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VP Harris highlights reproductive rights progress in Michigan amid state, federal attacks


VP Harris highlights reproductive rights progress in Michigan amid state, federal attacks

Mar 16, 2023 | 12:03 pm ET
By Susan J. Demas
VP Harris highlights reproductive rights progress in Michigan amid state, federal attacks
Vice President Kamala Harris speaks about climate change to an Ann Arbor audience, Jan. 12, 2023 | Laina G. Stebbins

Before a federal judge on Wednesday heard four hours of oral arguments on a case challenging the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approval and regulation of mifepristone, the first drug used in a medication abortion, Vice President Kamala Harris praised Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for helping lead the way on preserving reproductive rights at the state level.

U.S. District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk, a President Trump appointee, said Wednesday he will rule “as soon as possible,” according to States Newsroom partner The Texas Tribune, which could have widespread implications on the availability of abortion medication across the country. 

On a Monday call with reporters, Harris called the case an “unprecedented attack on medication which the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] approved 20 years ago. … They approved it based on science, peer review, and a consensus within the medical professional community that it is safe and effective.”

Harris noted support for abortion rights in states across the country, noting 2022 referendums that passed in five states: California, Kentucky, Michigan, Montana and Vermont.

“There is also some good news, which is that the majority of Americans do not support these attacks on reproductive rights. That is why during the last election cycle, wherever this issue was on the ballot, reproductive freedom won in both red states and blue states from Kentucky to California,” Harris said.

Harris highlighted Michigan, where voters not only approved Proposal 3 enshrining abortion rights in the Constitution, but also reelected Whitmer and ushered in new Democratic majorities in the state House and Senate. 

VP Harris highlights reproductive rights progress in Michigan amid state, federal attacks
Vice President Kamala Harris, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist tour Focus: HOPE in Detroit on Oct. 15, 2022. (Andrew Roth/Michigan Advance)

“… In Michigan, Gov. Whitmer and state and local leaders have led the way to defend reproductive freedom in that state,” Harris said. “And last November Michigan was one of the states where voters protected reproductive rights in their state Constitution.”

In one of its first acts, the Legislature passed a bill that would wipe from the books Michigan’s 1931 abortion ban, which is currently unenforceable. It’s now on Whitmer’s desk and she’s vowed to sign it.

Harris was asked if she “had any thoughts” about the future of abortion restrictions in Michigan like the parental consent requirement. The vice president declined to talk specifically about Michigan’s laws “because each state has its own nuance” and said she would address the issue generally. 

“There is still the challenge of getting correct information to individuals,” she said. “… That’s still critically important. Because in a state like Michigan, and there are others that have passed into their law or into the Constitution these protections, we’ve got to make sure that everyone knows about it.”

Harris said another priority at the state level is “encouraging the coalition around the intersection between issues that are voting rights issues, issues that are about protecting the rights and the wellbeing of members of the LGBTQ+ community. 

“… What we are seeing in certain states … is that where there is an attack on one of those rights, there are attacks on the other rights,” the VP said.

She also stressed the need to lift up young leaders on reproductive rights and progressive issues.

“I look at Michigan … the leaders there, starting with the governor, are doing extraordinary work,” Harris said. “When you look at it, it also was in combination with another important thing that needs to happen in all the states, which is to encourage the younger leaders, to give them the space to be able to lead on this issue. We’ve seen that happen in various places around the country, and I applaud Gov. Whitmer and others for holding those younger leaders up to allow them to also help frame and shape this movement.”

VP Harris highlights reproductive rights progress in Michigan amid state, federal attacks
Matthew Joseph Kacsmaryk | court photo

On Wednesday, Kacsmaryk heard arguments from the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the conservative legal organization representing the plaintiffs who oppose abortion rights, and lawyers for the U.S. Department of Justice and Danco Laboratories, mifepristone’s producer. 

ADF lawyer Erik Baptist said “pregnancy is not an illness,” The Texas Tribune reported, adding, “Mifepristone doesn’t treat anything.” Kacsmaryk appeared to favor that argument, listing drugs that were approved under the same FDA regulation system as mifepristone, many of which treat HIV and cancer. 

The plaintiffs want Kacsmaryk to suspend and rescind FDA approval of the mifepristone, which was approved in 2000. Justice Department attorney Julie Straus Harris said doing so would be “depriving patients and doctors of a safe and effective drug,” the Tribune reported.

Department of Justice attorneys, representing the FDA, also contend the statute of limitations has lapsed to bring claims and that the plaintiff doctors and medical groups did not show sufficient harm. Anti-abortion groups filed a citizen petition against the drug’s approval in 2002, which the FDA rejected in 2016, the same day the agency loosened some restrictions on the drug. ADF attorney Erin Morrow Hawley called the move “agency gamesmanship,” according to the Tribune.  

Harris was asked how the White House would respond if Kacsmaryk rules that mifepristone should be restricted nationwide. She said the Biden administration has “been focusing on getting access to medication abortion since day one. 

“The attorney general [Merrick Garland] has already made clear that states may not ban mifepristone … because they disagree with the FDA’s judgment,” Harris added. “Our administration will continue to support legal access and do what we need to do to make sure that women get accurate information about what is safe and what is legally available to them.”

Harris noted several state-level fights over abortion access including in Wisconsin, Florida and Texas.

“Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade, extremist so-called leaders in states around the country have proposed and passed new extreme laws to ban abortion and criminalize health care providers, or have moved to enforce old laws on the books — many including no exceptions even for rape or incest,” she said.

She added that the latest attacks on reproductive rights “are endangering the lives of women and people in our country.”

Congress must therefore pass a bill that defends freedom and liberty by putting the protections of Roe v Wade into federal law. And President Biden will sign it.

– Vice President Kamala Harris

The VP was asked about the impact on abortion restrictions on African American women who already have high maternal mortality rates.

“This is a very real issue. I’ve said it before. I’ll say it again. I would challenge the hypocrisy of people who say they care about life and then ignore the maternal mortality crisis,” Harris said. 

She added that Black women are three times as likely to die in connection with childbirth, Native women are twice as likely to die and rural women are 1.5 times as likely to die. 

“… We know that one of the big factors [is] there is racial bias — that when that woman walks into the hospital or the clinic, she’s just not taken as seriously,” Harris said. “We know a related issue for all of the women affected by maternal mortality is also poverty. Look, poverty is trauma-inducing. So when you think about the factors that contribute to those awful outcomes in terms of maternal mortality, the stressors have to be taken into account, we have to talk about that.” 

Harris also cited the 20 Republican attorneys general who wrote to CVS and Walgreens “threatening the companies with legal consequences if they sell medication abortion by mail in their states.” 

“Congress must therefore pass a bill that defends freedom and liberty by putting the protections of Roe v Wade into federal law,” she said. “And President Biden will sign it.” 

States Newsroom reporter Elisha Brown contributed reporting.