Groups backing two anti-abortion ballot drives in Michigan said Wednesday that they will begin collecting signatures within days after clearing procedural steps at the state elections board following a debate over what abortion-rights advocates complained are misleading and inaccurate summaries atop the petitions.
The measures are citizen-initiated bills, meaning that if enough voters sign, the Republican-led Legislature could enact them into law without the signatures of Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who has vowed to veto similar proposals that were introduced as regular legislation.
The bipartisan Board of State Canvassers approved 100-word summaries for petitions to be circulated by the Michigan Heartbeat Coalition — which proposes banning abortions when a fetal heartbeat is detected, or as early as six weeks into a pregnancy — and Michigan Values Life. The latter organization, which is affiliated with Right to Life of Michigan, supports prohibiting a common second-trimester abortion known as dilation and evacuation, which abortion opponents call “dismemberment.”
The proposals have differing exceptions to protect a mother’s life or health.
Representatives from Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists opposed the summaries that were prepared by the state elections bureau. They cited “incendiary,” medically inaccurate language that, in the case of the heartbeat measure, does not tell would-be signers that abortion would be banned at or around six weeks.
The four-member board agreed to use the term “cardiac activity” instead of “fetal heartbeat” at the behest of two Democratic members, but otherwise left intact the proposed summaries.
“I do think it’s neutral. I think it’s fair. I think we need to leave it up to people who are going to sign the petition and the voters at the ballot box to determine whether or not to support or oppose the proposal,” Republican board member Aaron Van Langevelde said of the measure that would restrict D&E abortions.
Democratic member Julie Matuzak said she was concerned that the terminology in the summary is not medically accurate, but the proponents do define it within the petition itself.
“I reluctantly support this one,” she said.
Said Democratic member Jeannette Bradshaw: “One of the things we have to remember, and we know this as board members, is to protect the citizens’ right to petition regardless of our personal decisions or our personal thoughts on those matters.”
Abortion-rights groups unsuccessfully argued that the petition summaries should note the lack of exceptions for rape and incest, not use the term “dismemberment” and inform people of the breadth of the heartbeat restriction.
“This proposal would effectively ban almost all abortions in the state of Michigan,” said Dr. Halley Crissman. “This early in pregnancy, many people don’t even know they’re pregnant.”
The groups must each collect 340,000 valid voter signatures within six months to put the bills before lawmakers. If legislators did not act, the public would vote on the measures in November 2020.
Right to Life officials oppose the heartbeat initiative, worrying it could interfere with an existing abortion ban that is on the books if Roe v. Wade is overturned. The House and Senate last month voted to ban the dilation and evacuation procedure, but they have not sent the bills to Whitmer’s desk.
Similar abortion restrictions are on hold in several other states because of legal challenges.
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