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The Culture War Comes to Michigan
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The Culture War Comes to Michigan

Proposal 3 would enshrine a vague and potentially limitless right to abortion in the state constitution.

Pro choice supporters gather outside the Michigan State Capitol during a "Restore Roe" rally. (Photo by JEFF KOWALSKY / AFP) (Photo by JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images)

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich.—After 13 years away my family and I returned to Michigan in 2021, hoping to escape some of the divisions that have racked the American polity since 2016. We had been mostly successful in that endeavor. But a few weeks ago two young women rang our doorbell—and reminded us that we had not simply moved into a leafy retreat along the shores of Lake Michigan. We were now on the frontline of America’s ongoing culture war.

“Are you aware of Proposal 3, the proposed amendment to make abortion a right under the Michigan constitution?” I recall one of the women asking. Before I answered, I was already filled with dread. Yet I was pleasantly surprised by the conversation that followed. 

Proposal 3 would make Michigan’s among the most radical abortion laws in the world, one of the women said. It would allow for abortion through all nine months of pregnancy, the other added. It would undo those safeguards against abortion that had been put in place even under the Roe v. Wade regime. They handed me a pamphlet that quoted and explained the amendment.

I thanked them—not for the pamphlet, but for their bravery. A few days before, miles from my home, an 84-year-old woman had been shot in the back while campaigning against Proposal 3. Seeing these two young women, I was moved by the risk they were taking to go door-to-door and bear witness against the injustice of abortion. As I explained some of this, one of the women replied that she was doing only what conscience bound her to do.

The holding in Roe that led to the nationwide legalization of abortion was poorly argued and only doubtfully rooted in precedent. Even some supporters of abortion decried its flimsy reasoning. But Roe had at least this much in its favor: It based the legality of abortion on the right to “privacy” between a patient and her doctor. It did not directly defend abortion but created conditions that allowed for its practice.

This has always struck me as the tribute evil pays to its guilty conscience. Privacy rather than abortion itself was held as the constitutional right. The threadbare argumentation of the decision revealed that the Supreme Court had legalized abortion not because such was the conclusion of sound reasoning but simply because the justices wanted abortion to be legal.

Proposition 3 casts aside such dubious circumspection by declaring “every individual has a fundamental right to reproductive freedom,” which the amendment describes as making and effectuating “decisions about all matters relating to pregnancy, including but not limited to prenatal care, childbirth, postpartum care, contraception, sterilization, abortion care, miscarriage management, and infertility care.”

The key phrase is “including but not limited to.” Rather than define as narrowly as possible this hitherto unheard-of right, Proposal 3’s authors have chosen to make it as expansive as possible. There is one limit, but a practically meaningless one: the state can prohibit abortions after fetal viability so long as a healthcare professional determines the abortion is not necessary “to protect the life or physical or mental health of the pregnant individual.” Mental health? This low bar would make any regulation unenforceable.

It’s clear that the proposed amendment would establish the legality of abortion through all nine months of pregnancy and even until birth. It will allow minors to pursue abortions and sterilization without parental notification or consent, including the seeking of puberty blocking drugs for gender transition. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Grand Rapids argues, I believe correctly, that Proposition 3 would “exempt abortion facilities from basic health and safety regulations,” allow “anyone to perform an abortion, even if they don’t have a medical license” and “protect abortion providers from penalties for killing or injuring a woman during an abortion.”

But will the proposal become the law of the land? Polling shows that most Michiganders want abortion to be legal at some stages of pregnancy and in some circumstances. A narrowly tailored proposal might have reflected that sentiment. Proposal 3 does not. It would deny the rights of parents to oversee the health and well-being of their children and wipe away all current regulation on abortion. A lack of clarity around what Proposal 3 would actually do may explain why some polls show a majority of the state backing it. 

Concern for maintaining the legal status quo was not what brought those young women to my door. Rather, their consciences were moved to defend the most fundamental of rights: the right to life. Long and dubious casuistry about privacy or the “sweet mystery of life” (in the words of Planned Parenthood v. Casey) have tried to obscure that fact, but it has not succeeded.

Next week, Michiganders, in the midst of the autumnal beauty and the many other blessings of our state, will face a profound choice. Do they vote in favor of the most essential right to life—or for the invention of a vague, new right that would enshrine the power to kill in our state constitution?

James Matthew Wilson's Headshot

James Matthew Wilson

James Matthew Wilson is the Benedict XVI Institute’s poet-in-residence and director of the MFA in creative writing at the University of Saint Thomas, Houston.