This story contains graphic descriptions of an abortion and mentions suicide.
Renee Chelian lived through a time when it was illegal to have an abortion.
Her parents helped her get the procedure in 1966, seven years before the landmark Supreme Court case, Roe v. Wade. Chelian was 15, pregnant and terrified.
“They explained to me that I wouldn’t be pregnant again, but it could be dangerous because it was illegal,” Chelian said, “which meant we couldn’t tell anyone.”
Chelian rode in a stranger’s car to a filthy warehouse in Detroit for the operation. She was blindfolded so that if ever questioned by the police she could not say where it happened.
At the warehouse, a doctor put gauze in her uterus to trigger a miscarriage.
Chelian eventually needed a second procedure in another warehouse before finally spending the pregnancy in her family’s bathroom.
“Someone came and chose [the fetus] up,” she said. “And my dad came home with all my siblings and came to see how I was doing and said, ‘We’ll never talk about this again. “”
After more than 50 years of silence, Chelian, now 71, is telling her story publicly to help people understand the hopelessness and danger that could come with history repeating itself.
Today, Chelian and her two daughters run the Northland Family Planning Centers, a group of clinics that provide abortion services in suburban Detroit and Ann Arbor. Chelian has her eyes clear on what could happen if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade: His clinics could close, or conversely, if the state upholds the right to abortion, could be overwhelmed with pregnant patients from other states.
“I don’t think politicians have really thought about what kind of health care crisis there is going to be in this country,” Chelian said. “We’re going to see women induce themselves. We are going to see people breaking the law and criminalizing women. We are going to see children suffer. Half of our patients already have children, and they tell us that the reason for their abortion is to take care of the children they now have.
Michigan is one of more than 20 states with a law on the books that would ban almost all abortions if Roe fell.
This threat is pushing Democratic officials and ordinary citizens in this swinging Midwestern state to lock arms to keep abortion legal.
The battle is political and personal.
“As a mom of young women, the thought that my daughters might have fewer rights than I’ve had my whole life is devastating and infuriating,” said Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. “And that’s part of what keeps me focused on this space.”
Michigan officials and activists mobilized around several strategies: in court, on the campaign trail, and at the ballot box in November.
Planned Parenthood defied the state 1931 ban on abortion. That plan has had the most impact so far, with a judge issuing a preliminary injunction in May to prevent the ban from going into effect if Roe falls. Yet, this is far from a permanent solution.
Whitmer has his own lawsuit pending. He is asking the state Supreme Court to determine whether the 1931 ban violates the state constitution. The governor is seeking a second term and has made reproductive rights a central pillar of her campaign.
If the legal measures fail and the ban is reinstated, abortion would once again become a crime in Michigan, with exceptions only to save the life of the pregnant person. State Attorney General Dana Nesselwho is also running for office, said she would not sue any doctor for performing the procedure, nor would she defend the ban in court.
“If I’m your attorney general, I won’t enforce these laws,” Nessel said. “It’s the prosecutor’s discretion. I don’t have to enforce these laws.
The governor of Michigan is determined, but realistic.
“We pursued this kind of three-pronged strategy because we don’t know which one could be successful,” Whitmer said. “We don’t know if any of them will. And I think that’s why it’s such a hard and scary and confusing time.
Many abortion rights advocates like Renee Chelian are convinced that losing is not an option.
“We need to be a beacon for other states and give them a roadmap,” she said.
Last spring, Chelian joined tens of thousands of volunteers in Michigan in a bid to collect 425,000 signatures to put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot. If they reach the signature threshold in the next few weeks and convince a majority of voters to pass the amendment, the Michigan Reproductive Freedom Initiative would create a constitutional right of the state to reproductive choice.
The initiative is widely considered Michigan’s best chance to advance reproductive rights. This would apply to abortion and a range of reproductive health services like birth control and miscarriage management. A constitutional amendment would be harder for a future governor or legislature to undo than a change in law or a court ruling.
Residents are aware of the problem. In a recent michigan registered voter poll by the Detroit Chamber of Commerce, respondents cited abortion as one of their top three concerns.
There is an uphill and costly battle ahead in many states. Voters in Michigan and Vermont will consider constitutional amendments to protect abortion rights. Kansas, Kentucky and Montana are asking voters to change their constitutions or affirm that there is no legal right to abortion in those states.
As for Chelian, she hopes that beyond court rulings and the changing faces of political office, a direct vote would allow voters in her state to weigh in, one by one, on protecting abortion rights.
This story is from the Health Policy Podcast Compromisepartner of Side Effects Public Media. Alice Miranda Ollstein is a reporter for Politico and a contributor to Tradeoffs, which published a version of this story June 23.