s states scramble to adjust their abortion policies in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe V. WadeMichigan emerged as one the most highly contested battlegrounds. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer has been at the heart of this fight.
Whitmer is a Democrat who supports abortion rights, but Republicans control the state’s legislature. Michigan is among nine states where laws against abortion were still in force before 1973, when abortion rights were established by the Supreme Court. Now that the court has revoked that right, the old law—in this case from 1931—could go back into effect, and many Republicans in the state legislature are pushing for that to happen. A state court temporarily blocked Michigan’s 91-year-old law in response to a lawsuit from Planned Parenthood, and Whitmer has filed her own suit asking Michigan’s Supreme Court to determine whether the state constitution provides a right to abortion.
Whitmer issued an executive order telling the agencies to not cooperate with any investigations of anyone providing an abortion or helping someone get an abortion. Whitmer is also supporting an effort that will put a bill to guarantee abortion rights in the state constitution.
Continue reading: We are only just beginning the fight against abortion
With President Joe Biden limited in the federal actions he can take on abortion, each state’s leadership is poised to play an outsized role in determining the future of abortion within their borders, and many of Michigan’s neighboring states are likely to restrict abortion or have already done so. Whitmer will be fighting for her abortion rights as she runs for reelection this fall.
TIME spoke to Whitmer on July 1st about her attempts to keep abortion accessible in Michigan. She also tried to understand a law that was almost 100 years old and expressed concern about the rise in abortion extremism within her state.
This conversation was edited for clarity and has been condensed.
TIME: Governor, we’re one week out from the Supreme Court overturning RoeYour state has a situation in which abortion is legal but there is a law from 1931 that can ban it. What has your past week been like?
Whitmer: It’s heavy. This was inevitable, but it still felt like a punch in the gut. We’ve talked to so many women, we’re doing roundtables across the state. There are so many reasons that a woman might need abortion care that isn’t even discussed or appreciated in some of the talking points from politicians that are trying to make it even harder for women. The things they say — they aren’t even cognizant. These Republican politicians can’t tell the difference between contraception or abortion. There’s a lack of understanding. There’s a lack of interest to understand. There’s a lack of listening to the experts and listening to women. This is why I believe people feel angry and anxious.
It’s still legal to have an abortion. We have to continue to tell people that it’s still available in Michigan. But I think that our providers are struggling because they want to make sure that if you get a zealous prosecutor that you are abiding by the law, and so there’s a lot of confusion as well.
Your state’s 1931 law banning abortion is currently blocked by the courts. You’re trying to get it permanently struck down, but Republicans in your state would like to see the law go into effect. Is that possible?
Michigan is pro-choice. It is poised for an erasure of 91 years ago, when it was a law making abortion illegal and allowing no exemptions for rape and incest. We go from being pro-choice to having some of the harshest laws in the country. We’re working on a number of fronts. Right now, there’s an injunction from that 1931 law going into effect. But there’s a very real risk as that injunction is being appealed that it doesn’t hold. I’ve filed a lawsuit to ask the Supreme Court of Michigan to recognize that under our state constitution, there’s a due process and equal protection clause right to privacy and abortion care in Michigan. However, this is still in progress. People are also collecting signatures in order to change our state constitution. So we’re pulling out all the stops.
But what we’ve already seen from Republicans, the Michigan GOP leadership right now, is a desire to not just embrace that 1931 law, but to go even further. They’ve already introduced bills in the legislature to throw nurses and doctors in jail for 10 years. All candidates running to be governor of the GOP have embraced the law from 1931, with some wanting more. So I think it’s a very real threat.
If these efforts to block the law don’t succeed, what would that mean for Michigan?
This means the care given to my generation and mine is no longer available for every subsequent generation. It’s not just incredibly gut wrenching for Michigan women, but it will be a massive setback for our economy and our ability to make our decisions and just live our lives the way that women of my generation were able to.
What does it mean for Michigan abortion providers?
They will be closing if it is made a felony. If it becomes a felony, women who are unable to carry a fetus to term for their own health or because the fetus isn’t viable, will not be able to get medical care until and if their life is at risk.
President Biden has said he hopes the issue of abortion will motivate Democrats to go to the polls and vote this year. Is that how you see it? It seems like this is what will happen.
Michigan has 70% support for women being free to make their own decisions. This is a matter that crosses all party lines. A pro-choice Republican father raised me. He now identifies himself as a Democrat because of the changes in Republican Party. However, there was a number of pro-choice Republicans that understood and passionately supported individual rights. Unfortunately, we don’t see that in the leadership of this party. I’ve seen people from across the aisle—not officeholders, but people who identify as Republicans—coming over and they’re outraged, and they want to be a part of solving this and protecting choice for themselves and for their children and for future generations.
In addition to the ballot measure that you’re hoping people can vote on, you’re also up for re-election this year. How would it impact Michigan’s abortion laws if you were to win this election?
Since 2003, Michigan has been prochoice since the beginning, despite the fact that it doesn’t have the best legislature. If you look at the GOP candidate for governor, all of them support abortion being made a felony. No exceptions are allowed for rape and incest. They are a radicalized group. And I think it’s important for us to recognize that if we want women in Michigan to be able to make the most important economic decision of their lifetimes, it is going to come down to this upcoming election.
You mentioned the radicalization you’ve seen. The Department of Homeland Security also recently issued a warning about potential violent extremism after the Supreme Court’s ruling. Of course, you were also the subject of a plot to kidnap someone in 2020. Are you thinking of this kind of extremism lately?
I’ve. And we know that women, even in the 49 years that we’ve had our ability to make our own reproductive health choices, have often been subjected to incredible cruelty and hate just for making the decision that they needed to make for themselves and for their families. This has been the case for so many years, and I expect it to continue. So I am worried about it, and I’m glad people are taking it seriously. This environment has gotten so toxic, and so mean, so cruel, that I think it’s wise to be concerned and to make plans to help keep people safe.
What actions will you take to prevent abortion from happening in the near future, as the ballot initiative and court proceedings play out?
What I’m trying to do is make sure that across state government we are protecting women’s privacy, that we are assessing where we might be able to do more to ensure that women have access to care. I met with Biden’s Administration. [last] Monday encouraging them to talk with their Canadian counterparts, so that in the event that women from America are going there to get the care that they can no longer get in their home, they’re ready. Therefore, we’re exploring all options to help women access health care and protect their reproductive rights.
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