Inside one family’s fight to make abortion a constitutional right in Michigan

There’s a law on the books in Michigan that would criminalize abortion if Roe is overturned. The Falbaums are determined to erase it.

A pro-choice activist holds a placard in support of Roe v. Wade in Detroit, Michigan, on May 7, 2022...
Photo by Matthew Hatcher/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Our Streets
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Our Streets is a column by writer and reporter Ray Levy Uyeda that highlights activists, artists, and organizers who are doing the work and reclaiming power for the people.

When Phyllis Falbaum was coming of age in Detroit, Michigan, in the 1950s, she felt powerless over her own body. She grew into adulthood and her role as a wife and mother before the advent of birth control, and long before the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, which found that patients had a right to privacy and could seek abortion care if they desired. It was the feminist liberation movement, or “women’s lib,” of the 1960s that finally put words to what had been bothering her. She and her friends began to talk about the sexism and misogyny they had experienced, and she no longer felt alone.

More than half a century later, she’s still determined to talk about sexism and misogyny. She’s just doing it in a more official capacity now, as she works to enshrine reproductive rights into the Michigan state constitution. “It's hard to understand unless you went through this, and I don’t want my granddaughter or my grandkids, [or] all the other people out there — those that cannot advocate for themselves — I don't want one of them to go through what I went through,” Falbaum, a retired fourth grade teacher, tells Mic.

The onslaught of state-level abortion bans and an impending reversal of the landmark Roe v. Wade decision threatens to launch the U.S. into a period of time that reflects what Falbaum experienced: one marked by silence and fear, where reproductive care is difficult to access, and where it’s even more restricted for those who are poor or have fewer resources. And with the Supreme Court’s final decision on abortion expected in June, after a hard-right opinion overturning Roe leaked in early May, individual states are steadying themselves now for what might come.

“I feel, finally, something positive coming out of this, where the pain is moving toward positive action.”

In Michigan, Falbaum is one of hundreds of volunteers throughout the state working on a petition drive to safeguard reproductive care for future generations of Michiganders. If volunteers are successful in gathering at least 425,059 valid signatures by July — a number dictated by Michigan state law — then a provision will be placed on the November ballot that offers voters the chance to nullify a 1931 law that criminalized abortion care with no provisions for victims of rape or incest. It’s a crucial effort now, because if Roe is overturned and there’s no longer a federal guarantee of abortion rights, then that law will go into effect. Without this amendment, abortion care will be illegal in Michigan, adding another reproductive care desert in the Midwest and pushing more patients to nearby Illinois and Minnesota.

“It’s great to be working for this effort because I feel, finally, something positive coming out of this, where the pain is moving toward positive action,” Falbaum says. As soon as she heard rumblings of the petition drive, Falbaum began collecting signatures, enlisting her friends and other seniors to sign petitions, and even mailed out petitions to friends living in other cities in Michigan.

The petition drive is a joint project of Michigan Voices, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan, and the state branch of the American Civil Liberties Union to guarantee reproductive freedom, protecting not only abortion, but also access to birth control, sterilization, prenatal care, and postnatal care, among other services. If the provision is placed on the ballot, and the measure is approved, then Michigan will be the 12th state to recognize abortion or reproductive care access in its constitution. The Vermont statehouse did so in February, and other states, like Colorado, have passed laws to codify abortion and other reproductive care.

Even the governor, Democrat Gretchen Whitmer, is trying to undercut the 1931 law before it’s too late. In early April, Whitmer filed a lawsuit against her own state, claiming that the law violates the state’s Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses. She requested that the Michigan Supreme Court clarify whether the state’s constitution protects a right to abortion. “A near total abortion ban would rob women of their reproductive freedom and the ability to decide whether and when to have a child,” the governor said in a press release. “No matter what happens to Roe, I am going to fight like hell and use all the tools I have as governor to ensure reproductive freedom is a right for all women in Michigan.”

If the Supreme Court does strike down Roe and the 1931 law goes into effect, it would be a direct contradiction to what Michigan voters actually want. A Detroit News poll from January, before the Roe decision leaked, found that the vast majority of Michigan voters (around 77%) believe abortion is a decision that should be left to a patient and a doctor. About 67% of voters said they wanted Roe to remain in place.

For Falbaum, the fight is a family affair. Her daughter, Julie Falbaum, is a lead organizer in Washtenaw County, which encompasses Ann Arbor, a liberal college town 40 miles west of Detroit. “A possible amendment to the state constitution is a real game changer,” says Julie, who’s a mother of two and owns her own therapy practice. She and other organizers are hopeful that if they are successful in protecting reproductive freedom in Michigan, other states will be able to use their organizing effort as a template.

The petition drive launched in mid-March. So far, more than 30,000 people have signed up to volunteer, Ann Mullen, the communications director at ACLU Michigan, tells Mic. Mullen didn’t have a firm estimate of how many signatures the petition has gathered to date, “but we are confident we will have more than the required number of signatures to place our measure on the ballot,” she says.

The ACLU has appointed lead organizers throughout the state to help coordinate teams of unpaid signature-gatherers. Some volunteers pick up petitions at Julie Falbaum’s house in Washtenaw County, where they might meet her 22-year-old daughter (and Phyllis Falbaum’s grandaughter) Jackie Bevier, who helps train people on crucial talking points, like the fact that the amendment would protect all reproductive freedoms, not just abortion, and that Michigan has a law on the books that would not just outlaw abortion care but actually criminalize it.

Jackie Bevier with her grandmother, Phyllis Falbaum.Courtesy of Julie Falbaum
Jackie Bevier with her mother, Julie Falbaum.Courtesy of Julie Falbaum
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Then, volunteers head out to canvas locations with high foot traffic. In a given week, as many as 30 people will collect a petition from Julie Falbaum’s home, with some people gathering enough signatures to fill out multiple petition forms.

When the Supreme Court’s draft decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, the case that will determine Roe’s fate, leaked last month, it motivated more people to get involved, Julie tells Mic. Before May 2, when Politico first published the draft, Julie says she coordinated a volunteer pool of around 100 people. In the week and a half after the leak, the pool expanded to more than 2,300 volunteers. She’s quick to point out that this might not be happening in other parts of Michigan, where the voter base isn’t as progressive, “but everybody’s more mobilized, that’s for sure,” she says.

Like her mother, Jackie is growing up in a post-Roe America. Listening to her grandmother’s reflections, Jackie says that she can only imagine what it must have been like to come into adulthood without the language or the resources to describe such severe restrictions on her bodily autonomy. “I'm scared, but at the same time, I don't even know if I can wholly understand it,” Jackie says. Because of that, she says, “right now is not so much fear as much as anger.”