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If Roe v. Wade is overturned, a strict abortion law from 1931 could take effect


Some people in Michigan are sounding the alarm about a strict abortion law that's been on the books since 1931. It's currently unenforced, but if the Supreme Court strikes Roe down, that could change. As Michigan Radio's Kate Wells reports, the law would make abortion a felony even in cases of rape or incest.

KATE WELLS, BYLINE: The anti-abortion protesters who often crowd outside this Planned Parenthood in Ann Arbor have gone home for the day, so now it's quiet - just a lot of women sitting in their cars, one with a baby on her lap, all waiting for friends or family in the clinic. Veronica Valdivia-Vera says she did not know about Michigan's old law criminalizing abortion.

VERONICA VALDIVIA-VERA: Nope. I was not aware that, you know, that would happen. It's, like, shocking times. We didn't even think that, in 2022, we'd be worrying about women's rights, reproductive rights.

WELLS: Veronica is here with her daughter-in-law, Stephanie Mejia-Arciniega. They're waiting for Stephanie's friend, who's still inside the clinic. And Stephanie says even just pulling into the clinic was kind of scary. They were surrounded by anti-abortion protesters.

STEPHANIE MEJIA-ARCINIEGA: It's kind of intimidating because they come to your car super-fast. You don't want to run them feet over. So, like, we had to, like, stop and be like, OK, no, thank you. And we were, like, 10 minutes late for our appointment because of that.

WELLS: Stephanie is only 18. She can't imagine a world where abortion's illegal.

MEJIA-ARCINIEGA: You wouldn't want someone young that isn't ready to have to have a baby because the law says no. Like, it's not fair.

WELLS: Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel agrees.

DANA NESSEL: People can go to jail or prison for this.

WELLS: Nessel says the way the old law is written, the doctor who performs an abortion and possibly the patient could get up to four years. Michigan has not enforced that law since Roe was decided in 1973, but it was never repealed. Nessel, a Democrat, says she won't enforce it. But Michigan has 83 local county prosecutors, and they could do whatever they want.

NESSEL: I don't think that I have the authority to tell the duly elected county prosecutors what they can and what they cannot charge.

WELLS: Nessel also talked about her own abortion that she had years ago. She was pregnant with triplets, and they weren't growing in utero.

NESSEL: And I was told very, very specifically that there was no way that all three would make it to term. But if I aborted one, then it was possible that the other two might live. And I took my doctor's advice. And you know what? It turned out that he was right. You know, now I have two beautiful sons.

WELLS: But under the 1931 law, there is just one exemption - to preserve the life of the woman. University of Michigan OB-GYN Dr. Lisa Harris says that is dangerously vague. What if a pregnant woman has severe heart disease and her chance of dying in pregnancy is 20 to 30%?

LISA HARRIS: But is that enough of a chance of dying that that person would qualify under Michigan's ban? Or would their risk of dying need to be 50% or 100%? Or what if a pregnant woman has cancer and she needs to end the pregnancy to start chemo?

WELLS: Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer is a Democrat, but the state's legislature is controlled by Republicans, so weeks ago Whitmer filed a lawsuit trying to block the old abortion law from ever taking effect. There's also a push to let voters decide in the November election if abortion should be legal in Michigan. But that would not be until long after the Supreme Court makes its final ruling. For NPR News, I'm Kate Wells in Ann Arbor.

SHAPIRO: This story comes from NPR's partnership with Michigan Radio and Kaiser Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kate Wells | Michigan Radio