The Gongwer Blog

by Alyssa McMurtry and Elena Durnbaugh

Reproductive Health Act Not A Sure Thing With Whitsett Opposition

Posted: September 25, 2023 11:57 AM

A key Democratic priority to repeal various abortion regulations hit a snag Wednesday when a caucus member voted no on advancing the bills to the floor though House leadership said more work on the Reproductive Health Act could get the legislation to the 56 votes it needs to pass.

Rep. Karen Whitsett shocked several of her colleagues Wednesday when she voted in opposition to the Reproductive Health Act bill package during the House Health Policy Committee.

Whitsett (D-Detroit) told Gongwer News Service she is "1,000 percent in support" of Proposal 3 and reproductive care, but there were still some provisions in the bills that she could not fully support.

"When we're talking about Medicaid funding, if there's any extra funds that are going to be spent somewhere, I think they should be spent towards seniors," Whitsett said. "We have people who are living, you know, from pillar to post, they are barely making ends meet. They have their prescription drugs … they're still making choices between their prescription drugs and eating. Those choices are real and they're still happening. So, if there's extra funding that can be spent somewhere I would like for it to be spent with them."

Getting the Reproductive Health Act to the governor's desk is a major fall priority for Democrats. Several of the bills in the package – HB 4949, 4950, HB 4953, HB 4955, and HB 4956 – were reported out of the committee.

Democrats have a slim majority in the House. They likely need every Democrat to vote yes on the bills to pass with the minimum 56 votes needed. Whitsett's opposition could be a significant roadblock to legislation with strong support from House leadership.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer said in a statement this was an important step forward for the "commonsense legislation." She did not directly address Whitsett's opposition.

"Michiganders voted overwhelmingly to put abortion rights in our state constitution back in November. We must ensure that they can access the reproductive health care they need without delay, without paying high costs out of pocket, and without fear of prosecution for experiencing a miscarriage or a stillbirth," Whitmer said. "Michiganders support the Reproductive Health Act. I urge the Legislature to pass it."

After the committee hearing, Rep. Julie Rogers (D-Kalamazoo), chair of the committee, told reporters she was aware Whitsett had concerns with some of the bills but didn't know she was planning to vote no on the entire package.

Amber McCann, spokesperson for House Speaker Joe Tate (D-Detroit), told reporters that Whitsett was "known to change her mind," and it was a matter of working on issues with her.

"I would say it's a false choice to assume that extending full health care to one group of people somehow then diminishes the ability to care for another group of people," McCann said. "There have been many issues that have come before the House that the speaker has been successful in getting 56 votes for, and I don't doubt his ability to do that on any item that we bring on the board."

Whether or not Whitsett receives pressure from the governor and her Democratic colleagues to support the package does not seem to be a concern for the representative.

"The Democratic Party didn't elect me, my district did and that's who I represent. I am their voice in Lansing, first and foremost," Whitsett said. "As far as the pressure, I want this to be where we can work together and come to this agreement and to be able to get these issues resolved because we're talking about women and we're talking about safe abortions that are accessible. We're working for the people and that's what should be priority and first and foremost on everyone's mind."

It's not the first time Whitsett has been at odds with Democrats in her caucus or around the state. Whitsett came under criticism for praising President Donald Trump during the coronavirus pandemic, sued Whitmer (though quickly dropped that lawsuit), called former House Minority Leader Christine Greig a racist and often voted with Republicans on legislation mostly opposed by her party when the GOP controlled the House.

Whitsett told Gongwer that in a perfect world, she would like to see seniors on assistance receive more benefits, saying there are seniors receiving only $20-$40 on their EBT cards. She also said she would like to see extra funding for certain prescription drugs, especially for those who are diabetic.

As for abortion access and reproductive rights, Whitsett said she herself has had her own experience with needing reproductive health care. That said, she still had reservations around some of the changes outside of Medicaid funding.

"I know what it's like, I've lived it," Whitsett said. "My issue with RHA is that I do not think that it is too much to ask for someone to take a 24-hour pause when you're making a decision like that. I do not think 24-hours is too much to wait. I do not think that the facilities should not have safety measures in place. I think that's extremely important, these things are things that are in place right now."

She emphasized that reproductive health is all about abortions that are accessible and safe.

"I don't think that's too much to ask," she said, adding that she is not the only person in the House who feels this way.

Under HB 4950, the requirement to provide a patient with specific visual materials and information at least 24 hours before a scheduled abortion would be repealed. Currently, those seeking an abortion are required to print out a time stamped form found on the Department of Health and Human Services webpage to bring to their appointment or go visit the clinic to view the materials (See Gongwer Michigan Report, September 14, 2023).

Advocates say the information is not specific to patients, and even those who are getting an abortion because their fetus is not viable have to view information about adoption and see images of fetuses before having the procedure. Providers also said it is easy to print out the wrong form and then someone must delay the appointment, even if they have traveled hours.

During Health Policy, Rep. Jamie Thompson (R-Brownstown) introduced an amendment to HB 4950 that would remove the repeal of the 24-hour waiting period and required receipt of documentation, saying that women should be able to weigh the risks and benefits of a decision affecting them mentally and physically.

Whitsett voted in support of the amendment, joining the seven other Republicans on the committee. It ultimately failed 8-11.

When asked if she would have supported the bill if the 24-hour wait period remained intact, Whitsett said "absolutely," saying that she would have preferred a more realistic conversation about the bills and the amendments offered up.

She also said there are several other Democrats who feel the same way that she felt. They're not okay with these provisions being removed and they're not okay with Medicaid-funded abortions, Whitsett said.

Whitsett said that her vote in the committee "absolutely" reflected the will of her constituents. She said she has received calls and messages of support for her decision.

"This is not something I did on a whim. I've had these conversations within my community since these first came up and they were brought to my attention," Whitsett said.

She emphasized again that she is doing this for women and their safety.

Paula Thornton Greear, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan president and CEO, said in a statement that Whitsett's opposition felt like a betrayal to her constituents who supported abortion access and Proposal 3.

"If Rep. Whitsett votes in opposition, she will be solely responsible for the continued enforcement of dozens of anti-abortion restrictions that disproportionately harm women of color and people who are struggling to make ends meet," Thornton said. "Every time a patient is forced to drive 7 hours to access abortion, has to reschedule their appointment over a timestamp, or worries over how they will afford care, Rep. Whitsett will be responsible. We urge Rep. Whitsett to listen to her constituents and pass the Reproductive Health Act."

The Michigan Catholic Conference said in a statement that the bills were some of the "most extreme policies in the recent history of the Legislature due to their blatant prioritization of the abortion industry over women's health and safety."

"The majority of Michiganders support and expect longstanding regulations and limitations on abortion to remain in place, limits that were legal under Roe v. Wade," said Rebecca Mastee, policy advocate for the Michigan Catholic Conference, in a statement. "All human life, including the life of a woman seeking an abortion, has inherent value and is worthy of legal protection. We call on members of the Michigan Legislature to turn to their consciences and oppose the Reproductive Health Act."

Loren Khogali, executive director of the ACLU of Michigan, praised the passage of the bills out of the committee hearing. In a statement, Khogali said the ACLU would ensure the constitutional right to abortion is protected and will continue to advocate for measures like the removal of the Medicaid abortion ban.

"Failure to pass the Reproductive Health Act will have devastating consequences on the health of people already facing systemic barriers to health care, including Black and Indigenous people and other people of color, people on low incomes, people with disabilities and rural residents," Khogali wrote. "Abortion is health care, and everyone is entitled to access no matter where they live, who they are or how much money they earn."

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