you are being coerced into a termination,” Whitsett told the conservative outlet.

Abortion-right advocates find Whitsett’s opposition “surprising.”

“One politician could stop this critical legislation from moving forward,” said Paula Thornton Greear, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan President & CEO, during a press call on Monday.

Those who don’t follow Michigan politics closely might remember Whitsett because she was one of a number of people who met with then-President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence over covid in 2020. She thanked the then-president for saving her life through hydroxychloroquine, a drug touted by conservatives for allegedly healing covid. It didn’t.

While the Democrats won a majority in Michigan, it’s a slim one. Frankly, even calling it slim downplays how important it is to have a united caucus if Democrats want to pass anything. With a 56-54 majority, every vote counts.

After Michigan voters voted to put abortion rights in the state constitution in 2022, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) specifically named abortion reforms a policy priority. “Slaying our zombie laws was great, but there are still other bad laws that put politically motivated, medically unnecessary restrictions on abortion,” Whitmer said in an August speech. “This forces patients to drive hundreds of miles for care or mandate that they receive biased, inaccurate information about their health.”

Medicaid costs are another concern cited by Whitsett. She noted one analysis found state Medicaid costs could balloon from $2 million to $6 million annually. “Are there going to be abortion clinics on every corner?” Whitsett told Axios Detroit.

Whitsett has previously told Michigan Bridge, a nonpartisan, nonprofit news outlet, that yes, she voted for the change to the constitution to enshrine the right to abortion. “They’re just things that we need to have conversations about,” Whitsett said last week. “I have a responsibility to people. This can’t be undone once this happens. We need to make sure we get it right.”

“This can’t be undone” as if people don’t pass anti-abortion laws every year, but sure.

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