Briere, now retired to California, is speaking of the leaked U.S. Supreme Court draft opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that legalized abortion nationally.
Briere and women of her generation—she’s seventy-two—have been fighting this battle for most of their lives: in 1990, they organized a ballot campaign to amend the city charter to declare the city a “zone of reproductive freedom.” It set the penalty for violating abortion restrictions at just $5.
It was a cause they believed in and also a tool to chip away at what was then a Republican majority on city council. The women knew that many Republican candidates were out of sync with local voters on abortion, but Democrats at the time were being criticized for focusing too much on national issues, she explains. They needed “a local tie-in in order to … question candidates for city council about where they stand.”
The charter amendment, she says, “was a wild, stupid, crazy idea that came up in my dining room” where a group of Democratic women were brainstorming. “Once I got the language down in petition form, I rode my bike from the School of Public Health [where she was an administrative assistant] to the city attorney’s office, and let [then-attorney] Bruce Laidlaw look at it to make sure it was correct as to form.”
People were “clamoring to circulate petitions,” she says. They quickly raised the signatures necessary to get it on the ballot, and it passed overwhelmingly.
“I will tell you: when this passed, people accused me of trivializing abortion,” Briere says. “They accused me of a political stunt. And they told me that it was never going to be used or necessary. And ‘My God,’ I said, ‘I hope you’re right.’ ”
After the draft opinion leaked, Briere says, she got a thank-you note from a former constituent who “suddenly felt so much better for living in Ann Arbor” after reading about the charter amendment. Sadly, though, it’s no more than a feeling: local governments can’t override state laws—and Michigan still has a 1931 law on the books that makes abortion a felony
Any claim that the city charter will protect abortion patients and providers from that law is “bullshit,” says Tim Johnson, a U-M professor of ob/gyn and women’s and gender studies.
“Nobody believes that [the charter] is going to protect them legally” if Roe is overturned, Johnson says. “It’ll protect them with this [Michigan] attorney general because she says she’s not probably going to prosecute. It will protect them against the prosecuting attorney from Washtenaw County. But it will not protect them from the prosecuting attorney from Kent County. So if a patient came from Kent County and had the procedure in Washtenaw County, theoretically, charges could be brought by the Kent County prosecuting attorney.”
Even if the draft decision becomes final, though, that won’t be an immediate threat. In mid-May, Michigan Court of Claims chief judge Elizabeth Gleicher granted a preliminary injunction to prevent the 1931 law from going into effect while the full court considers a lawsuit brought by Planned Parenthood of Michigan, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and the Michigan ACLU.
The plaintiff is Planned Parenthood of Michigan chief medical director and abortion provider Sarah Wallett. She argued that the 1931 law is unconstitutionally vague and violates the rights to liberty, bodily integrity, equal protection, and privacy under the Michigan Constitution and state civil right laws.
Judge Gleicher agreed. “After 50 years of legal abortion in Michigan,” she wrote, “there can be no doubt but that the right of personal autonomy and bodily integrity enjoyed by our citizens includes the rights of a woman, in consultation with her physician, to terminate a pregnancy.
“If a woman’s right to bodily integrity is to have any real meaning,” Gleicher concluded, “it must incorporate her right to make decisions about the health events most likely to change the course of her life: pregnancy and childbirth.”
Thanks to the injunction, Wallett emails, “abortion will be legal in Michigan until our case is decided in state court, at which point we are very hopeful the court will rule permanently in our favor.”
She adds that “even if at some point abortion became illegal in Michigan, and we couldn’t provide abortion care, we would not shut down. Abortion is one piece of the full range of reproductive health care we provide, and we won’t stop doing that work.”
Johnson—who remembers when women from Michigan had to travel to New York for abortions—fears it may yet come to that. He’s concerned that “somebody will bring suit at the level of the U.S. Supreme Court, saying, ‘Hey, wait a minute—this is a legislative decision, not a judicial decision.’ And then [the Michigan decision will] be put on hold and the law of 1931 will go into effect.”
“The reality is pretty grim,” says Johnson. “My former students are sending me emails saying, ‘Oh my God. I never thought this would happen.’
“In my classes, I’ve been teaching that this could easily happen for fifteen years. I’m not happy to be proven right. I feel like Cassandra.”
He’s cautiously hopeful about the work of a coalition called Reproductive Freedom for All. It’s trying to repeat statewide what Briere and her allies did thirty-two years ago in Ann Arbor: circulating a petition that calls for a public vote on a state constitutional amendment.
It would, in the words of its website, “affirm that every Michigander has the fundamental right to reproductive freedom, which involves the right to make and carry out decisions without political interference about all matters relating to pregnancy, including birth control, abortion, prenatal care, and childbirth.”