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Governor Gretchen Whitmer on Her Fight for Abortion Access in Michigan

9 minute read

As states scramble to adjust their abortion policies in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade, Michigan has emerged as one of the most hotly contested battlegrounds. And Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer is at the center of that fight.

Whitmer is a Democrat who supports abortion rights, but Republicans control the state’s legislature. Michigan is one of nine states that had laws banning abortion still on the books from before 1973 when the Supreme Court established the national right to abortion. 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 has also issued an executive directive telling state agencies not to cooperate in any investigation into someone who provides an abortion or helps someone obtain an abortion, and she is supporting an effort to get a measure that would enshrine abortion rights into the state constitution on the ballot this November.

Read More: The Fight Over Abortion Has Only Just Begun

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. As she tries to protect abortion rights in her state, Whitmer is facing a high-stakes reelection fight this fall.

On July 1, TIME talked to Whitmer about her efforts to preserve abortion access in Michigan, trying to interpret a nearly 100-year-old law, and her concerns about rising abortion extremism in her state.

The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

TIME: Governor, we’re one week out from the Supreme Court overturning Roe, and your state is in this limbo situation where abortion is currently legal, but you have a 1931 law on the books that could ban abortion. How has the past week felt for you?

Whitmer: I mean, heavy. We knew this was coming, and yet it felt like a gut punch. 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. Some of these Republican politicians are getting confused between contraception and 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. And so I think people are feeling very angry and anxious about this.

You know, abortion is still legal. 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. How likely is that to happen?

Michigan is one of the states that is currently pro-choice, and is poised to revert 91 years in the past, to a law that makes it a felony to perform an abortion and has no exceptions for rape or incest. And so we go from being a pro-choice state to having one of the most extreme laws on the books. 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. But that is pending. And at the same time, there are people collecting signatures to amend 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. Every candidate running for governor on the GOP has embraced the 1931 law, and some of them want to go further as well. 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?

It means that care that has been afforded to me and my generation is now stripped away from every generation after us. 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 this situation mean for abortion providers in Michigan?

If it becomes a felony, they will close. 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. How are you seeing that play out so far? Does it seem like that will happen?

70% of the people in Michigan support a woman being able to make the choice. It crosses party lines. I was raised by a pro-choice Republican father. The Republican Party has changed so much he now identifies as a Democrat. But there were a lot of wonderful, pro-choice Republicans who understood individual rights and were passionate about it. 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. What would that mean for abortion in Michigan if one of your opponents wins this election?

For three and a half years, the threat of my veto is what has kept Michigan pro-choice, frankly, with the legislature that we have. You look at all of the candidates who are running for governor on the GOP side, they all are in favor of abortion being completely outlawed and a felony, no exceptions for rape or for incest. This is an extreme group of people that have been radicalized. 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. And of course you were the target of a kidnapping plot in 2020. Have you been thinking about that kind of extremism recently?

I have. 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. Because this has been the situation for so long, I do anticipate that it will increase and get worse. 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.

As the court cases and ballot initiative play out over the next several months, what actions are you taking on abortion in the immediate future?

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 had a conversation with the Biden 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. So we are exploring every tool that we have to both protect reproductive rights and to ensure that women can maintain access to health care.

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Write to Abigail Abrams at abigail.abrams@time.com