A Supreme Court ruling that ended the constitutional right to abortion is expected to lead to worse outcomes for Detroiters, who face higher rates of maternal mortality and less access to child care and reproductive health resources.
Abortion clinics in Michigan will remain open for the time being, and could become a temporary haven for women in neighboring states that ban abortion procedures. But abortion could also be outlawed here, depending on the outcome of another legal challenge in state courts. Organizers and advocates are bracing for that possibility while working to gather resources for vulnerable women in Detroit.
“For a city that is populated mostly by Black men and women, this is going to be most detrimental for us,” said Shanayl Bennett, Black maternal health and reproductive justice organizer for Mothering Justice. “We get the shorter end of the stick when it comes to reproductive health. We’re talking about miscarriages, stillbirth, access to birth control or emergency contraceptives. These are all things that could just be shut down for us in a space where most women that are Black and Brown are already struggling.”
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In Detroit, getting pregnant can sometimes be fatal. The city’s maternal death rate is triple the national average.
The Supreme Court’s conservative majority authored the 6-3 decision despite opposition from three liberal justices. The high court struck down the landmark Roe v. Wade decision nearly 50 years after it enshrined a Constitutional right to an abortion without excessive government restriction. Justices writing for the majority argued Roe v. Wade was “egregiously wrong from the start” and that states should be allowed to regulate abortion instead.
Liberal justices writing in dissent of the decision warned that it means “from the very moment of fertilization, a woman has no rights to speak of. A State can force her to bring a pregnancy to term, even at the steepest personal and familial costs.”
Tucked into the dissenting opinion also lies a startling statistic of the potential impact: A ban on abortions is expected to increase maternal mortality overall by 21%. For Black women, maternal mortality could jump as much at 33%.
“Getting pregnant in this country is a dangerous thing to do and that is worse for Black and Brown people because of systemic racism,” said Dr. Sarah Wallett, chief medical officer for Planned Parenthood of Michigan. “Having an abortion is safer than continuing a pregnancy and going through childbirth. This decision removes that option from people. There will be an increase in maternal mortality and morbidity. People will be harmed because of this decision today, without a doubt.”
‘No safety net’
U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, represents the third-poorest congressional district in America and told BridgeDetroit she’s worried about women in the city. Many children in Detroit are not being set up for success, she said, and requiring more women to carry out unwanted pregnancies without increasing access to child care and other resources will only exacerbate poverty.
“We’re in the richest country in the world and we have no safety net for women with children,” Tlaib said. I know there are women that want to be mothers and face the choice of motherhood versus being able to afford child care and the cost of living. This is a predominantly Black community in a city that has underfunded our public health and so many other quality of life issues. I know that’s going to result in more tragic outcomes for so many of the residents in the City of Detroit.”
Bennett, a professional labor assistant who provides support throughout pregnancy and postpartum, said the ruling reflects the importance of having minority representation on the Supreme Court. Ketanji Brown Jackson was confirmed as the first Black woman to serve on the court, but she will not assume office until later this year.
Bennett also worries that Detroiters will not understand that abortion remains legal for now in Michigan. Mothering Justice and other organizations are working to ensure that women who have abortions scheduled do not cancel those procedures after hearing about Friday’s ruling.
“People are very scared. They’re very concerned. It’s going to be a lot of chaos,” Bennett said. “It’s important for us to ensure that there’s an equitable landscape for mothers of color, who are the ones that are adversely impacted by this.”
Access to care
Wallett, of Planned Parenthood Michigan, said abortion providers in clinics around the state are reassuring women that they can still receive services.
“As an abortion provider I know how devastating it is to sit in an exam room and tell a patient I can’t help them because state politicians have restricted their access to care,” she said during a Friday press conference. “This scenario will now be a daily reality for my colleagues and their patients in hostile states across the country.
Wallett noted places like Wisconsin and Ohio will have significant bans immediately and Planned Parenthood expects those patients will need to access care and turn to Michigan for help.
For Michigan, the future of abortions will depend in part on the outcome of a lawsuit seeking to prevent enforcement of a 1931 law making nearly all abortions illegal.
Planned Parenthood of Michigan filed the suit and in May was granted a preliminary injunction blocking the state’s 1931 law until the case is settled. Under the law, doctors who perform abortions and women who take medication to terminate a pregnancy could face felony charges that carry a penalty of up to four years in prison.
Michigan’s GOP-led Legislature sought to intervene in the Planned Parenthood lawsuit against the state, arguing no one is adequately defending the 1931 law. Republican leaders celebrated Friday’s Supreme Court decision, though Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat, reaffirmed that she will not prosecute abortion cases if the 1931 law is triggered.
Detroit City Council President Mary Sheffield said in a statement that Friday’s court decision will not stop abortions, but is “just another way to criminalize and punish women.”
Mayor Mike Duggan issued his own statement, calling the Supreme Court’s ruling an “attack on our constitutional rights” that jeopardizes access to safe health care services.
Two demonstrations were scheduled in Detroit Friday – at the Theodore Levin U.S. Courthouse and in Palmer Park – to raise awareness of the court decision and to support political efforts to change Michigan’s abortion laws.
Outside the courthouse, upwards of 1,000 people rallied in support of preserving abortion rights.
“I don’t care about the other side, I care about all of you here. I also have four daughters, and two grandkids as well,” said Shanay Watson-Whittaker, 43, a member of the nonprofit group Michigan Voices.
“We are here because people like me, had an abortion in the past. I’m not ashamed to say it. We have to normalize the conversations around reproductive rights around abortion care, around contraceptive care as well,” said Watson-Whittaker, of Detroit.
“My grandmother passed when we were homeless (in New York). I had to move to a shelter with my mom. And I got pregnant. I was 17 years old, and I had to make that decision whether I wanted to have a child in that environment. I chose to terminate my pregnancy and I don’t regret that decision at all.”
The demonstrators Friday night set off on a march from Jefferson to Randolph, past the courthouse, and east through Greektown. The group chanted and carried signs that read “We dissent,” and “Reproductive rights are human rights.”
‘A demonstrated need’
Nicole Wells Stallworth is the executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan, the political advocacy arm PPMI. She said the ruling puts more importance on a ballot initiative that would amend the Michigan Constitution to enshrine abortion rights.
Several abortion rights groups are behind the Reproductive Freedom for All initiative and aim to
submit at least 425,059 signatures to the Michigan Secretary of State on July 11 to qualify the measure for the Nov. 8 ballot.
“This decision is a gross injustice, and we should all be outraged,” she said Friday during a virtual news conference. “This is about more than abortion, it’s about forcing pregnancy and parenthood in circumstances when people may be unwilling or unable and unprepared to grapple with the economic, the emotional and the physical ramifications that come with it.”
Although she didn’t have Detroit-specific client data, Wells Stallworth told BridgeDetroit that Planned Parenthood handles about one-third of the abortions performed in MIchigan. It has 14 health centers in the state, including in Detroit and nearby Ferndale. The two clinics saw a combined 9,609 visits in 2021 and provided a variety of medical services to 6,464 patients, according to figures provided by Planned Parenthood Michigan.
“There’s been a demonstrated need in this area,” Wells Stallworth said. “Detroiters deserve to have access to sexual and reproductive healthcare. Period. And they deserve for that to be private and not to have to disclose that to government entities.”
The choices they have to make, she said, should be between themselves, family members and medical professionals.
Abortion bans, she said, force people to travel out of state to access abortion and to navigate the cost of that travel when the cost of the health care system is already designed to create disparities for people of color. Detroiters face transportation challenges that make getting from one end of the city to another difficult, let alone crossing state lines for a medical procedure.
“Abortion is a form of health care and that means that people who are looking for an abortion – who, by the way, come from all walks of life – will be forced to navigate barriers that are already systemically there in the health care system.”
Advocates say low-income Michiganders, women of color, and people who do not live near clinics are expected to be hardest hit by the decision.
“This will also lead to the criminalization of the poor and communities of color, as well as the health care workers who provide reproductive services,” Jennifer Disla, co-executive director of Detroit Action, said in a statement.
Repeal ‘up to the state’
State Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, said she and staffers wiped away tears Friday after learning of the court’s ruling before launching into a neighborhood canvass for her 2022 reelection campaign in the newly drawn District 3.
The first door Chang knocked on belonged to an 85-year-old woman who told her that she’d endured a back-alley abortion in the 1960s, Chang said.
“We talked about how this is a medical procedure. That it should be decided by a person and their doctor and no one else should interfere,” Chang told BridgeDetroit. “People should be able to have body autonomy. The fact that’s even a question in 2022 is absolutely ridiculous. This Supreme Court does not represent the majority of Americans.”
Chang, of southwest Detroit, noted Black women and other women of color will be impacted most by the ruling. Abortion rights, she added, are a common issue raised by constituents in Detroit and other parts of her district.
“It’s devastating for so many. Not just physically, but financially, emotionally, socially,” she said. “Young women are scared for their future. It’s really devastating. There are many, many reasons why we need to do everything we can to change the law in Michigan.”
Chang joined with several other state lawmakers in sponsoring legislation last fall to repeal the state’s abortion ban. It hasn’t been taken up yet.
“It really is up to the state now,” she said. “We need to take action.”
Chang noted that the Senate majority leader has been supportive of the state’s existing law and that a potential amendment “depends on the political will.”
Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirley, R-Clarklake, issued a statement Friday, saying the ruling “affirms the importance of federalism and states’ rights.” He has not publicly said whether he’d be open to a repeal.
But Tlaib said the will is strong among the people of Michigan.
“We’re going to fight like hell,” Tlaib said. “Even if we have to go in the streets like we did for the civil rights movement and the labor rights movement.”
Correction: Sarah Wallett is the chief medical officer for Planned Parenthood of Michigan. Her last name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.