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Michigan Democrats split on abortion reform amid concerns on taxpayer funding

Michigan Democrats have broken up a package of abortion reforms amid concerns from a liberal member that may sink its chances in the party’s fall agenda.

The package of 11 bills — known as the Reproductive Health Act — in its current form would remove the mandatory 24-hour waiting period to obtain an abortion, allow Medicaid to cover the procedure and repeal certain regulations on abortion clinics. Before Wednesday’s meeting of the House Health Policy Committee, Democrats had appeared unified on the set of policies that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer promoted as a key piece of the party’s fall agenda.

But the package’s future was put into jeopardy when Rep. Karen Whitsett, D-Detroit, voted against all of the package’s bills that came before the committee in its Wednesday meeting.

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Only six of the 11 bills were brought to a vote, all of which Whitsett voted against. Whitsett shared in an interview following the meeting that she opposed repealing the 24-hour waiting period and directing taxpayer dollars towards funding abortion access, as well as making enactment of some bills dependent on other measures in the package.

“The bills are tie-barred together, and that is something that I do not like,” she said. “There are things within the bill package that are acceptable — however, when we’re talking about the 24-hour waiting period, that’s something that should remain in place.”

Whitsett also said that safety regulations shouldn’t be “compromised.”

In a social media post before the meeting, Whitsett also objected to Medicaid funding the procedure, saying elderly Michigan residents should receive more government support before support is provided for obtaining abortions.

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“The choice is simple — we can either fund essential care for seniors or fund elective abortions. I choose our elders,” she wrote.

If changes are not made to the package, Whitsett said she would withhold her support on the House floor.

Despite Whitsett’s objections, the bills brought to a vote passed out of the Health Policy Committee to be considered by the entire body. Five of the bills passed in 11-8 votes, with Whitsett joining Republicans in voting against the measures. One bill saw a 11-7-1 vote, with Rep. Alabas Farhat, D-Dearborn, abstaining.

Rep. Julie Rogers, chair of the Health Policy Committee, said that some of Whitsett’s issues with the bills were known beforehand, but her colleagues didn’t know she’d be voting against the considered package. Rogers, D-Kalamazoo, said she’s still optimistic about the package’s chances of final passage.

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Shortly after Whitsett’s votes and comments, Whitmer released a statement celebrating parts of the package advancing through Health Policy Committee.

“Today, we took an important step forward on the Reproductive Health Act, commonsense legislation to repeal politically motivated, medically unnecessary restrictions on abortion that criminalize doctors providing medical care, jack up out-of-pocket healthcare costs, and impose needless regulations on health centers,” she said.

“Michiganders voted overwhelmingly to put abortion rights in our state constitution back in November. We must ensure that they can access the reproductive health care they need without delay, without paying high costs out of pocket, and without fear of prosecution for experiencing a miscarriage or a stillbirth,” she continued.

Michigan voters approved Proposal Three in the 2022 election by a 12-point margin, enshrining the right to abortion access in the state’s constitution. Democrats have made it a policy priority to implement changes they say would make good on the amendment and broaden access to the procedure.

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“Michiganders support the Reproductive Health Act,” Whitmer added. “I urge the legislature to pass it.”

Rogers said Whitsett’s opposition doesn’t “kill” the package and that they may end up gaining some Republican support on the proposals.

But Rep. John Roth, R-Interlochen, said the Democrats couldn’t count on GOP support.

“If they’re expecting a lot of votes from us to make this go through, I don’t see it,” he said. Roth reiterated the various issues Republican lawmakers have with the package, namely the loosening of abortion clinic regulations and removal of the 24-hour waiting period.

Roth said he supported making the procedure “just a hair difficult” to obtain, comparing abortions to surgeries that require consultations with medical professionals well beforehand.

Following last week’s hearing on the bills, Rep. Curtis VanderWall, R-Ludington, expressed similar concerns about the package.

“We need to make sure that people have an opportunity to be fully understanding of the procedure mentally so that we don’t have long-term repercussions,” he said, expressing his support for the 24-hour waiting period. VanderWall added that he also had concerns about the loosening of regulations for abortion clinics.

“Agree or disagree with abortion, we need to make sure that we have safe outcomes, safe facilities,” he said.

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