The Personal and Political Fight to Keep Abortion Legal in Michigan

June 23, 2022

Photo by Alice Miranda Ollstein

A personal and political fight to keep abortion legal in Michigan is in full swing. Politico’s Alice Miranda Ollstein speaks with one woman who got an illegal abortion in Michigan and outlines the political levers state leaders have to to preserve abortion rights.

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Content warning: This episode mentions suicide and contains graphic descriptions of an abortion.

Michigan is one of more than 20 states with a law on the books that would outlaw nearly all abortions if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade.

That threat has Democratic officials and ordinary citizens in this Midwestern swing state locking arms to keep abortion legal.

The battle is political and personal.

“As a mom of young women, the thought that my girls might have fewer rights than I’ve had my whole life is devastating and infuriating,” said Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. “And that’s a part of what keeps me staying focused on this space.”

Michigan officials and activists have mobilized around a tier of strategies: in the courts, on the campaign trail and at the ballot box this November.

Planned Parenthood has challenged the state’s 1931 ban on abortion in court. That plan has had the most impact so far, with a judge issuing a preliminary injunction in May to block the ban from going into effect if Roe falls. Still, it’s far from a permanent fix.

Whitmer has her own lawsuit pending. It asks the state supreme court to determine if the 1931 ban violates the state’s constitution. The governor is running for a second term and made reproductive rights a central pillar of her campaign.

If legal steps fail and the ban is reinstated, providing abortion would again become a felony in Michigan, with exceptions only to save the pregnant person’s life. State Attorney General Dana Nessel, who also is running for reelection, has said she would not prosecute any doctors for performing the procedure, nor would she defend the ban in court.

“If I’m your attorney general, I will not enforce those laws,” Nessel said. “It’s prosecutorial discretion. I don’t have to enforce those laws. There’s all kinds of laws in the books. Adultery is a crime here in Michigan. I haven’t enforced that.”

Michigan’s governor is determined, but realistic.

“We’ve pursued this kind of three-pronged strategy because we don’t know which one might be successful,” Whitmer said. “We don’t know if any of them will. And I think that’s why this is such a stark, kind of scary, confusing moment.”

“Losing is not an option for us,” said 71-year-old Renee Chelian. “We have to be a beacon for other states and give them a roadmap.”

Earlier this year, Chelian joined tens of thousands of volunteers in Michigan to gather 425,000 signatures to put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot. If approved by voters, the Michigan Right to Reproductive Freedom Initiative would create a state constitutional right to reproductive choice.

The initiative is widely seen as the best chance Michigan has to advance reproductive rights. It would apply to abortion, as well as an array of reproductive health services like birth control and miscarriage management. A constitutional amendment would be harder for a future governor or legislature to overturn compared to a change in the law or a lawsuit ruling.

Residents are tuned in to the issue. In a recent poll of registered Michigan voters by the Detroit Chamber of Commerce, respondents listed abortion as one of their top three concerns.

Renee Chelian began talking publicly about her own illegal abortion in hopes of protecting the right in a possible post-Roe Michigan. (Photo by Alice Miranda Ollstein)

Chelian broke decades of silence about her own illegal abortion as a teenager in 1966 to emphasize the need today.

Her parents helped her get the procedures as a 15 year old.

“They explained to me that I wouldn’t be pregnant anymore, but that it could be dangerous because it was illegal, which meant we couldn’t tell anybody,” Chelian said.

A stranger blindfolded her and drove her to a dirty warehouse in Detroit where a doctor stuffed gauze into her uterus to trigger a miscarriage.

Chelian ultimately needed a second procedure at a different warehouse before she finally passed the pregnancy in her family’s bathroom.

“Somebody came and picked [the fetus] up. And my dad came home with all of my siblings and came in to see how I was doing and said to me, ‘We will never speak of this again.'”

Chelian kept that silence for more than 20 years before she started telling close friends and family members. Now, for the first time, she’s sharing her story publicly to help people understand the desperation and danger that could come with history repeating itself.

Today, Chelian and her two daughters run the Northland Family Planning Centers, a group of abortion clinics in the Detroit and Ann Arbor suburbs. Chelian is clear-eyed about what could be ahead – her clinics could close, or conversely, could be overwhelmed with women coming from other states.

“I don’t think political people have really thought about what kind of health care crisis there’s going to be in this country,“ Chelian said. “We’re going to see women self-inducing. We are going to see people breaking the law and the criminalization of women. We’re going to see children suffer. Half of our patients already have kids, and they tell us the reason for their abortion is to take care of the children that they have now.”

There is a tough and expensive battle ahead. Voters in Michigan and Vermont will consider a constitutional amendment to protect abortion rights. Kansas, Kentucky and Montana are asking voters to amend their constitutions or affirm there is no legal right to an abortion in the state.

As for Chelian, she hopes beyond court rulings and the changing faces in political office, a direct vote would allow voters in her state to weigh in – one by one – on protecting abortion rights.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story and the photo caption have been updated to clarify that Renee Chelian started telling close friends and family about her abortion about 20 years after it happened. She has only recently shared her story publicly.

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Episode Resources

Selected Reporting on Abortion and Roe v. Wade

What abortion looks like in every state — right now (Jasmine Mithani, Shefali Luthra and Abby Johnston; 6/22/2022; The 19th)

Some Clinics Aren’t Waiting for Roe Decision to Stop Abortions (Claire Cain Miller and Margot Sanger-Katz, New York Times, 6/15/2022)

Michigan’s abortion providers brace for a ban — or a surge (Alice Miranda Ollstein, POLITICO, 6/11/2022)

Michigan judge suspends 1931 abortion ban, citing ‘irreparable harm’ to women (Jonathan Oosting, Bridge Michigan, 5/17/2022)

How One Doctor Is Prepping for a World Without Roe (Tradeoffs, 5/5/2022)

Episode Credits


Alice Miranda Ollstein, health care reporter, POLTICIO

Renee Chelian, Executive Director, Northland Family Planning Centers

The Tradeoffs theme song was composed by Ty Citerman, with additional music this episode by Blue Dot Sessions and Epidemic Sound.

This episode was reported by Alice Miranda Ollstein and mixed by Andrew Parrella. Editing assistance from Cate Cahan.