This article has been updated for accuracy.
On May 2, 2022, what once seemed like a distant hypothetical became a sharply probable reality: the leaked draft of Justice Samuel Alito’s majority opinion in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization revealed the Supreme Court’s plan to overturn Roe v. Wade, a historic case that has ensured federal abortion access in the United States since 1973. At some point this summer, the Supreme Court is set to release a formal decision that could drastically limit abortion access in numerous states, including Michigan.
Abortion is a notoriously hot-button political issue, tending to stir up strong emotional responses from both sides of the ideological spectrum. In the two weeks since Justice Samuel Alito’s draft was leaked, thousands of organizations have released steady streams of political analysis and commentary. In an oversaturated and often overstimulating modern media environment, politically-oriented discussions of abortion’s future can drown out the important news content designed to inform, rather than instigate.
Discussions focused on national events and trends can also take away from the larger significance of the abortion debate. At the end of the day, the decision to have an abortion is one made by an individual who harbors their own unique experiences and circumstances. Though the Supreme Court’s decision will very likely shift our relationship with abortion as a nation, it will most deeply impact the people who must navigate difficult decisions in a rapidly changing legal and medical climate. Abortion, in its everyday practice, is a starkly local and personal issue.
For University of Michigan students, that impact is only exacerbated by the time and place we currently occupy. The state of Michigan has the fourth-highest rate of abortions in the United States. Washtenaw County had the sixth-highest number (755) of abortions in Michigan in 2020. On top of that, nearly 70% of reported, legal abortions in Michigan are performed on patients under the age of 29. Hence, as students in Michigan, we find ourselves in a uniquely vulnerable position.
It is highly plausible that abortion access in Ann Arbor will look different by the time we begin the fall 2022 semester. If Roe v. Wade is overturned, a 1931 Michigan law could go into effect, acting as a statewide “trigger ban” on abortion care. This law, known as Act 328 Chapter III, would make administering an abortion for any reason (except preserving the life of the pregnant person) a felony. Additionally, it would make advertising, selling or publicly exposing the sale of any abortion-inducing drugs a misdemeanor.
In response, significant efforts have been made in attempting to keep abortion legal in Michigan. Two weeks ago, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer filed a lawsuit with the Michigan Supreme Court asking to immediately resolve the issue of abortion within the context of the Michigan Constitution. Planned Parenthood of Michigan and Dr. Sarah Wallett, also filed a lawsuit, asking the state of Michigan to affirm the right to an abortion. The Michigan Court of Claims, in an opinion and order by Chief Judge Elizabeth Gleicher, temporarily halted the enforcement of the 1931 law (assuming Roe v. Wade is overturned) to provide time for these legal proceedings. Reproductive freedom advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, Michigan Voices and Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan, have also introduced the Michigan Right to Reproductive Freedom Initiative, which could be on the ballot in the 2022 election. The initiative would protect the right to an abortion in the first trimester and in scenarios in which the pregnant individual’s physical or mental health is at risk.
Where We’re Going
Though the efforts of Whitmer and citizen advocacy could eventually be effective in the long-term, the uncertainty of their timelines means Act 328 Chapter III could become active in the coming months. These dire circumstances could provoke additional stressors for U-M students, potentially adding to financial, emotional and physical burdens. It’s unfortunately unnerving, particularly for students who may not have easy access to necessary resources. As we transition into yet another semester of unclear medical and legal affordances, it is important to be aware of the various resources available and to elevate student voices on campus.
The University of Michigan has created the informally-named “Post-Roe Task Force,” led by Drs. Lisa Harris and Dee Ellen Fenner. The task force, according to Harris, focuses on tackling seven main questions, assuming Act 328 Chapter III becomes active:
- In what specific situations would abortion be allowed to “preserve the life” of a pregnant woman?
- How can Michigan Medicine assist patients in obtaining care outside of Michigan?
- Restrictions on legal abortions could increase statewide birth rates from 5-17%, according to Harris. How can Michigan Medicine accommodate the additional maternity care, neonatal and pediatric care needs?
- How can we ensure that patients experiencing miscarriage or other pregnancy complications aren’t afraid to seek medical care, out of fear of being accused of trying to end their pregnancy?
- How can Michigan Medicine medical students, residents and fellows continue to receive abortion care education? For some programs, like the obstetrics and gynecology residency, abortion care training is required for the program to be accredited.
- How can University Health Services assist students in obtaining out-of-state abortion care or help with prenatal and birth care, and minimize any barriers to contraception access?
- How can the University broadly (housing staff, professors, CAPS staff, etc) support students facing unintended pregnancy?
In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Harris said that the task force was created in anticipation of a shift in abortion access in Michigan. Though no formal decision has been released, they are extensively preparing for complications that may soon arise.
“If Roe goes and the two lawsuits in the state don’t prevent enforcement of the ban, that very next day there will be patients that my colleagues and I see who are coming for care to end their pregnancy, and we will need to know what to do. And so we need to be prepared,” she said. “Overall the job of healthcare providers in many instances is just to be ready. Even when it may be unlikely that the worst complication might happen, our job is to be ready. The same is true here.”
After the Michigan Supreme Court’s temporary blockage of the 1931 law, Dr. Harris noted that the legal outcome remains uncertain, so the University will continue to plan for the possible loss of abortion care in the state.
The task force has officially launched, and more information about it will be forthcoming.
“Part of our communication plan is to make sure that everyone understands that we are ‘on this;’ we are working on it,” she said. “We are not going to abandon people. We’re not going to leave people with unanswered questions and unmet needs.”
This task force, then, could play a pivotal role in student access to reproductive healthcare. In an overwhelming sea of uncertainties, the University will hopefully be able to help students in assessing feasible options under new legal restrictions.
U-M students have rightfully expressed an array of concerns regarding the University’s role in navigating student abortion care. In particular, students who lack the financial resources and/or spare time to receive care out of state may face a unique set of obstacles, noted rising LSA junior Maddie LaPierre.
“The University is relatively stratified based on income,” LaPierre said. “There’s a lot of upper-income families who are always going to have access to those abortions. They’re always going to be able to fly to Illinois or any other state that has protected abortion access. But there’s a lot of other people on campus who may not have those resources and that knowledge. My biggest concern would be for them (to be) able to find those resources and make choices with a full-time class schedule, potentially a part-time job and other extracurriculars. It’s also going to be really hard to find time to travel even if that’s something you’re financially capable of doing.”
Rising LSA sophomore Jessica Siegal noted the heightened importance of contraception access on campus should abortion become banned.
“(Students should be told) where one might be able to get access to other things that have to do with reproductive health care, access to contraceptives and things like that,” she said. “(It’s important to) make sure there’s more condoms, there’s also more other types of contraceptives readily available and people are educated on how to use them properly as well. It’s a preventative thing, just in the meantime while people are still fighting (for abortion access).”
Such a fight was seen on May 14, when reproductive freedom advocates took to the Diag to express their commitment to abortion access in Ann Arbor. Community members rallied around the Block ‘M,’ wielding signs with phrases such as “If it’s not your uterus then it’s not your decision” and “You fucked with the wrong generation.”
Where We’ve Been
Though increasingly tumultuous in this current moment, reproductive rights have historically been a staple of campus activism. In past periods of abortion restrictions, students have continued to publicly advocate for reproductive freedoms. An edition of The Daily from January 1967 featured a story titled “Abortions: The Silent Slaughter Goes On.”
“Our cultural ethic restricts discussion of abortion,” wrote Warren Zucker, a former reporter for The Daily. “Yet the problem has been growing increasingly more critical until it is now urgent that the inhumanity and inefficiency of current abortion laws be remedied.”
In a January 1971 edition, an op-ed argued for pro-choice legislation introduced by former Ann Arbor Senator, Gilbert Bursley, R-Ann Arbor.
“Each woman must decide the moral, religious and personal questions involved in abortion, and society must respect her decision,” wrote Jim Neubacher, former editorial page editor for The Daily. “A woman must have ultimate control over the functions of her body.”
Both of these pieces were published pre-Roe v. Wade when the 1931 law we face today was still the law of the land. The activism of these writers existed in an uncertain and dangerous time for abortion access, not all that different from the probable struggle ahead of us today.
More recent op-eds in The Michigan Daily continuously defend abortion rights, advocating for the same principles described in the newspaper over 50 years ago. Even with more stable and accessible abortions, the right to choose continues to remain at the forefront of student dialogue and activism.
“(Abortion) is neither a pleasant process, nor an easy decision to make, but it remains the jurisdiction of a pregnant woman and her doctor under the Fourteenth Amendment’s right to privacy (to determine) what course of action is best,” wrote Jess D’Agostino, a then-opinion columnist for The Daily and rising LSA senior.
Meanwhile, alternative campus publications such as The Michigan Review, a self-proclaimed journal of campus affairs, frequently write from a pro-life perspective.
In his piece “The March for Life: The Ideal of Protests,” Charles Hilu, editor in chief for The Review and rising LSA senior, explains his appreciation for the pro-life movement’s demonstrations as well as his own pro-life views.
“The March for Life calls upon people to live out their duty to their fellow human beings through its message of love,” he wrote. “We pro-lifers will use that message to march every year, until there is no presence of or need for abortion in our country.”
Hence we can see conflicting opinions expressed on campus in both separate and overlapping spheres, further developing the ongoing conversation about abortion’s role in the campus community. As we move into a potential period of significant change, it is imperative for individuals to continuously share their perspectives in search of holistic solutions to issues presented by the Supreme Court’s upcoming decision.
Looking Ahead, As a Community
We are likely entering what has been unmarked territory in recent campus history — though the specifics of Roe v. Wade’s future are currently unclear, issues of abortion access are destined for our entire campus in the coming year. Though effects will of course be felt most directly by those who are able to get pregnant, other individuals are very likely to be involved in navigating difficult situations alongside a partner, family member, friend or colleague. Regardless of one’s personal opinions on abortion’s morality, these imminent changes will require vigilant voicing of community concerns and advocating for justice across ideological divides.
With support from the University and open campus dialogue, we can and will find ways to effectively provide students with the reproductive care they desire and/or need. As a community, we must do what we do best, and come together to ensure the safety and well-being of those we live and work amongst — regardless of future medical and legal restrictions.
Our community has utilized activism as a means for large-scale human rights advocacy for decades. Though we are standing on the precipice of a new and candidly terrifying era of reproductive justice, there is comfort in the fact that students like us have prevailed time and time again in fighting for reproductive healthcare access. This article likely comes at the end of the Roe v. Wade era, or at least quite close to it, but it is nowhere near the end of our story.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly asserted Dr. Sarah Wallett is the Chief Medical Officer of Michigan Medicine. She is the Chief Medical Officer of Planned Parenthood of Michigan.
Statement Correspondent Emily Blumberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.