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Michigan doctors speak out about threats to criminalize abortion

Woman getting ultrasound
Alexander Raths
Adobe Stock

Reviving Michigan’s 1931 law that bans nearly all abortions would cause serious harm to patients and doctors alike, according to some Michigan doctors who are speaking out about threats to abortion care in the state.

That law was dormant for nearly 50 years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision. It’s now the subject of a fierce court battle, as Governor Gretchen Whitmer and other abortion rights supporters try to have it overturned. Enforcement is barred by court order for now.

Dr. Natalie Gladstein, an OB-GYN in southeast Michigan, said reviving the law would “put women's health at risk and cause immeasurable suffering for many people.”

“Doctors need to be able to use the full range of treatment options when serious medical complications come up in pregnancy, and that includes abortion,” Gladstein said.

The 1931 statute does contain one exception, for when a mother’s life is at risk. But many medical providers say it’s unclear when a pregnancy would be considered risky enough to warrant termination under the law, potentially still subjecting doctors to criminal charges and causing harmful delays to patients.

Moreover, Gladstein said the law would jeopardize doctor-patient relationships, and “damage the practice of medicine in Michigan.”

“Health care professionals demand politicians stop meddling in medicine. Stop taking away women's medical freedom. And stop holding jail time over doctors’ and nurses’ heads,” Gladstein said.

Dr. Audrey Stryker, an OB-GYN in Bay City, said pregnancies are already dangerous for many patients, and a shortage of obstetric providers statewide makes them even more so.

“The facts are that pregnancy is simply unsafe for little girls who are the victims of rape,” Stryker said. “They’re unsafe for women who are carrying complicated, fatal chromosomal lab abnormalities, and for older women with contraceptive or sterilization failures with complications of high blood pressure. And pregnancy is disproportionately killing women of color in those demographics despite our best obstetrical care.”

Stryker said doctors also worry about medical complications from unsafe abortions that some might seek out if the procedure is criminalized. “No matter how many times a politician tells you, and no matter how loudly or confidently they say it, banning abortion or imprisoning abortion providers will not prevent women in the state of Michigan from choosing to have abortions,” she said.

Stryker and other medical providers said they’re also worried about the consequences if Republican gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon is elected governor. Dixon is an ardent abortion opponent who favors criminalizing the procedure in nearly all circumstances, including when the pregnant person is a victim of rape or incest.

It remains unclear whether Michigan voters will get a chance to vote on a ballot proposal that would guarantee abortion access as part of the state constitution. The Reproductive Freedom for All coalition turned in more than 700,000 signatures to get the measure on the ballot, but the State Board of Canvassers deadlocked 2-2 over approving it, with Republican board members citing technicalities over word spacing in the petition. The coalition is appealing the decision to the Michigan Supreme Court, which could order the board to put it on the ballot.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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