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Why experts say the fall of abortion rights is a key sign of a troubled democracy

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Why experts say the fall of abortion rights is a key sign of a troubled democracy

Sep 25, 2022 | 5:10 am ET
By Anna Gustafson
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Why experts say the fall of abortion rights is a key sign of a troubled democracy
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Hundreds rally at the state Capitol for the MI Body MI Choice event on Oct. 2, 2021 | Illustration using photo by Allison R. Donahue

The floodgates opened in 2011.

That year, increasingly right-wing Republicans – who had weaponized gerrymandering and racism (think: birtherism) during President Barack Obama’s tenure to sweep the 2010 midterm elections and flip state legislatures across the nation – passed 92 anti-abortion bills throughout the country, a record number for a single year since the United States Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade ruling in 1973.

In 2010, Michigan Republicans won control of the governorship and the state House and maintained their power in the state Senate. The next year, GOP lawmakers passed a so-called “partial-birth abortion ban” – something they had attempted but failed to do several times before. In 2012, GOP former Gov. Rick Snyder signed an omnibus abortion restriction law with onerous regulations that was intended to close abortion clinics. 

These nationwide bills, fueled in part by tea partiers who paved the way for MAGA Republicans, were not only attacks on abortion rights in specific states but were designed to make their way to the U.S. Supreme Court in an effort to ultimately dismantle Roe, according to political experts.

“It’s been an intentional and targeted attack for over a decade now,” ACLU of Michigan Legislative Director Merissa Kovach said. “We saw a wave of abortion bans and legislation aimed at restricting and banning abortion beginning in 2011.”

That wave, propelled by growing right-wing extremism, swallowed much of the country for years to come, Kovach said. 

Between 2011 and 2019, 479 abortion restrictions passed in 33 states – accounting for a little more than one-third of the abortion restrictions enacted in the country since the Roe decision.

What’s happening now is a violation of democracy. We have minority rule and rights of the majority being taken away.

– Jonathan Hanson, a political scientist and lecturer at the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy

Now, almost a dozen years after the 2010 midterms, we know where this legislation has led: to a country where, despite the majority of people backing legal abortion, a right-wing Supreme Court – with five justices appointed by two Republican presidents who did not win the popular vote (George W. Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016) – has ended the right to abortion care nationwide.

“One thing I’ve been trying to highlight is the anti-abortion movement is not a new thing,” said state Sen. Mallory McMorrow (D-Royal Oak), a longtime proponent of abortion rights. “This has been years in the making; they started as soon as Roe was decided. It’s about control and about power. 

“I think that’s where maybe those of us on the other side have misstepped is really not seeing the weight of it when it’s so slow-moving,” McMorrow continued. “[Abortion rights] were chipped away and chipped away. People thought Roe was the law of the land. Democrats lost more than 1,000 state legislature seats starting in 2009. …How Roe fell was this down ballot collapse that led to all of these [anti-abortion] laws being passed around the country.” 

In the legislative havoc the fall of Roe has wreaked in the country – a place where children who have been raped now no longer have access to abortion in their home state and where voters in even the most conservative states are overwhelmingly rallying for abortion access – abortion has remained tenuously legal in Michigan. 

The state has so far avoided implementing its 1931 law allowing felony manslaughter charges against abortion providers as lawsuits challenging the law from Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Planned Parenthood move through the courts. And in November’s election, Michigan voters will have the chance to enshrine the right to abortion in the state Constitution with Proposal 3.

Why experts say the fall of abortion rights is a key sign of a troubled democracy
GOP nominees (L-R): Tudor Dixon for governor, Matt DePerno for attorney general and Kristina Karamo for secretary of state | Andrew Roth and Allison R. Donahue photos

However, while Republican voters nationwide do not appear to back any widespread abortion ban and 61% of Michigan voters support keeping abortion legal, Michigan GOP lawmakers and candidates are, like Republican officials across the country, pushing for an end to legal abortion in the state. 

Republican election deniers like Michigan Secretary of State nominee Kristina Karamo called abortion “child sacrifice” – a term deeply entrenched in the QAnon conspiracy theory to which Karamo is connected. GOP Attorney General nominee Matthew DePerno said he would uphold the 1931 law and said Plan B should be banned immediately after asking what Plan B is. And GOP gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon proclaimed she opposes abortion, including in cases of incest, rape and to protect the health of the mother. Now notoriously, Dixon was asked if a 14-year-old raped by her uncle should be forced to have the baby. Her answer? Yes

In November’s election, Dixon will face Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Karamo is up against Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, and DePerno’s opponent is Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel. Each of the Democrats support legal abortion and oppose the 1931 law. Dixon, DePerno, Karamo, and the Michigan Republican Party did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

At the same time that Michigan GOP candidates – and lawmakers, including Rep. Steve Carra (R-Three Rivers), who in June introduced a bill to jail abortion providers for up to 10 years – are pushing to ban abortion, they’re also backing voter suppression bills in an effort that mirrors a national Republican agenda, those interviewed by the Advance said. Following Trump’s loss in 2020 and Republicans consequently promoting the lie that he won, Michigan GOP lawmakers repeatedly introduced voter suppression legislation, which has been vetoed by Whitmer.

The rise of this political landscape is not only emblematic of a dramatic erosion of abortion rights but of a troubled democracy in Michigan and the country in which increasingly right-wing lawmakers and candidates are intentionally attacking both abortion and voting rights, as well as undermining trust in the country’s elections system, in an anti-democratic effort to corral and maintain power for Republicans and, more specifically, for a white Christian patriarchy, political experts, civil rights leaders, lawmakers and academics told the Advance. 

“Your ability to have a say in your government and have your interests represented and participate in a democracy and your ability to exercise bodily autonomy, to make the most personal decisions about how you live your life and the families you create, those are both two areas where we’re seeing heightened levels of attacks,” said Kovach. “We have seen these attacks for the entirety of this country, but the attacks have been very heightened in the last 10 years.

“We saw a swelling of anti-voting legislation as soon as the Shelby Township decision was made back in 2013,” Kovach continued, referring to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – which allowed states with histories of voter suppression to change their election laws without federal approval. “Around 2011 is when we saw the floodgates open for attacks on reproductive rights. A healthy participatory democracy is our greatest shield to these assaults. Our right to vote is inextricably linked to reproductive freedom for that reason.”

Why experts say the fall of abortion rights is a key sign of a troubled democracy
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (left) Attorney General Dana Nessel (center) and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson (right) | Andrew Roth photos

The ACLU is part of the Promote the Vote coalition backing Proposal 2, which would expand voting rights in Michigan and allow nine days of early voting, allow voters to register absentee for all future elections, require more ballot drop boxes and more.

Heidi Beirich, an expert on white supremacy and other right-wing extremism and the chief strategy officer at the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, noted that it’s the same party – the GOP – and right-wingers who have led the charge against abortion that have simultaneously been weakening, or supporting weakening, voting access. 

Dixon, for example, supports a 39-bill package, Senate Bills 273-311, that state Republican lawmakers introduced in 2021 and which Benson said would “restrict citizens’ voting rights, harm election administration and demonstrate a lack of knowledge of existing procedure and law.” 

The bills, many of which have since been vetoed by Whitmer, included prohibiting the Michigan secretary of state from making absentee ballot applications available online, banning clerks from supplying prepaid return postage for absentee ballots, barring clerks from counting absentee ballots in the weeks before an election, and banning the use of ballot drop boxes on Election Day.

“We will make sure that those bills pass the minute I am in office, and we know it will happen because we know we will vote red and get Republicans in office and those bills will come back to us,” Dixon said during a June debate in reference to the 39-bill package.

The simultaneous attacks on abortion and voting rights, those interviewed by the Advance said, are an intentional – and racist, sexist, homophobic, and transphobic – effort by Republicans who have grown increasingly right-wing and violent to maintain a world in which white, Christian men are in power and keep left-leaning voters – including Black women and transgender and gay people – from being able to cast their ballots, and, more largely, from being able to live as they want. 

(Something to note: The experts interviewed by the Advance emphasized that while the GOP can tout the fact that they have women and people of color running for office, as is the case in Michigan, their party leadership and elected officials remain predominantly white and male and support misogynist and racist policies and rhetoric, such as anti-abortion and anti-transgender legislation and voting restriction bills that would make it more difficult for BIPOC and low-income people to cast their ballots.)

“The social conservative movement, which is very white, wants to roll back rights for two groups of people: women, and abortion is part of that, and the LGBTQ,” Beirich said. “…They talk a lot about ‘demographic winter,’ this idea of not having enough children, and they don’t necessarily assert it’s white babies they want but it is. That goes along with their idea of what’s the real, true America. For hardcore white supremacists, they’re perfectly happy for Black and Brown people to have abortions. They don’t want it for white women. They’re all saying we need to have more white, Christian babies.”

Around 2011 is when we saw the floodgates open for attacks on reproductive rights. A healthy participatory democracy is our greatest shield to these assaults. Our right to vote is inextricably linked to reproductive freedom for that reason.

– ACLU of Michigan Legislative Director Merissa Kovach

‘How can we call that anything other than rule of the minority?’

The decline in abortion and voting rights is in part rooted in anti-democratic practices like gerrymandering – state lawmakers drawing districts to benefit their political party – and Republicans winning the presidency but not the popular vote and going on to appoint anti-abortion Supreme Court justices, said Jonathan Hanson, a political scientist and lecturer at the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy. 

In turn, this has led to right-wing extremists increasingly being elected to and running for office and proceeding to push policies not backed by the general public. (Such as Dixon, DePerno and Karamo backing the 1931 law that would make it a felony for providers to give abortion care when 76% of Michiganders oppose that, according to a Progress Michigan poll released this month.)

“How do we get to the scenario where our 50-year precedent is getting overturned?” Hanson asked of Roe v. Wade. “It was a long-term strategy on the part of anti-abortion forces who have been working hard for years. … Part of that strategy is to appoint Supreme Court justices willing to overturn Roe v. Wade. With the Trump presidency, they kind of hit the jackpot.”

Trump nominated right-wing Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. All three of them backed overturning Roe v. Wade

Hanson noted that Republicans, led by former Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), blocked President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee in 2016, citing it being an election year. Republicans then went on to push through Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died just before the 2020 election.

“We’re seeing now a Supreme Court that doesn’t seem particularly anchored on any core principles other than what is transparently a political effort to implement policies that couldn’t be implemented through the legislature,” Hanson said. “How can we call that anything other than rule of the minority?”

Why experts say the fall of abortion rights is a key sign of a troubled democracy
Protesters, demonstrators and activists gather in front of the U.S. Supreme Court as the justices hear arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, a case about a Mississippi law that bans most abortions after 15 weeks, on December 01, 2021 in Washington, DC. With the addition of conservative justices to the court by former President Donald Trump, experts believe this could be the most important abortion case in decades and could undermine or overturn Roe v. Wade. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

“What’s happening now is a violation of democracy,” Hanson continued. “We have minority rule and rights of the majority being taken away.”

The current decline in abortion rights isn’t solely about history, or even the present, political experts said: It’s a harbinger of what could come. 

Specifically, it points to a rise in authoritarianism. Around the world, political scientists noted, authoritarian, or authoritarian-friendly, leaders often set their sights on annihilating reproductive rights, including access to abortion. 

For example, the right-wing government in Hungary, which is led by autocratic Prime Minister Viktor Orban, last week announced it is tightening its once-liberal abortion laws. Pregnant people in Hungary will now be forced to observe fetal vital signs before accessing an abortion. Orban, who is known for his attacks on immigration and LGBTQ+ rights, recently joined Dixon and Trump at the 2022 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Dallas.  

“We don’t necessarily always include reproductive freedom in that package of democracy,” Anu Kumar, the head of Ipas, a global nonprofit that supports abortion access, told the news publication Foreign Policy. “But we should, because this is a place where authoritarian regimes often go, if not first, then pretty quickly afterward.”

This trend towards authoritarianism, Dr. Rob Davidson, an emergency room physician in West Michigan who serves as the executive director of the Committee to Protect Health Care said, leaves the country in a deeply dangerous place, both politically and healthwise.

“That a partisan court and gerrymandered politicians can decide they’re not going to support or uphold what’s supported by the vast majority of people in the country seems like a problem, no matter what the issue is,” Davidson said.

“[Abortion] is a health care decision, so you are taking away patient privacy rights,” Davidson continued. “If the state gets to become the intermediary between the patient and their doctors, that seems like a very authoritative move – a strongman feeling of, ‘We know better than you, the person with all the training and knowledge.’”

It’s very difficult to separate the far-right from the right. Either you agree with those views or you’re staying in a party that’s been taken over by these views. These folks are empowered and emboldened; they hate women, and you’re going to see legislation that reflects that.

– Melissa Ryan, who runs the Ctrl Alt-Right Delete newsletter that details the rise of far-right extremism

The current political climate, in which Trump vehemently pushed – and continues to push – the lie that he had won the 2020 election, “fits what we call competitive authoritarianism,” Hanson said. 

Competitive authoritarianism is “not an authoritarian system like a dictator who has full control; there are elections that create the appearance of a democratic system, but the system doesn’t produce a real opportunity for the opposition to win power,” Hanson explained.

That, Hanson said, is what he is “worried about right now in America.”

“There’s a segment of the Republican Party that seems intent on putting in place a system that if elections don’t go their way they have the ability to change the result or get the result they want,” Hanson continued. “An alarmingly high percentage of the party is OK with this.”

The Michigan GOP is dominated by people who back Trump’s lie that the 2020 election was stolen. Dixon, DePerno and Karamo – each of whom have been called a threat to democracy by the Washington, D.C.-based Defend Democracy Project – all promote the falsehood, as do Republican Party leaders like Michigan GOP Co-Chair Meshawn Maddock. Maddock is under investigation for signing bogus documents falsely proclaiming Trump to be the winner of the 2020 election. DePerno, meanwhile, is the subject of a petition for a special prosecutor into whether third parties gained unauthorized access to, and then tampered with, election equipment and data after the 2020 election.

In addition to pushing Trump’s lie about the 2020 election, Dixon, who Trump endorsed in the GOP primary, during a June debate refused to commit to honor the results of the primary, which she won, or the general election in November. DePerno, who also has been endorsed by Trump, has pledged to “prosecute the people who corrupted the 2020 election” and has said he would launch inquiries into his opponent, Nessel, as well as into Whitmer and Benson. Karamo, who has also landed Trump’s backing, has falsely claimed that Trump won in 2020 – and has falsely insisted that those involved in the Jan. 6, 2021, were left-wing activists pretending to be Trump supporters. 

These persistent lies that Trump won in 2020 follow more than 250 state and local audits that confirm Biden won. Additionally, a Republican-led Michigan Senate report concluded there was no evidence of voter fraud in the 2020 election.

According to a New York Times analysis, 48% of Michigan state legislators have taken steps to discredit or overturn the 2020 presidential election. Nationwide, there are at least 120 election deniers – all Republicans – who have won their party’s nomination for U.S. Senate, House, governor, attorney general, and secretary of state and will be on the ballot this November, according to FiveThirtyEight. 

For example, John Gibbs, a GOP candidate who beat U.S. Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Grand Rapids) in the August primary and now faces Democrat Hillary Scholten in the race to represent the 3rd Congressional District in West Michigan, vehemently promotes the idea that the 2020 election was stolen. 

Gibbs – who previously worked for the Trump administration, railed against women’s suffrage and women in the workplace, and spread a conspiracy theory falsely alleging that Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign chairman participated in a satanic ritual – repeatedly attacked Meijer for voting to impeach Trump following the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection. Gibbs’ campaign website notes he opposes abortion.

Why experts say the fall of abortion rights is a key sign of a troubled democracy
Anti-abortion activists regularly show up at pro-Trump and right-wing events in Michigan At this militia-organized protest of COVID stay-home order at the Capitol featured several graphic anti-abortion signs, May 14, 2020 | Susan J. Demas

The majority of Republican voters falsely believe the 2020 election was stolen, with recent polls reporting somewhere between 60% and 70% of GOP voters nationwide believe Trump’s lie.

That this falsehood can become the dominant message in the party is emblematic of hierarchical thinking common in an authoritarian-friendly power structure (Trump says something and, because he is at the top of the political power structure, it is true), experts interviewed by the Advance said. That lie is then promoted in a massive echo chamber of right-wing media, from blogs to television stations like One America News Network and Fox News commentators like Tucker Carlson. 

This right-wing infrastructure also has been crucial in spreading disinformation about abortion and a string of other far-right movements, said Ellie Langford, an expert on abortion rights and the research director for “The Lie That Binds,” a book published in July 2020 that delves into the history of the anti-abortion movement in the United States.

“I think the [right-wing media] infrastructure is a really big piece of this because all of these shared movements are operating on a shared infrastructure built in the early days of the pro-life movement,” Langford said. “It was the test case for the growth of conservative media. 

“I think you can interpret pro-life ideology as disinformation across the board, including the term ‘pro-life’ itself,” Langford continued. “Once this becomes real to people what abortion bans entail, people are going to be shocked – they already are. People are being shocked at how powerfully people feel about this issue because we’ve been living in this weird world of disinformation. Pro-life ideology is one of the biggest and most successful disinformation campaigns we’ve seen in the United States.”

The right-wing media infrastructure that helped to boost disinformation about abortion too has been crucial in amplifying right-wing talking points and conspiracy theories – like QAnon, Langford said. Rooted in anti-Semitic tropes, QAnon is a right-wing conspiracy theory that revolves around Trump hunting down and eventually killing Democratic politicians and wealthy liberals who lead double lives as Satan-worshipping cannibals running a child sex trafficking ring. Once a fringe theory, it has made its way into the mainstream Republican Party in Michigan and the country. Karamo, for example, spoke at a QAnon conference.

“It’s the infrastructure that modern day extremist movements rely on, beginning with right-wing media, beginning with the think tanks, then layering on the more fringey blogs – the Breitbarts of the world,” Langford said. “We wouldn’t have [conservative commentator] Ben Shapiro today if we didn’t have the Heritage Foundation of the ‘70s. It’s all kind of a gateway that enables fringier and fringier arguments. I don’t think QAnon would have existed if Fox had never existed. QAnon – and Trump – benefited from that insulation [of a right-wing echo chamber].”

Why experts say the fall of abortion rights is a key sign of a troubled democracy
David Reinert holds up a large “Q” sign while waiting in line to see President Donald J. Trump at his rally on August 2, 2018 at the Mohegan Sun Arena at Casey Plaza in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. “Q” represents QAnon, a conspiracy theory group that has been seen at recent rallies. | Rick Loomis/Getty Images

Anti-abortion, white supremacy and misogyny

Born from a history of racism – in the wake of the Civil Rights movement, Republican Party leaders who had employed racial fears to galvanize white, rural voters in the South went on to use anti-abortion sentiment to further drive white (and specifically white Christian) voters to the polls – the anti-choice movement now deeply rooted in right-wing politics is about far more than ending abortion, those interviewed by the Advance said. 

It’s about far-right (which a number of political experts argued is now essentially the same thing as the mainstream right) leaders pushing for women to have “white warrior babies” in a country where white, Christian men reign supreme, said Jessica Reaves of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).

“There are commonalities between white supremacist ideology and the ideology of anti-choice extremists, including the belief that a woman’s role and her primary function in life is to act as a reproductive vessel,” said Reaves, who for years studied extremist ideologies and groups, including in the Midwest, and is now the director of content and editorial strategy at the ADL’s Center on Extremism.

“There’s a real disconnect between seeing women as functional, fully autonomous humans and this perspective we see from both of these movements, which is more about women as incubators, women not capable of making their own decisions about their bodies, about their autonomy,” Reaves continued.

As with white supremacy, misogyny is providing major fuel for right-wing politics, especially around abortion, said Reaves and Melissa Ryan, who runs the Ctrl Alt-Right Delete newsletter that details the rise of far-right extremism. The collision of white supremacy and misogyny is dominating right-wing politics, Ryan said. 

“It’s very difficult to separate the far right from the right,” Ryan said. “Either you agree with those views or you’re staying in a party that’s been taken over by these views. These folks are empowered and emboldened; they hate women, and you’re going to see legislation that reflects that.”

There are commonalities between white supremacist ideology and the ideology of anti-choice extremists, including the belief that a woman’s role and her primary function in life is to act as a reproductive vessel.

– Jessica Reaves, an expert on extremist ideologies and groups and the director of content and editorial strategy at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism

The anti-abortion laws now being proposed and passed across the country “relegate women to second class status and insult the intelligence of people who can get pregnant,” Reaves said. 

“There’s just absolutely no remedy for that except a broad national reckoning with our history of sexism and misogyny, and I don’t see that happening,” Reaves said. “…The further we go down this Christian nationalist path, the more rights are going to be taken away from women, from the LGBTQ+ community, from minorities religious and racial.”

State Sen. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor) also said the attack on abortion rights “creates a second class caste system for people who are able to carry a pregnancy, which is not democratic.

“It denies people of having any agency over their future, over their present as well as their future,” Geiss continued. “That is in itself anti-democratic. In democratic societies, we don’t say to people, ‘Well, because I don’t believe in this thing you can’t believe in it either. Because I think this is the only way, everyone has to accept it’s the only way.’ It creates the question of who’s next? Who’s next to have rights stripped away from them?”

These attacks on abortion and voting rights, Geiss said, “has a lot do do with people not wanting to share power or control.

“The same people who believe in the ‘Great Replacement’ theory are the same people who don’t believe women and people capable of becoming pregnant should have any decision over whether or not they get pregnant, or if they stay pregnant, especially when you’re talking about people who won’t even agree with exceptions for rape or incest – which are very violent ways to become pregnant,” Geiss said. 

The “Great Replacement” theory is a virulently racist and xenophobic conspiracy theory advanced by white supremacists, right-wing figures like Fox’s Tucker Carlson, and some Republican lawmakers that centers around the idea that non-white voters are being brought to the U.S. to replace white voters.

Why experts say the fall of abortion rights is a key sign of a troubled democracy
We have to stand up for bodily autonomy. People should have the ability to choose their own destiny,” said State Sen. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor) | Ken Coleman

These ideas that may have once been considered fringe – like the “Great Replacement” theory – have now found a home in the right-wing media infrastructure that Langford referenced, experts said. In turn, the anti-abortion movement mirrors not only attempts to undermine democracy but other far-right movements like attacks on LGBTQ+ rights or teaching about systemic racism in schools, Ryan said.

“They have a hell of a lot of political power across the country and a growing amount of political power across the world,” Ryan said of the far-right. “We have more far-right extremists in elected office nationally than we ever have. When you think of all these local fights that are happening over things at school boards, like trans kids or critical race theory or now we’re banning books – it’s the same people.” 

Still, everything is not hopeless when it comes to abortion rights and the preservation of democracy and democratic ideals, said Anna Kirkland, the director at the Institute for Research on Women and Gender and a professor of women’s and gender studies and political science, sociology and health management at the University of Michigan. 

The hope for Kirkland primarily emanates from two initiatives on the ballot this November: Reproductive Freedom for All (RFFA), which would enshrine abortion rights in the Constitution, and the Promote the Vote proposal.

“In a year from now, we could be looking at a state with nine days of early voting; that would be huge,” Kirkland said. “You can’t do a lot of funny business to suppress voting if you have nine days. We could be a state where voter suppression efforts are hard to pull off, and we could be a state with a lot of voting access and constitutionally protected reproductive rights.

“I think Gretchen Whitmer will get a lot of attention as a possible 2024 presidential candidate because Michigan will look like a bellwether of democracy and reproductive freedom,” Kirkland said.