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Michigan Ballot Initiative Could Ban Insurance Coverage of Abortion

Emily Crockett

Right to Life of Michigan’s “Abortion Insurance Opt-Out Act,” which would prevent both private and public health insurance plans from covering "elective" abortions, could pass with a simple legislative majority and no gubernatorial veto, despite a majority of state voters opposing it.

An anti-choice ballot initiative in Michigan could soon ban all insurance coverage of abortions, without the approval of either the governor or the majority of Michigan voters.

Right to Life of Michigan’s “Abortion Insurance Opt-Out Act” would prevent both private and public health insurance plans from covering “elective” abortions, and require women who want abortion coverage to purchase a separate rider. The initiative provides no exceptions for rape, incest, or fetal anomalies, and only allows exceptions for a woman’s health in the case of ectopic pregnancies or miscarriages, or “to avert her death.”

Gov. Rick Snyder vetoed a similar bill last year, saying it “just went too far.” But now Right to Life of Michigan is circumventing the normal lawmaking procedure using an uncommon process allowed under Michigan’s constitution. With the valid signatures of just 3 percent of the state’s population, the initiative can go directly to the heavily anti-choice legislature, pass with a simple majority vote, and be immune to a veto from Snyder. These kinds of legislative initiatives have only been successful four times in Michigan, and Right to Life was responsible for three of them.

Right to Life submitted 315,477 signatures, more than the 258,088 required to send the initiative to the legislature. A challenge period ended on Monday, and the state canvassing board is expected to approve the initiative on December 2. If the legislature doesn’t vote on the initiative within 40 session days, it will go before voters in November 2014.

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In effect, advocates say, women would be required to buy “rape insurance” under this initiative. “You couldn’t buy a rider once you were pregnant to have [an abortion] covered,” Meghan Groen, director of government relations for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan, told Rewire. “It’s not like, oh, I was raped and so now I’ll buy this rider. Nobody is anticipating being a victim of crime.”

“We think this is an incredibly dangerous proposal, not only for the health of a woman, but also the risk that the health-care industry will have to undertake,” Shelli Weisberg, legislative director for American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, told Rewire.

With such narrow health exceptions, Weisberg said, doctors and hospitals are in an impossible position: If insurers don’t agree the woman’s life was in danger, the hospital doesn’t get paid for its services. On the other hand, if a woman needs an abortion, doesn’t get it, and dies, the doctor and hospital would certainly face liabilities.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there about what this actually does,” said Groen. “The name of Right to Life’s committee, ‘No Taxpayer Dollars for Abortion,’ is deceptive. … Right now it’s illegal in federal and state law for any taxpayer dollars to go toward abortion.”

Right to Life is deceiving voters into thinking that the Affordable Care Act will change this status quo, Groen added, but federal subsidy dollars won’t be able to pay for abortion coverage on the exchanges. In practice, the initiative has no effect on how tax dollars are spent, but instead prevents private insurers and private companies from deciding whether to provide abortion coverage. Most private Michigan insurers currently cover abortion.

Forcing women to purchase an additional insurance rider for abortion coverage is not a realistic option, Weisberg said. There’s no guarantee that an insurance company or an employer will provide a rider; it’s complicated and expensive because the risk pool is small, and it’s not something that women are likely to think about buying extra insurance for.

A majority of Michigan voters oppose the initiative, which Groen hopes will help convince key legislators that a yes vote would be politically dangerous. Even polling in anti-choice Republican districts revealed that about 50 percent of voters are opposed to the measure, Groen said.

Former Gov. John Engler vetoed similar legislation in 2000, making Snyder the second Republican governor in the state to veto legislation along these lines.

“We’ve had two Republican governors veto this. From a market standpoint, their attitude is, we shouldn’t tell companies what they can and can’t cover for their workers,” Weisberg said.

But she said the state legislature is thinking differently: “This is a very Republican, very right-wing Michigan legislature interfering in the marketplace in ways they previously would scream and yell about.”

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