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Democrats' abortion-access legislation may still be stalled, despite dropping Medicaid coverage

Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed legislation in April repealing the state’s 1931 law banning abortion. But the Reproductive Health Act, which would expand abortion access in Michigan and repeal many of the restrictions that still remain on the books, has stalled.
AA Courtesy of the Governor's Office
Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed legislation in April repealing the state’s 1931 law banning abortion. But the Reproductive Health Act, which would expand abortion access in Michigan and repeal many of the restrictions that still remain on the books, has stalled.

Democrats' efforts to expand abortion access in Michigan may still be in peril, even after lawmakers dropped a piece of the legislation that was getting pushback within their own party.

The Reproductive Health Act would remove many of the restrictions still on the books in Michigan, including a mandatory waiting period and online consent form that has to be signed and printed 24-hours before a patient’s appointment. It also would make it easier for people to pay for abortion care, by allowing private insurers and Medicaid to cover abortions.

But on Tuesday, lawmakers cut the Medicaid provision, in order to appease holdouts within the Democratic party. With a razor-thin majority in the state house, Democrats can’t afford to lose a single vote. State House Speaker Pro Tempore Laurie Pohutksy (D-Livonia) said she was hopeful this was a successful compromise.

“I believe that we are at a place where we can get the package passed,” Pohutksy said Tuesday. “So I am looking forward to getting that done as quickly as possible. But I will say that it hasn't been without difficult conversations.”

Yet State Representative Karen Whitsett, a Democrat, said she still can't vote for the legislation — which could derail the remaining bills. “My position remains unchanged,” Whitsett said via text message Tuesday evening. “The 24-hour waiting period is reasonable and provides [an] important reflection period for patients to fully consider their decision.”

Whitsett said she was also still concerned that the RHA would mean abortion providers no longer have to ask patients if they’re being coerced into an abortion, and said she needs “to understand why they feel it is necessary to remove restrictions” that require abortion clinics to be licensed as surgical centers.

Doing the political math 

Last month, Whitsett was the sole Democrat on the House Health Policy committee to vote against the Reproductive Health Act. Whitsett, whose district includes parts of Detroit and Dearborn, said her constituents didn’t want state tax dollars funding abortion care.

"People are saying, 'I agree to reproductive health. But I never agreed to pay for it,'" Whitsett told NPR in September. "And I think that's very fair. ... I just do not think that that's something that should be asked of anyone as a taxpayer."

Medicaid is jointly funded by state and federal dollars. And while a piece of federal legislation called the Hyde Amendment prohibits federal dollars from funding abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the patient, states are allowed to use their own Medicaid funds to cover abortion care more broadly.

In 1988, Michigan voters approved a ban on state funding for abortion, which the Reproductive Health Act would overturn. “The use of taxpayer dollars to fund elective abortion violates the conscience rights of those opposed to such procedures and ignores the will of the people,” abortion opponents said in a statement last month, announcing the formation of the Michigan Coalition to Protect a Woman’s Right to Know. It’s a coalition of about a dozen groups, including Right to Life of Michigan and the Michigan Catholic Conference.

While the RHA still had enough support to pass out of the House Health Policy Committee, but Democrats would need every one of their members on board in order for the RHA to get to Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s desk.

“Here in the state of Michigan, in order to pass a law, you need to get 56 representatives, 20 senators and a governor [to vote yes,]” said State Senator Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) on Tuesday. “And I would like to send the entire Reproductive Health Act to the governor's desk. But I also know that there are parts that can move forward now, and that seem to have sufficient support to move forward now. And there are elements that, you know, will hopefully garner the necessary support later. But it is ultimately a math question, if we have members who are not willing to support a particular policy, and we can't get to 56 members in the House.”

And it wasn’t just Whitsett who had concerns, Pohutsky said. “There were unfortunately House members as well that had issues with Medicaid funding. … And there was a lot of education that was done, there's a lot of constituent outreach to express to representatives and senators how this would impact their constituents. But ultimately, we weren't able to get everyone on board.”

Cutting Medicaid coverage for abortions 

So on Tuesday, the Michigan Senate Health Policy Committee voted to move forward with a version of the RHA that didn’t include Medicaid coverage for abortions.

“This is deeply disappointing,” said Ashlea Phenicie, chief advocacy officer of Planned Parenthood of Michigan. “Bans on insurance coverage for abortion act as de facto abortion bans for people with low incomes. Voters turned out in record numbers last fall to enshrine the right to abortion access in our state constitution – but for people who are facing the most barriers, for people who are struggling to pay rent and keep food on the table, that's a right in name only.”

Abortion opponents criticized the Senate for moving forward with the Reproductive Health Act at all, calling the legislation “extreme” and "dangerous.”

“Today’s move by proabortion members on the Senate Housing and Human Services Committee appears to be a Hail Mary effort to move the dangerous Reproductive Health Act, currently stalled in the House,” Genevieve Marnon, legislative director of Right to Life of Michigan, said in an emailed statement.

Last week, Governor Gretchen Whitmer said she wanted to see “the whole package” of legislation in the Reproductive Health Act arrive at her desk. “I'd like to see them come as a [intact] package,” Whitmer told reporters. “It's important, and I think that the voters expect that.”

But on Tuesday, a spokesperson for the Governor said Whitmer would still “sign any and every RHA bill that makes it to her desk.”

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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