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Whitmer’s fight for abortion rights helped turn Michigan blue. She’s eyeing national impact now

There is a wave of legal fights in places such as Texas, where a pregnant woman whose fetus has a fatal condition was forced to leave the state this week to obtain an abortion

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addresses supporters before signing legislation to repeal the 1931 abortion ban statute, which criminalized abortion in nearly all cases, April 5, 2023, in Birmingham, Mich.Carlos Osorio (AP)

Ten years ago, as Michigan’s Republican-led Legislature was on the verge of passing one of the nation’s most restrictive anti-abortion laws at the time, a 42-year-old state senator from East Lansing took to the Senate floor to speak out against what she knew was about to happen.

Minutes into her speech, Democrat Gretchen Whitmer tossed aside her prepared remarks and revealed for the first time publicly that she had been raped while attending college. Had she become pregnant, Whitmer said, she would not have been able to afford an abortion under the proposed law.

The bill, which Whitmer had derisively called “rape insurance” because it required women to declare when buying health insurance whether they expected to receive an abortion, passed anyway. But Whitmer, now in her second term as Michigan’s governor after winning reelection by nearly 11 percentage points in 2022, this week removed the requirement from state law with the stroke of a pen after Michigan’s Democratic-controlled Legislature sent her a bill tossing it aside.

“It’s kind of a stunning full-circle moment where it does reinforce that these fights are worth having and they’re winnable, even if sometimes it takes a little longer than it should,” Whitmer said Monday in an interview with The Associated Press.

Whitmer recalled the hundreds of calls and emails she received after her 2013 speech as a turning point for her, the moment when she realized how much people care about protecting a woman’s right to choose whether she should have an abortion. It’s a lesson she hopes to drive home all over the country as one of the nation’s leading abortion rights advocates during what could prove to be a pivotal election year for the issue in 2024.

“The voters speak loud and clear,” she said. “And so I do think that in this moment, in this country, this is an important, crucial issue for a lot of people.”

Abortion rights moved to the political forefront after the U.S. Supreme Court in 2022 overturned Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that had long preserved them as a constitutional right. The court gave states the power to decide for themselves whether abortion should be legal.

Conservative states across the country moved quickly to enact abortion bans in various forms, leading to a wave of legal fights in places such as Texas, where a pregnant woman whose fetus has a fatal condition was forced to leave the state this week to obtain an abortion. Some Republicans, including several contenders for the GOP presidential nomination, have also called for a national abortion ban.

The political fallout at the ballot box has mostly gone in the opposite direction. Democrats did better than expected in last year’s midterms, limiting their House losses and maintaining a narrow Senate majority, and defending abortion rights worked in Democrats’ favor in several states again this year. When constitutional questions about abortion rights appeared on the ballot, even voters in Republican-leaning states from Kansas to Ohio rejected GOP-backed efforts to curb them.

Whitmer says Democrats have won in Michigan by running unapologetically on the issue. Her party controls all levels of state government for the first time in 40 years after flipping both chambers of the Legislature last November.

That success was fueled by a citizen-led ballot initiative to enshrine abortion rights in the state Constitution in the wake of the Supreme Court decision. Whitmer and other Michigan Democrats emphasized their support for the initiative in their 2022 election campaigns.

President Joe Biden’s reelection campaign views the defense of abortion rights as a winning issue for Democrats in 2024. They are quick to make note of boasts by former President Donald Trump that his appointment of three conservative Supreme Court justices instigated the court’s reversal.

Biden himself is less outspoken on the issue than other members of his party, and occasionally seems personally conflicted.

“I happen to be a practicing Catholic. I’m not big on abortion,” he said during a June fundraiser. “But guess what? Roe v. Wade got it right.”

Biden’s hesitancy comes as his reelection campaign faces vulnerabilities. Michigan was a critical component of the so-called blue wall of states, including Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, that Biden returned to the Democratic column, helping him win the White House in 2020.

The president’s support in the state has wavered since the 2020 election, however, and a CNN poll released Monday showed that only 35% of respondents approved of the job he’s been doing.

Michigan is also home to one of the largest Arab-American and Muslim communities in the nation, and many of their leaders have been vocal about saying that his pro-Israel stance on the war that began with an attack by Hamas on Oct. 7 could jeopardize his chances to win in Michigan again.

Whitmer, who is co-chair of Biden’s reelection campaign and has herself been frequently mentioned as a future presidential candidate, deflected questions Monday about his chances in Michigan, insisting that she was only going to “focus on reproductive rights today.”

Whitmer also said she understands that talking about abortion is “not comfortable for everyone.” But she said the chances of Republicans pushing for a federal ban on abortion should be taken seriously.

For her, that’s reason enough to talk about abortion rights early, often and unequivocally.

“The prospect of a national abortion ban is real,” she said. Using other words to talk about reproductive rights or being overly cautious about the issue, she said, “dilutes the importance of the moment.”

In June, Whitmer launched a “Fight Like Hell” federal PAC to raise money for Democratic candidates who are “unapologetic in their fight for working people and their basic freedoms” heading into the 2024 election. The PAC will support candidates for Congress and other offices but also will provide financial support for Biden’s reelection bid.

Since winning full legislative control, Michigan Democrats have struck down the state’s 1931 abortion ban, prohibited Michigan companies from firing or retaliating against workers for receiving an abortion and lifted regulations on abortion clinics.

For Whitmer, those successes help justify her decision a decade ago to discuss abortion in such personal terms.

“I think about my daughters who I was so worried to hear that their mom had been raped when they were 10 and 11 years old,” Whitmer said. “And now they’re 20 and 21, and I know they’re proud to see that I’ve stayed in this fight, and I’m trying to make life better for other women.”

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