In the latest episode of Are-You-Effing-Kidding-Me-Michigan, the state legislature has banned private health insurance plans from covering abortions unless a person has preemptively purchased separate abortion coverage. What takes the “No But Actually” cake is the fact that this law, which was just passed on Wednesday, applies to rape and incest. As this week’s Feministing Five interviewee Michigan Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer adamantly pointed out on the Senate floor, the law “tells women that were raped and became pregnant that they should have thought ahead and planned for it.”
Representing Michigan’s 23rd District, Whitmer has been a strident advocate for women’s rights throughout the state. And this past week, while publicly addressing her colleagues on the Senator floor, she revealed that she was a survivor of rape to provide a face for personal and political implications of this restrictive law. (Check the video below for her full statement, 6:46 is particularly powerful.)
We were honored to speak with Senator Whitmer about the state of reproductive justice in her state, why we need more women in politics, and how we can support the people of Michigan.
And so, without further ado, the Feministing Five with Senator Gretchen Whitmer.
Suzanna Bobadilla: Let’s just jump in. What is happening right now in the state of Michigan?
Gretchen Whitmer: It’s very complicated. The Right has pushed its anti-woman, anti-choice agenda through the Michigan legislature. For years, they’ve been trying to ban independent private insurance from having any sort of coverage for abortion. And that applies even instances of rape and incest. So again, they are trying to ban any kind of abortion procedure in the future.
They have not been successful through regular legislation because two Republican governors have vetoed this over the years. They didn’t like the fact that it got vetoed, they know that if they went to a general ballot of the whole electorate of Michigan, they’d never have a shot of getting this passed. So they’ve use this fluke in Michigan law, where if you collect 4% of the electorate signatures on a petition, the legislature can take up what they call “Initiated Effort” even though it’s only 4% of the population and pass it while sidestepping the governor’s pen, sidestep a general vote, and make it the law, and that’s exactly what happened this week.
SB: In your testimony earlier this week, you shared with your colleagues and with the wider public the fact that you are a survivor of sexual assault. What motivated you to share this information with Michigan and the country at large?
GW: Throughout the quick process that has happened here in Michigan, it became very clear to me on our floor of the Senate that my Republican colleagues have successfully avoided ever hearing from any woman whom this is going to impact. They never had a committee hearing, they didn’t have women come in and testify, or even people in the faith community testify about how bad this bill was.
And you know, it’s easy to do harm when you don’t have to see the people that you are hurting. I was talking to one of my colleagues encouraging him to share his sad story about planned pregnancies that had to be aborted because of a physical maldevelopment of the fetus and the pain that he and his wife went through back in August, and the cost associated with it that would not be covered by insurance once this became law. I was encouraging him to share this story, and I realized how can I ask him to share his story if I’m not willing to share myself.
When I got up the microphone, I looked over at my colleagues who looked nonplussed by the cerebral arguments I was making and I tried to put a face to [the bill] and I told my story.
SB: How can our readers help the people of Michigan who will be affected by this bill?
GW: There’s definitely going to be a concerted effort to repeal this. I will come back after the session begins after the 1st of the year, and my first bill I introduce will be to repeal. But considering that I work in a place that is dominated by Right to Life legislatures, who put their Right to Life extreme agenda over what their constituents want, I don’t know if we’ll ever get that bill passed. I do think we’re going to continue to push this and ultimately I believe it’s going to take an election. It’s about electing leaders who care about women’s health and it’s about electing a repeal of this law. We’re in the organizing phase about what’s the best strategy. But this has all happened so quickly that we are mobilizing, but we’re not clear what exactly the path is yet.
SB: What would you say to young people who might be politically discouraged when they see how attacks against reproductive justice are being carried out in state legislatures and on the federal level?
GW: I have to tell you, in my time just in the Michigan legislature, I’ve seen the number of women go from a state historic high of twelve on a special election in the Michigan Senate and now we’re back down to four. When you have such abysmal numbers, especially when two of the women are Republicans and put party priority over the gender identity, I can’t even get Republican women to sign onto a pay equity legislation, it tells me that our voices are not being heard.
That’s why whenever I get opportunity to talk to women, I say “Run.” Run, or support a woman who’s going to run. Or support a man who’s going to be out talking and fighting for women’s rights. There are a lot of male feminists out there and it’s a wonderful thing, but we need more women at the table. I routinely tell people that at the beginning of this session, there were more people named “John” in the Michigan Senate than women.
I’m someone of the “Sandwich generation” where I’ve literally held my young daughter on my hip and cared for my mother when she was dying from brain cancer. As a woman, I have faced issues that my male counterparts can’t imagine and that’s why our voices need to be at the table and why there need to be more women in office.
SB: On a much wackier note, it’s time for our classic wrap up question. You’re stranded on a desert island and you get one drink, one food, and one feminist. What do you choose?
GW: A food, a drink, and a what? [Laughs] Well, a margarita! And guacamole, but can I bring chips too? And a feminist? Eve Ensler would be fun to hang out with. I did have the opportunity to meet Eve Ensler when we performed the “Vagina Monologues” in the front of the capital here, when the Republicans took away my colleague’s right to speak on the floor after she said “vagina.”
Suzanna Bobadilla is the Feministing Five contributor and would like to encourage Michigan Republicans to keep their gloves/mittens/any geographically-looking accessory off their citizens’ access to reproductive justice.