A pro-choice rally held at Michigan's state capitol building in 2019. Image via Shutterstock A pro-choice rally held at Michigan's state capitol building in 2019. Image via Shutterstock

Last year, the courts struck down several state laws that criminalized abortion after a “fetal heartbeat” is detected. One group is collecting petition signatures to put the measure on the ballot anyway.

Abortion opponents pushing to enact a controversial “fetal heartbeat” bill in Michigan have extended their timeline for submitting petition signatures to the state until mid-February.

The Michigan Heartbeat Coalition planned to submit its petition signatures to Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson on Wednesday, the anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade that protects a woman’s right to have an abortion. The group, however, failed to obtain the required 340,047 signatures to place the issue on the ballot. 

Instead, organizers have set a new, tentative deadline of Feb. 14 to turn the signatures over to Benson. Should they succeed and the signatures are verified, the state legislature would have 40 days to decide whether to enact the fetal heartbeat bill. The legislation would ban all abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected, which is usually around six weeks into pregnancy or about two weeks after a woman misses her period.

If the Republican-led legislature approves the measure, which is likely, it would become law and could not be vetoed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a pro-choice Democrat. If the legislature rejects the law, the measure would be placed on the ballot in November for voters to consider. 

Corey Shankleton, president of the Michigan Heartbeat Coalition, said that despite the delay, the group is confident it will gain the signatures it needs.

“Our Coalition has gained support and momentum since launching in July. We have had petitions completed from all 83 counties and just last week had an additional 2,000 petitions go out to brand-new gatherers,” Shankleton told COURIER in an emailed statement. “Our goal is to turn in the most signatures possible.”

The group has until May 27 to file its signatures with the secretary of state, but all signatures must be collected within 180 days of filing. That means that each time the coalition delays its submission deadline, signatures collected at the beginning of the petition drive may become invalid.

The coalition’s efforts mirrors legislation introduced by Michigan state Rep. Steve Johnson (R-Wayland) in 2019, which would have made it a felony for doctors to perform abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected. A provider found to have performed a procedure after that point would have faced two to four years in prison. 

Abortion rights advocates say limiting the procedure to the first six weeks of pregnancy would serve as a de facto ban on all abortions, since most people do not learn they’re pregnant until later.

“A lot of people think you’re pregnant and you wake up and you know it, but honestly that’s not how it happens,” Angela Vasquez-Giroux, director of communications & media relations at Planned Parenthood Michigan, told COURIER in a phone interview. 

She blasted the proposed ban, saying it relies on “pseudoscience.”

“It preys on and exploits people’s lack of knowledge of health and medicine and reproductive health and female bodies,” Vasquez-Giroux said. 

Johnson’s bill never received a vote in the Michigan legislature, but six other states—Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi, and Ohio—passed heartbeat bills in 2019. All of those bans have been blocked by courts, except Louisiana’s, which will only take effect if Mississippi wins the case over its law. Other states, like North Dakota, Arkansas, and Iowa have also passed heartbeat bills in recent years, only to see them struck down by courts as well. 

Roe v. Wade prohibits states from outlawing abortion before a fetus can survive outside the womb, and viability is usually between 24 to 28 weeks—which is why heartbeat bills are so frequently blocked by courts.

Six states—Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi, and Ohio—passed heartbeat bills in 2019. All of those bans have been blocked by courts, except Louisiana’s, which will only take effect if Mississippi wins the case over its law.

While many states focused on heartbeat bills in 2019, Alabama went a step further, enacting a near-total ban on abortion. That was also blocked by the courts. In total, 17 states enacted abortion restrictions in 2019, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy organization committed to advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights.

These bills represent a concerted effort by anti-abortion advocates and legislators who feel emboldened by the appointment of conservative judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court and have aggressively pursued abortion bans in recent years. 

In many cases, these lawmakers welcome lawsuits because they believe these challenges could advance their ultimate goal of taking a case to the Supreme Court, where they hope to compel the conservative-leaning majority to strike down Roe v. Wade altogether.

Pro-choice advocates have blasted these efforts. Kristin Ford, national communications director at NARAL Pro-Choice America, called these bans “dangerous and blatantly unconstitutional.”

“The anti-choice movement will stop at nothing to push a case to the U.S. Supreme Court that creates an opening to undo Roe v. Wade,” Ford told COURIER in an emailed statement. “This is all about their ultimate goal of criminalizing abortion and punishing women, taking away our ability to make our own decisions about pregnancy free from political interference.”

Even some anti-abortion advocates have criticized heartbeat bills, though for entirely different reasons. Steven Aden, chief legal officer and general counsel for the national anti-abortion group Americans United for Life, said these bills’ inability to survive a court challenge renders them useless. 

“With all the respect I can muster to my many friends in the heartbeat movement, no heartbeat bill anywhere has ever saved a human life because, to my knowledge, they’ve all been struck down by federal and state judges—and that was predictable,” Aden told CNN last year. “They are unconstitutional under current federal constitutional law.”

Regardless of the legislation’s track record, anti-abortion lawmakers and advocates remain determined to pursue heartbeat bills. Earlier this week, Tennessee’s Republican Gov. Bill Lee said he wants to pass some of the strictest abortion laws in the country, including a heartbeat bill.

Similarly, the Michigan Heartbeat Coalition remains unbowed and is committed to “seeing the life of the unborn protected.”

“The heartbeat is the standard universal determination of the presence of life for every medical decision,” said Shankleton, the MHC’s president. “Why not in the womb?” 

Fifty-nine percent of Americans believe abortion should be legal in most or all cases, and about seven in 10 say that Roe v. Wade should not be overturned, according to a new survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation.