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The Michigan Freedom for Reproductive Rights Campaign and the power of the Citizens Initiative

Politics encompassing a moral dimension often garner considerably more controversy being, as Christopher Mooney puts it, “the validation of a particular set of fundamental values” rather than being viewed and assessed in purely practical terms. The potential for conflict involved in the management of such issues leads to difficulty in handling them exclusively in the legislative body, as any decision made in this regard is capable of being challenged via other institutional means by dissatisfied groups. This is exemplified by the recent overturning of Roe V. Wade by the Supreme Court, ending federal abortion rights in the United States and leading some states to ban abortion entirely – leaving citizens scrambling to protect reproductive rights on a state level. 

The Michigan Right to Reproductive Freedom Initiative made history by turning in a record-breaking number of signatures to enshrine abortion rights in the Michigan Constitution. According to the Michigan Constitution, enacting a state constitutional amendment via initiative is possible if 10% of the total number of voters in the last gubernatorial elections sign the petition, meaning a total of 425,059 valid signatures were needed for the initiative to qualify for the November 2022 ballot. Michigan citizens responded by nearly doubling that number, with a total of 753,759 signatures ultimately being counted as valid. This work was galvanised through the tireless action of activists as well as over 2,000 volunteers who helped with signature collection and promotion. 

“I’m seeing enthusiasm around this process that I have never seen around any other ballot initiative in Michigan” says Summer Foster, co-executive director of Michigan Voices – a grassroots organization seeking to help build civic engagement capacity. The 1931 Michigan criminal abortion ban which until now had gone unenforced due to Roe v. Wade, was suddenly once again a dire possibility for the people of Michigan. While a Michigan judge has granted Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s request to temporarily block its enforcement, two county prosecutors have appealed this decision under the premise that they were local officials, not state officials and thus not subject to the temporary block of the 1931 law. This appeal was granted, meaning that from the 21st of August onwards, the legality of abortion will be county-specific. This further highlights the necessity of direct democratic action by the Michigan voters to secure their political and human rights, as going forward, depending on the county one resides in these may be vastly different. 

Michigan is one of several such examples of citizen-initiated measures, with California, Kentucky, Montana, and Vermont already having the issue as part of their upcoming ballots, and ongoing campaigns collecting signatures for a ballot initiative taking place in Colorado, New York, Pennsylvania, Washington, Iowa, Nevada, and South Dakota. While Michigan is undoubtedly one of the most successful citizen initiatives concerning abortion rights, it is not the first state to have the topic on the ballot. Kansas, a largely conservative state, recently voted on a state-initiated ballot measure which would allow lawmakers to ban abortion in the state. Kansas citizens overwhelmingly voted ´no´, thus denying their elected leaders the chance to revoke abortion and abortion-related healthcare. 

Instruments such as the obligatory referendum in Kansas or the citizen-initiated referendum in Michigan are some of the strongest indicators that American citizens can make use of democratic tools outside of federal or local elections to influence politics in meaningful ways. Historically, both these methods have been used to influence state-level abortion rights, the very first occurring before Roe v. Wade was even instituted in 1970 when Washington voted to legalise abortion in the state after a state-initiated referendum. Aside from amendments to the constitution, citizen-initiated petitions can also call for the amendment of the state statute which directly concerns the Rule of Law. However, not all American states allow for such direct democratic action, with only eighteen currently allowing citizen-initiated constitutional amendments. Furthermore, while theoretically there are measures in place to allow for this process in Illinois and Mississippi, the reality is that due to restrictions placed on the subjects allowed for amendment and the difficult process of starting and organising a successful initiative, this process is rarely utilised by citizens. 

Similar legislative amendments have taken place in Europe, twelve nationwide referendums on abortion haven taken place since the 1970s. Most recently, in 2021 San Marino voted overwhelmingly in favour of ending the abortion ban with 77% of the electorate backing the initiative, thus overturning a law dating back to 1865. Similarly, the 2018 Irish referendum led to legislation concerning the legalisation of abortion with a vote of 66.4% to 33.6%. 
Direct democratic action is often a necessity for the enaction of politically volatile legislation as, especially in the case of abortion, it is not changing public opinion which is most likely to lead to legislative change, but rather a small hand-full of politically influential actors. Though in some cases the stance of such actors does reflect the wider public opinion, often-times this is not the case. As exemplified by the United States, Roe v. Wade was overturned by the Supreme Court despite 61% of Americans believing that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, with only 37% believing that it should be illegal in most/all cases. Tool such as the citizens’ initiative allow citizens to mobilise and challenge the decisions of such politically influential actors or of their own elected officials. 

In other cases, such actors may choose to influence legislation regardless of public opinion such as during the 2011 Lichtenstein Abortion Approval Referendum in which Prince Alois, Hereditary Prince of Lichtenstein, openly stated that he would veto the legalisation of abortion if it were approved by voters. According to Nanuli Silagadze, pro-abortion referendums are most successful when there is relative consensus in the parliament, support from medical experts, and a degree of secularization. Silagadze noted consensus as an especially prudent factor as even though a referendum is a form of direct democracy and therefore greatly by-passes the political views of elected representatives, these representatives still hold significant social sway as they often have the relative power and platform to campaign for their given stance. Based on research by Hanspeter Kriesi and Alexander Trechsel & Pascal Sciarini, as communication is critical for reaching a critical mass of actors, the ability to control or influence such channels of communication can massively influence any referendum such as through the spreading of propaganda and misinformation, or by having the ability to garner large quantities of media attention – both goals which are far easier to achieve by the political and economic elite. 

While direct democratic action can often act as a more accurate reflection of the collective political will of citizens, it, as most political institutions, can be influenced and manipulated by bad actors and systems which enable them. A collective healthy democratic system is necessary to ensure that direct action carries with it the intended effects of representing collective political beliefs and ensuring these beliefs are enshrined through legislation. Situations such as the overturning of Roe v. Wade, despite public opinion being largely pro-choice, highlight the necessity of being aware of and preserving alternative methods of political action that are for and by the citizens themselves.