Michigan voters literally have a choice in the midterms about whether they or their daughters, sisters, wives, and granddaughters can be saved if they experience life-threatening pregnancy complications. They will have to decide whether any of their female loved ones who are raped or are victims of incest, can get an abortion if they become pregnant. They will also be voting on whether to allow or prevent women in the state of Michigan from being jailed for several years if they use prescription medication or any other method to induce an abortion.
All of these hugely consequential decisions are in front of voters in the purple state now that the Supreme Court has overturned Roe V. Wade, Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel makes clear to HollywoodLife in an EXCLUSIVE interview. That’s because her Donald Trump-endorsed Republican opponent in the 2022 midterm elections, lawyer Matthew DePerno, has stated that there will be “no exceptions” from Michigan’s 1931 anti-abortion law, which he plans to enforce if elected. No exceptions. Not even to save the life of the mother, he has told supporters.
Like several other American states, Michigan has a decades old law on the books—in this case, a 1931 law that was never repealed by the Republican-controlled Michigan Legislature. The law states that any person who administers a drug or uses any instrument to procure a miscarriage is guilty of a felony crime, punishable by years in prison. The law itself says that a woman’s life can be saved, but Dana Nessel’s opponent opposes even this exception and if elected, he will be the highest law officer in the state, with the ability to prosecute doctors and women as much as he wants.
“This is a form of extremism that I’ve never seen,” admits Nessel, who first ran for election as attorney general in 2018, after 25 years as a practicing lawyer, and is now running for re-election. “As a full-grown woman, who has lived many years and had my own kids, how insulting to say that a fertilized egg, which may never ever be viable under any set of circumstances, should have more rights than I have, it’s astounding to me.”
Nessel hasn’t just been astounded by both the Roe decision by the Supreme Court and by the extreme anti-abortion positions taken by DePerno, and the GOP candidate for governor, Tudor Dixon, she has taken action. Together with Governor Gretchen Whitmer, also a Democrat, she successfully petitioned the Michigan Supreme Court to get a stay of the 1931 law, while the court considers whether the law contravenes the state’s constitution. She also successfully fought back against the attempt by the Republican Michigan Board of State Canvassers’ members to block an amendment which would make abortion legal in Michigan, from going on the ballot on Nov. 8.
Huge numbers of Michiganders were so incensed by the prospect of abortion becoming illegal in the state that 750,000 of them signed petitions in support of having a constitutional amendment stating that abortion is a right in the state, placed on ballots for the November 8 midterm election. “The Reproductive Freedom for All ballot proposal got more signatures than any other ballot proposal in Michigan history,” Nessel points out. “I was at a farmer’s market in Grand Rapids right after the leak that Roe would be overturned came out, and there was a line of people—men and women—around the block waiting and sometimes for 10 or 15 minutes to sign this ballot proposal. It has resonated with a lot people how important this is at this time, and that this is not a drill anymore. This is our reality.”
When the petition landed in front of the Board of State Canvassers, which is purely an administrative body, the two Republican members claimed that the text on the ballot proposal was typed too closely together and therefore disqualified it from being added to the ballot.
Nessel relates how in her emergency amicus petition to the Supreme Court to overrule the Board of State Canvassers, she used portions of the United States Constitution to show how poor the spacing was in the original drafts which were hand written, as well as in the Bill of Rights. “So, I guess do we throw out all of our historical documents? For hundreds of years, we’ve been relying on lines that were written with poor spacing,” she says. Fortunately, Michigan’s Supreme Court agreed and the abortion amendment will go on the ballot.
Now the voters will decide, and Nessel points out that protecting reproductive rights isn’t just about abortion. “It’s about birth control. It’s also fertility treatment. It’s miscarriage treatment. It’s basically anything that involves women’s reproductive health,” she stresses. She fears that the health and lives of the millions of Michigan women will be imperiled if they experience ectopic pregnancies, which are never viable but are life-threatening if they aren’t removed in surgery.
“Do doctors have to wait until a woman is on the verge of death before they perform surgery?” she asks. “There’s not one woman who either hasn’t experienced a high-risk pregnancy or doesn’t know someone who they’re close to who has,” she says, using as examples, life-threatening preeclampsia (high blood pressure) and cancer. “What if a doctor says that you have an aggressive form of breast cancer, but can’t treat your breast cancer because you are pregnant, and they can’t terminate your pregnancy to give you radiation and chemotherapy, because there’s not a 100 percent chance you will die before you give birth. What if the chance is just 60 percent? But the doctor doesn’t want to get prosecuted so we’re just going to watch your cancer advance.”
Nessel is outraged that these life-or-death decisions may become an everyday crisis for the women of Michigan and their doctors if the ballot amendment doesn’t pass and if her Republican opponent is elected. She and DePerno are running neck-and-neck in the polls, she believes because voters aren’t aware yet of his very extreme views on abortion.
At 53 and a mother of twin boys, now 19, Nessel is well aware of the reality of complications even when women are experiencing a much-wanted pregnancy. “I had a pregnancy that went wrong. I wanted kids so badly. I wasn’t looking to have an abortion. I never thought I would have an abortion even though I was pro-choice… but you can never predict what can happen,” she relates. “I was pregnant with multiples, and I was told that if I didn’t have a procedure involving one of the pregnancies, I would lose all of them. When your doctor looks you in the eye and says, if you want to save any of these babies, you have to terminate one or the other two will never survive. That’s a terrible choice to make, but I decided I wanted to have children.”
Nessel’s twins were born prematurely, were very sick, and in intensive care for a very long time, she says. But fortunately today, they are healthy young men and in their first year of college. But it’s decisions like these that Nessel believes belong to women and their doctors. Not a Supreme Court and not a Republican Legislature and not a Republican Attorney General.
And, she doesn’t want women to fear that it’s not safe to get pregnant in the state of Michigan. “I’ve had friends say to me—some who have had difficulties or suffered miscarriages, and they’ve asked me, ‘Should I stop trying to get pregnant because I don’t want to die.'”
But it isn’t just reproductive healthcare that is on the ballot, along with Nessel in Michigan. It’s the ability of the state to have free and fair elections in which every vote that is cast is counted. Dana Nessel’s Republican opponent is one of the leading election deniers in the state. He is still trying to decertify the 2020 election and is currently under criminal investigation for coordinating a plan to gain access to voting tabulators. Nessel has requested that a special prosecutor be named to investigate him to avoid the appearance of political motivation since he is running against her.
In his work as an attorney, DePerno has been fired by a former law firm after allegations that he “padded” client billings, and was accused of assaulting a client over a fee dispute.
Nessel is a staunch defender of every Michigander’s right to vote, whether they are Republican, Democrat, or Independent, and has worked closely with Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, also a Democrat, to ensure that the 2020 elections were conducted under all the state’s guidelines for voting. Despite all of Donald Trump’s allegations of voter fraud in Michigan and other states, the Republican-led Michigan Senate Oversight Committee confirmed that the 2020 election results in the state were accurate and that Joe Biden won the state by 154,188 votes.
Nevertheless, Nessel says that if elected DePerno has spoken out about wanting to get rid of all electronic voting machines and to only have paper ballots, which would be hand counted. Plus, she says that he has stated that he only wants the hand count to take place after the polls close at 8 pm until midnight. She points out that in the 2020 election 5.5 million people voted in Michigan, and that it would take months to hand count and certify an election if you hand counted all the ballots. But, she points out that only counting votes for four hours would “disenfranchise millions and millions of voters.”
Nessel believes that DePerno wants to do this since it would allow lightly populated rural areas which lean Republican to have their votes counted, whereas big cities and population centers like Detroit and Grand Rapids, which lean Democratic, would see their millions of votes go uncounted.
“My position,” counters Nessel. “Is not about being pro-Republican or pro-Democratic or pro-any partisan leaning. It’s just, ‘Do you still want to have a democracy or not? That’s all. My job is not to decide who wins that election. My job is just to make sure that the law is followed properly and that the will of the people is heard.”
Nessel fears that there is another major issue on the ballot that is hugely consequential for millions of Americans and for herself personally—that is the right to marriage equality. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas warned the country after Roe was overturned in a written opinion, that he believes the court should revisit all the rights to privacy, guaranteed in the case, Griswold V Connecticut. These are rights that Americans have come to accept as the norm, including contraception and same sex marriage.
Nessel, as an attorney, fought a high-profile case for a lesbian couple, who sued for the right to have both their names appear on adoption documents for their children. The case, DeBoer v. Snyder, led to the ending of the state’s ban on same-sex marriage in 2014. It was also folded into the landmark Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges, which resulted in gay marriage becoming legal throughout the country. But this wasn’t just a professional triumph for Nessel. It was personal.
“I’m in a same-sex marriage. [Her wife is Alanna Maguire]. We’ve been happily married since just weeks after the Obergefell decision made same-sex marriage legal in Michigan, and we have two children together. We are law-abiding citizens, who pay taxes, et cetera, et cetera. But it’s not just that our marriage would be dissolved, but that we would be legal strangers to one another,” she fears.
But that’s not all. Thanks to other old laws on the books in Michigan that has never been appealed, same-sex sexual activity would be outlawed in Michigan again. There are jail time penalties for same-sex sexual activity. So, says Nessel, “We [Alanna and Dana] could go to prison if we continue to have a relationship with each other.”
She believes that the threat to gay marriage is sinking into the LGBTQ community in Michigan. “I think it’s very important whether it’s yourself, it’s your friend or family member, there’s someone in your life who is LGBTQ. I promise you that you have someone in your life who lives in Michigan, and they could go to prison just for being who they are. And that’s true in many other states if we see another case come along as Justice Thomas recommended, that overturns these right-to-privacy laws.”
Unfortunately, again, the Republican-controlled Legislature in Michigan has refused to overturn these old laws and Nessel’s GOP opponent for Attorney General has said that he will prosecute all laws on the books.
Since DePerno’s campaign website announces in big, bold text on its homepage that he plans to “investigate the misconduct of Governor Whitmer, Secretary of State Benson, Attorney General Nessel, and all corrupt elected officials and politicians who abuse their office,” it’s no wonder that Nessel is personally alarmed by the prospect that DePerno might prevail in the midterm elections. Of course, he has not publicly provided any evidence of misconduct, corruption, or abuse by Nessel, Whitmer, or Benson, just like he has produced no evidence of election fraud, but if elected, he would have enormous power to use the powers of his office to investigate and prosecute anyone he chose.
“Do I think that he would prosecute someone like myself because I’m in a same-sex relationship? Yeah, you bet I do.” Nessel says, confessing that her concern is so deep about what will happen if she loses her bid for re-election, that she doesn’t believe she will be able to remain in the state.
Talk about democracy being on the ballot in Michigan. And normal democratic processes.
Threats to elected officials, like herself, the Michigan Governor—who was the target of a kidnapping plot—and threats to election workers have all radically escalated since Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign for president and then his failed re-election. With high-profile leaders like Trump pointing the finger at election workers and naming them by name, threats to their lives have even become commonplace.
Nessel has been aggressive about prosecuting hate crimes like this and created a domestic terrorism unit. “I don’t care if you are a government official or a poll worker or local clerk or serve on a local board of education, or you’re a public health official, all the way up to [the] Governor, you don’t deserve to have your life threatened. That’s not how democracy works,” she emphasizes.
She also is determined that the lives of students and teachers not be threatened by gun violence. As a mom, this is an issue especially close to her heart. A mass shooting at Oxford High School in Michigan, in which a 15-year-old was charged with killing four fellow students and injuring seven others, took place less than a year ago. Her own sons feared the possibility of a shooting at their own high school, she says.
There were repeated lockdowns there. In one instance, it was for practically an entire day. But, her efforts to pass a safe storage law for guns or to raise the minimum age for owning a gun to 21, have failed so far. The Republicans in the Legislature have blocked even the opportunity to have hearings on these bills. “You can’t get a beer or a pack of cigarettes until you are 21 in Michigan, but you can get some really lethal firearms… The fact that it’s going to be so hard for an adult woman to get reproductive care, but it’s so easy for a teenage boy to get an assault weapon. Something is really wrong in our society,” she laments.
There is hope for Nessel and Michigan on this front. Michigan has a new electoral map for the midterms, drawn by an independent commission. The maps in recent decades have been so gerrymandered that the Republicans have been ensconced as the controlling party in both the State Senate and Legislature. For the first time in years, there is a good chance to flip the Senate blue, and to make gains in the House.
But even if that happens, Nessel has to be successful in being re-elected and so do Governor Whitmer and Secretary of State Benson in order to guarantee that the state will continue to have free and fair elections. All are fighting election deniers, who support ending reproductive rights for women. The voters of Michigan have a stark choice. Will they support the lives of women and will they support continuing to have democratic elections when they go to the ballot box on Nov 8?