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Michigan organizers petition to enshrine abortion rights in state constitution

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Michigan, more than three-quarters of a million people have signed a petition to support abortion rights. It's part of a voter-led effort to protect abortion rights in the state constitution this November. As Michigan Radio's Kate Wells reports, some supporters say the Supreme Court overturning Roe pushed them to become politically active for the first time.

KATE WELLS, BYLINE: In 2017, Amanda Mazur found out that she was pregnant with her second child. She was thrilled. And then doctors told her there was a problem.

AMANDA MAZUR: I found out halfway through the pregnancy that the baby my husband and I hoped for suffered from a rare and life-limiting genetic condition. So we ultimately made the compassionate choice to end the pregnancy for my well-being and the life of what we thought would be our child.

WELLS: Mazur was heartbroken. But one thing that did help was this online group of people who were going through the same loss. But unlike her, a lot of them had a tough time finding a way to terminate their pregnancies. Depending on where they lived, they had to travel long distances. Some were made to feel isolated or ashamed.

MAZUR: It was life-changing. And I believe that other people should be able to have control of this aspect in their lives.

WELLS: At the time, though, abortion rights in Michigan seemed pretty stable, so life went on. Mazur and her husband had another baby, a boy. And then, this year, her political awakening found an outlet. She joined this petition drive in Michigan. She became the lead volunteer in her region, organizing everyone from grandmothers to college kids, gathering thousands of signatures even amongst the conservative rural towns of northwest Michigan.

MAZUR: It just made me feel less helpless, I guess.

WELLS: If this petition is approved, voters will be asked in November if they want to add an amendment to the state constitution, one that would guarantee an individual right to reproductive freedom. That includes the right to abortion and contraception and fertility treatments. The amendment would allow restrictions on abortion later in pregnancy, but not if the patient's physical or mental health is at stake. The petition drive was already underway this year, but it really took off in May after the leak of the Supreme Court's draft decision to overturn Roe. Jessica Ayoub is with the ACLU of Michigan, one of the petition's backers, along with Planned Parenthood.

JESSICA AYOUB: Folks realized that this big scary thing that they did not think would happen might actually happen.

WELLS: Ayoub says some Michiganders were registering to vote just to be eligible to sign the petition. One woman drove 40 miles to attend a rally where she knew she could sign. And in the week after Roe was overturned, there were as many as 200 events at everything from farmers markets to full-fledged rallies. And finally, on Monday, organizers delivered more than 750,000 signatures to state officials in Lansing. They feel pretty confident. They only need to get about 400,000 of those approved to make it on the ballot. They even held a rally the same day.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: When our bodies are under attack, what do we do?

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Stand up. Fight back.

WELLS: There are two other states with similar proposals on their November ballots - California and Vermont. But in Michigan, abortion rights are dangling by a thread. Now that Roe is no longer in effect, Michigan could become subject to its 1931 abortion law. That law makes abortion a felony, even for rape or incest. That law is not being enforced right now because of ongoing lawsuits, but that could change any day. Conservatives have already started attacking this proposed amendment. They say it's dangerously radical. They claim it would allow late-term abortions for practically any reason. And ACLU field organizer Jessica Ayoub says there will be an intense battle to get out the vote.

AYOUB: This is just the start of our fight, and we know that it is a long road to November.

WELLS: Activists on both sides expect to spend millions. And they predict donations will pour in from outside Michigan as well, and that voters in other states will be watching. For NPR News, I'm Kate Wells in Michigan.

SHAPIRO: And that story comes to us from NPR's partnership with Michigan Radio and Kaiser Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist and co-host of the Michigan Radio and NPR podcast Believed. The series was widely ranked among the best of the year, drawing millions of downloads and numerous awards. She and co-host Lindsey Smith received the prestigious Livingston Award for Young Journalists. Judges described their work as "a haunting and multifaceted account of U.S.A. Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar’s belated arrest and an intimate look at how an army of women – a detective, a prosecutor and survivors – brought down the serial sex offender."