Michigan bishops urge respect for law as governor sues to overturn abortion ban

Gretchen Whitmer Governor of Michigan Credit Michigan governors office Gretchen Whitmer, Governor of Michigan. (Official portrait)

After the Michigan governor sued Thursday asking a court to find that the state constitution includes the right to abortion, the state’s Catholic conference urged that the state’s laws, and judicial precedence, be respected.

“It is unfortunate that the judicial branch is being used to try to invalidate a longstanding policy approved by elected representatives and left untouched by the Legislature for nearly a century since,” Rebecca Mastee, a policy advocate at the Michigan Catholic Conference, said April 7.

“Let us also recall that the people of the state in 1972 voted at the statewide ballot to oppose abortion and, perhaps most relevant to today’s legal action, the state Supreme Court has precedent here as the law in question was upheld in 1973 in People vs Bricker. Our hope is that a greater respect for the distinct and separate branches of state government returns to the political sphere, and we pray for a deeper appreciation for the life and protection of unborn children in the hearts and minds of the citizens and elected officials of the state.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, asked the Michigan Supreme Court to resolve whether a right to abortion is protected by the state’s constitution.

Whitmer cited Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a pending U.S. Supreme Court case that could alter or abolish legal abortion precedent, as a reason for the lawsuit.

“If Roe is overturned, abortion could become illegal in Michigan in nearly any circumstance … This is no longer theoretical: it is reality. That’s why I am filing a lawsuit and using my executive authority to urge the Michigan Supreme Court to immediately resolve whether Michigan’s state constitution protects the right to abortion,” Whitmer said in a statement.

Michigan adopted a law criminalizing abortion, except when necessary to save the life of the mother, in 1931. 

The law has not been enforced since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, but the Michigan Court of Appeals found in 1997 that there is not a right to abortion in the state constitution.

A statement from Whitmer’s office said the lawsuit asks the Michigan Supreme Court “to recognize a constitutional right to an abortion under the Due Process Clause of the Michigan Constitution.”

It asserted that the state law on abortion “violates Michigan’s Equal Protection Clause due to the way the ban denies women equal rights because the law was adopted to reinforce antiquated notions of the proper role for women in society.”

Whitmer said, “No matter what happens to Roe, I am going to fight like hell and use all the tools I have as governor to ensure reproductive freedom is a right for all women in Michigan. If the U.S. Supreme Court refuses to protect the constitutional right to an abortion, the Michigan Supreme Court should step in.”

The governor’s suit named as defendants the prosecutors in Michigans’ 13 counties with abortion clinics. The seven Democratic prosecutors have agreed not to enforce the law, while the six remaining prosecuting attorneys are Republicans.

Whitmer has called on the Republican-led state legislature to repeal the abortion ban.

And abortion advocacy groups in the state have launched a ballot initiative to override the 1931 law by way of a constitutional amendment. 

Planned Parenthood of Michigan also sued April 7 to block enforcement of the state’s abortion law. The defendant in that case is state attorney general Dana Nessel, who has said she will not defend the law unless ordered to do so by a court, the AP reported.

In September 2021 Whitmer line-item vetoed from the state budget about $16 million worth of funding for alternatives to abortion, drawing consternation from the state’s Catholic conference. 

“Governor Whitmer’s vetoes amplify the disappointing reality of this administration that the abortion industry is more important than vulnerable mothers and their unborn children,” David Maluchnik, Vice President for Communications at the Michigan Catholic Conference, said at the time.

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In an April 2020 appearance on a podcast Whitmer was asked to react to efforts by some states to limit abortions they sought to conserve medical resources amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"A woman's healthcare, her whole future, her ability to decide if and when she starts a family is not an election, it is a fundamental to her life. It is life sustaining and it's something that government should not be getting in the middle of," the governor said. 

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