Democratic Governors Are About to Be Abortion Rights' Last Line of Defense

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has just returned home late last night when she saw the report of a draft opinion from the Supreme Court that, if unchanged, would fully overturn federal abortion protections. She began reading the news around the time her phone started flooding with texts. “I’m vacillating between depression and fighting mode,” the Michigan Democrat says. “It’s not unexpected, and yet, it’s such a massive gut punch.”

Abortions are relatively accessible in Michigan — for now, anyways. Laying dormant in the state’s legal code is a 1931 law that declares abortion a felony, with no exceptions for rape and incest. Roe vs. Wade superseded the law nearly 50 years ago. But if its landmark running is overturned, — as the draft ruling suggests it will be, — the only shields between abortion seekers and that law are Michigan’s attorney general, a Democrat who has vowed not to enforce the law; Whitmer, who filed a lawsuit last month to repeal the law; and the Michigan Supreme Court, which will decide the law’s fate.

And all of these defenses, of course, rely on these Democrats winning their elections in November. In a post-Roe moment, much of the on-the-ground access to abortion will depend on the outcome of state-level races. That’s especially true in battleground states, where executives like Whitmer offer the last line of defense.

“We will revert to one of the most extreme laws in the country if Roe falls,” Whitmer says of that scenario. “This law would change life for not just Michigan women and families, but others who have sought care here.” That includes many women from Indiana and Ohio, where abortion is tightly restricted and rely on nearby Michigan for services.

The war on abortion rights doesn’t stop with the Supreme Court overturning Roe, which would simply turns the question of abortion access over to the states. The ultimate goal of anti-abortion activists is to outlaw the practice in every state — or enact a blanket nationwide ban, as the Washington Post reported this week. All but 12 states are under unified party rule, meaning most are poised to either embrace tight abortion restrictions or become pro-choice havens. Nearly two dozen states, all of them under Republican control, have passed or are in the process of passing anti-abortion laws in anticipation’s of Roe’s reversal.

If not for Whitmer, Michigan would surely join them: The state’s GOP-controlled legislature has repeatedly passed anti-abortion bills during Whitmer’s three years in office, but hasn’t sent them to her desk — “they know veto is the fate so long as I’m governor,” Whitmer says. Such a threat hasn’t discouraged Republican lawmakers in Pennsylvania, who have sent six abortion bans to Gov. Tom Wolf (D) to veto, nor those in Wisconsin, where Gov. Tony Evers has vetoed nine since 2019. (As in Michigan, Wisconsin’s Democratic attorney general has vowed not to enforce its 19th century abortion ban if Roe is reversed.)

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (D), meanwhile, didn’t have their luck with his state house’s GOP supermajority, which overrode his attempt to veto of a 15-week abortion ban last month. North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) faced that same dynamic when he took office in 2017, but has vetoed two abortion restrictions in his second term. “It is absolutely true that Democratic governors are the last line of defense,” Cooper, who leads the Democratic Governors Association, says.

The draft opinion, if it stands, is out of step with voters, most of whom support the Roe decision and believe abortion access should remain legal in most instances, according to national polls. In Pennsylvania, Gov. Wolf observes that anti-abortion advocates have become a “weaker and weaker voice” in the GOP culture wars, especially as the party cranks up the volume on other battlefronts. It’s the outcome of “having relied too much on the court system,” Wolf says. (That’s especially true of this pending decision, which runs counter to the will of the federal Democratic trifecta and in which three of the five backing justices were appointed by a president who lost the popular vote.)

Even so, polls have also found that many voters don’t seem to understand the stakes of the expected Supreme Court ruling — or that overturning Roe is even on the table. “I don’t think that people are seriously thinking about the possibility that choice will go away,” ​​Wolf says.

Wolf is term-limited, but his would-be Democratic successor, Pennsylvania attorney general Josh Shapiro, has already promised to “fight like hell to defend the right to choose.” News of the draft ruling, first reported by Politico late Monday night, unleashed a fury among the party faithful that recalled the night Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died in September 2020. For now, the hope of a galvanizing effect is just that: Hope. The best data point, so far, is in Texas, where Republicans actually flipped formerly Democrat-held seats in the state legislature after it passed the restrictive abortion law.

Back in Michigan, Whitmer is, for now, in touch with her fellow Democrats and abortion providers to figure out what else the state might be able to do. She’s still waiting to hear from the state Supreme Court on her lawsuit. “Perhaps, in light of the revelations around the draft opinion,” she says, “that might make it more urgent they take action.”

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