Rally on GV campus encapsulates statewide battle over abortion rights


GVL / Josh Alburtus

Josh Alburtus, News Editor

In the months following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the nationwide right to abortion first established nearly half a century ago, efforts by activists have sought to energize voters and shore up support both in favor of and in opposition to the continuance of abortion rights.

With months-long legal battles continuing and political fervor intensifying, the aftermath of the Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that reversed its 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling has turned the nation into an ideological battleground and each state into a new front.

In Michigan ensuing legal battles, executive pushback to the decision from Governor Gretchen Whitmer and a new ballot initiative that will ask voters whether to codify abortion rights into the state constitution have all transformed the state into a quagmire of legal ambiguity and activism.

Such is evident at Grand Valley State University, where the campus has become a microcosm for the continuing fight across the state and the nation over access to abortion in the shadow of Roe’s demise.

Gathering a number of GVSU students and local and state officials, on-campus activists held a rally at the university’s Cook Carillon Tower on Sept. 18 to energize supporters to continue the fight to preserve abortion rights in the state.

Organized by Nancy Hoogwerf, a GVSU sophomore and campus organizer for Democratic congressional candidate Hillary Scholten, the rally served to bolster support and encourage people to get involved with what she believed to be a necessary movement.

“Just tonight, we have built a community of advocates and leaders here on campus who are wanting to get out and speak up on the issues that matter most to them,” Hoogwerf said. “And tonight, that’s reproductive freedom.”

The fight, Hoogwerf said, was personal for her in a way that has been echoed in recent months by women rallying from Capitol Hill to the streets of Los Angeles.

“For me, I fight for reproductive freedom because the thought of having to put my career or my education on hold because I didn’t have a choice horrifies me,” Hoogwerf said.

Other GVSU students like Syd Sturgis felt compelled to join the gathering out of similar feelings of urgency toward the cause.

“I thought it would be a good thing to stand up for,” Sturgis said. “I’ve never really taken part in much activism myself, but I would like to, and I thought this would be a good opportunity.”

Alongside impassioned students, rallygoers also heard from local officials like State Representative Carol Glanville, D-Walker, running for reelection in Michigan’s new 84th District.

“This is so important because we are seeing again today and on our ballot this fall the will of the people,” Glanville said. “Almost a million Michiganders signed the proposition for reproductive fairness and freedom in the state of Michigan and we need to hold that line going into the fall.”

The fight has proven to be a winning issue for abortion rights proponents, with national polling showing growing support among Americans following the Supreme Court’s decision in late June.

Richard Williamson, campaign manager for current State Representative and candidate for State Senate David LaGrand, D-Grand Rapids, is one such energized political participant.

Williamson said that when he began his work for the coming election, he came onto the campaign trail with other issues at the top of his mind.

“When we got into this election, I was here for education issues,” Williamson said.

Following the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs, however, Williamson told the Lanthorn that his focus shifted to the issue of restoring abortion rights to those in his state.

“It’s a terrifying prospect that we live in a world where women are second-class citizens,” Williamson said. “The reason I’m passionate and working with David and so excited about this is because this is what he cares about. He doesn’t want anyone to be a second-class citizen.”

Turning out youth voters like those at GVSU, Williamson said, will play a key role in efforts to preserve abortion rights in Michigan.

“It is crucial,” Williamson said. “In a long-term, meaningful way, we can’t win unless we have young people active in politics.”

With GVSU’s years-long reputation as a local flashpoint in the debate over abortion rights, such a gathering drew contention from other members of the community.

Soon after the rally had commenced, a smaller group of counter-protesters descended on the gathering to combat a narrative they believed to be harmful to the unborn.

Attempting to drown out the speakers of the rally, counter-protesters confronted those in attendance with chants and phrases advocating a belief in the protection of unborn fetuses.

The efforts of rallygoers and counter-protesters came against the backdrop of recent certification of a statewide ballot proposal that would dramatically alter the future of abortion in Michigan.

If adopted, Proposal 3, known as the Right to Reproductive Freedom Initiative, would amend the state constitution to codify the right to access abortion care.

The language of the proposal that the state Supreme Court ordered the Michigan Board of Canvassers to place on the ballot allows the state to continue regulation of abortion after fetal viability. This period, after which a fetus could independently survive outside the womb, has no legal time frame but is often thought in popular consensus and scientific debate to occur approximately 24 weeks into one’s pregnancy.

Courtesy / Michigan Supreme Court

Worried that caveat in the language of the proposal will open the continued possibilities of late-term abortions, GVSU student Archie Smith IV said he is concerned regarding what the amendment would allow if passed.

“Even though (the proposal) says ‘post-viability,’ it also says that health endangerment would allow for abortionists to give an abortion after viability, including for mental health,” Smith said. “No pro-choice abortionist is going to deny somebody an abortion because their reason’s not good enough.”

Despite efforts to push back against statewide calls for the continuance of abortion rights, those who oppose them face an uphill battle in their attempt to halt Proposal 3 from being written into the state constitution.

Polling from Lansing-based EPIC-MRA conducted in the week prior to the rally suggested support for the constitutional amendment more than doubled opposition to it, with 56% of those polled saying they were in favor of the amendment compared to 23% against.

While they acknowledged the virtually insurmountable impasse to their efforts that would come to pass should Proposal 3 be adopted, anti-abortion activists like Protect Life at GVSU President Sarah McNamara said they intend to continue pushing back.

“No matter what happens on November 8, or at any other time that something like this may come up again, we will never stop defending the preborn,” McNamara said. “They deserve to be defended and that’s ultimately why we’re here today.”

As rallygoers transitioned around the tower in an effort to eclipse the counter-protesters, the scene became a representation of the outsized support for abortion rights observed across Michigan.

Reflecting the larger state of play, the scene made clear that, while the nationwide right to abortion may be settled for the foreseeable future, the fight over abortion in Michigan remains anything but.