DETROIT — There was just one day left to vote to enshrine abortion rights in the Michigan state constitution, and staffers at a local abortion clinic wanted to make sure patients knew it.
“YES ON PROP 3: RESTORE ROE IN MICHIGAN,” blared one sign, hung beneath the flat-screen TV in one waiting room of Northland Family Planning, where visitors were sure to see it. Every patient was handed a clipboard with a brochure describing Proposition 3, the ballot measure to protect abortion rights. Multiple staffers were even decked out in orange and purple, the colors of the Proposition 3 campaign. The clinic manager’s glasses were purple, her purple shirt read “Reproductive Freedom for All,” and her purple hair was pinned back with two orange butterfly pins.
In the midterm elections on Tuesday, Michigan will become one of the first states to vote on abortion since the Roe’s overturning. Although abortion is currently legal in Michigan, the state still has a 1931 abortion ban on the books, and abortion rights supporters and foes have spent the past several months locked in a legal battle over whether to bring that ban back to life. Without protections in the state constitution, that ban could take effect, or the Republicans who currently control the state legislature could try to pass a new one.
“In the past, I've really never heard patients ask about the laws or what's going to happen three months from now,” said the manager, Sarah F. (For privacy reasons, VICE News is not publishing her last name.) But that all changed after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade this summer. “There's been a lot more people asking about the proposition and what's going to happen here if the proposition doesn't pass,” Sarah added.
After Roe’s overturning, much of the Midwest banned abortion. If Michigan joins those states and its abortion clinics are forced to go dark, Midwestern abortion seekers will have to travel further and likely pay more money for the procedure—if they can get one at all.
“I can't even imagine it. I really can't. Especially after all of this time and devoting our lives to this,” said Tania, who has worked at Northland Family Planning, which has three clinics in the Detroit area, since 1994. (VICE News is also not publishing her last name.) “It just seems really unreal.”
Northland was practically besieged by patients right after Roe fell. The clinics started seeing roughly double the number of patients they had seen during the Roe era; staffers pulled 13-hour days. At one point during the legal ping-ponging over the 1931 ban, Tania said, Northland Family Planning had to close one of their clinics for a day, because it wasn’t clear whether providers could perform the procedure without being prosecuted.
Despite working in this field for almost three decades, Tania had never seen anything like it before.
“Just really awful, sad stories about people trying to get from here to there with no money. People who don't have cars, they're like, ‘How am I going to get from Cleveland to Detroit?’” Tania recalled. “If we had to turn patients away—which we did have to do, when we had 30 patients and we knew we were going to be here all night—I mean, we just cannot do it all. And we cried with the patients.”
That onslaught eased after abortion rights supporters in Ohio secured a court order to suspend the state’s six-week abortion ban. Although 26 states are ultimately expected to outlaw abortion, many red and purple states will likely spend months, if not years, litigating and legislating over whether the procedure should be legal. Those fights will likely come down to whether state constitutions include abortion protections; while Proposition 3 is one of the country’s most high-profile abortion ballot initiatives this year, it’s almost certainly far from the last.
The ballot measure was in the works long before the Supreme Court even took the case that its conservative majority would use to overturn Roe. The ACLU of Michigan first started looking into the possibility of adding abortion rights to the state constitution way back in 2019, said Bonsitu Kitaba, the organization’s deputy legal director. But there’s no doubt that the overturning upended the race.
Julie Falbaum, an Ann Arbor, Michigan-based canvasser for the Proposition 3 campaign, said that before a draft Supreme Court opinion overturning Roe leaked in May, she used to have to explain the ballot measure to people. “And after the leak, people were looking for me,” she said.
The first Saturday after the leak, Falbaum said she started collecting signatures at a farmer’s market. People lined up to sign up, she said.
In order to get the midterms ballot, the Proposition 3 campaign needed to gather 425,059 valid signatures. They turned in 750,000.
On Monday, the day before the midterm elections, Kitaba and Falbaum trekked back and forth across a quiet Ann Arbor neighborhood to knock on doors. Many of the front lawns were already littered with orange and purple signs urging people to “vote yes” on Proposition 3. “Vote no” signs were practically nonexistent. “This house is secure!” one smiley man told the canvassers, reassuring them that the voters inside planned to support them.
“I never thought we'd actually see that get reversed. Like it was just something that always felt like it was there,” Kevin Yanos, a 27-year-old “yes” voter, told VICE News of Roe. “Also, as a male, I don't feel like it's really my decision to make those calls, right?”
Yanos also dismissed abortion foes’ argument—as seen on a few “vote no” signs—that Proposition 3 is “too complex, too extreme.” “I just thought that was ridiculous,” he said.
One Northland Family Planning clinic seemed busy but far from overrun on Monday, with a handful of patients watching TV silently in the clinic’s two waiting rooms and staffers regularly pulling them into side rooms for consultations. Like in many abortion clinics, the walls were covered in inspirational art, from the classic “You Can Do It!” Rosie the Riveter poster to an edgier “Big Uterus Energy” sticker.
Yet, despite the productive hum of the clinic, the providers spoke openly about the toll that Roe’s overturning, the threat of the 1931 ban, and the uncertainty of the election has taken on them.
“I’ve never felt like this before, never, never,” Tania said. “Just all of this weight.”
“It's been comparable to a constant ache that hasn't gone away for our patients, for ourselves, for our families, for women or pregnant people everywhere. It’s been life-changing,” said Jackie Davis, the manager of another Northland Family Planning location. “Because not only are we mourning, we’re mourning for our patients and it's—it's a lot.”
“That's just too much to wrap my mind around right now, if that doesn't pass,” Sarah said of the ballot measure. Her hands sometimes shook as she spoke. “If it doesn't pass, we'll be able to still provide care. But I honestly haven't thought too much past if it doesn't, because I just—I mentally can't handle that right now.”
Abortion rights supporters are cautiously optimistic about their chances of winning. Nancy Northrup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, told VICE News that she was feeling “bullish.” Tania promised that, even if they lose in the midterms, they’ll continue to fight the 1931 ban in the courts.
All three providers said they weren’t sure what they would do if Michigan banned abortion. They are all Michigan natives, with families in the state, but they are now weighing the possibility that they might have to move out of the state if they want to continue providing abortions.
After Davis took the job at Northland Family Planning, some of her family stopped speaking to her. In response, Davis had a burning bridge tattooed on her arm, complete with a matchbox emblazoned with the outline of a coat hanger. She now has no less than three coat hanger tattoos, including one on her middle finger. “It’s on my middle finger for a specific reason,” she laughed.
“We just have to be here today. We're living for today. We're taking care of patients today,” Davis said. “And what happens tomorrow, happens tomorrow. You’ve got to try to compartmentalize those feelings, because it would just take you over—the fear.”