Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer as she fights for abortion access

The Washington Post

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Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) and daughters Sherry, 20, and Sydney, 18, at the governor’s summer residence on Mackinac Island.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) and daughters Sherry, 20, and Sydney, 18, at the governor’s summer residence on Mackinac Island. (Sarah Rice/For The Washington Post)

— MACKINAC ISLAND, Mich.

Sherry was asleep. She was home from college for the summer. It was barely 10 a.m. Her door swung open and light filled up the bedroom. Then she saw her mother bounding in. She groaned. “Are you kidding me right now?”

Roe v. Wade was overturned,” her mother said. Then she rushed out.

Sherry’s younger sister, Sydney, was at her summer job not far from the house. She got a call from her mom with the news: “Roe v. Wade was overturned.”

At home in Lansing, Mich., Sherry and Sydney’s mother dialed into a call with her senior leadership team. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer had been planning for this day since early last summer, not long after the Supreme Court agreed to take up a case called Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. It was April of this year, early enough to appear alarmist to some, when she had moved to file a lawsuit seeking to overturn an old abortion ban in Michigan, a law on the books from 1931 that would suddenly become viable again without the protection of Roe. Because of a temporary injunction issued in a separate lawsuit challenging the 1931 law, abortion in Michigan remained legal that morning in June — for the time being.

As she sat down in her home office, the governor’s legal team prepared a motion urging the court to expedite her lawsuit. Her press team booked interviews on as many networks as they could. CBS, NBC. I’m thinking about my daughters, she said. CNN, MSNBC. They now have fewer rights than I’ve had my whole life, she said. Almost every Michigan market, 12 local interviews from her home office. I’m incensed, she said. From the Lansing house, a low-slung ranch-style home granted to the governor, Whitmer, a Democrat, was becoming the face of an existential battle for abortion access playing out across the states.

Sherry got up to brush her teeth. She was awake now and felt her stomach drop. “What can we even do,” she thought. Sydney was angry. “Like, what is going on?” They had known it was coming, talked it though with their mother again and again. In their family’s house, the Michigan abortion ban — which would prohibit the procedure even in the case of rape or incest — was referred to simply as “the 1931.”

Just two months earlier, after a draft of the Supreme Court opinion leaked on May 2, Whitmer told the girls to delete their period tracker apps. She said she believes it’s important to be “just totally blunt and honest” with her kids about politics and their life at the center of it. She asked if they wanted to pursue long-acting birth control. Sydney said yes. Sherry said no, she didn’t think so.

The girls are close, with birthdays only 19 months apart. Both are students at the University of Michigan. They’d had difficult conversations with their mother before. They were 11 and 10 years old when, amid a fight over abortion in the state legislature, Whitmer first decided to publicly share the story of how she’d been raped as a freshman at Michigan State University, in 1989.

They were 14 and 13 when she started running for governor.

They were 18 and 16 when, together with their mom and their stepfather Marc and their dog Kevin, they huddled as a family into the guest bathroom, the only area of the governor’s mansion with a good view of the street, to peer at protesters outside the house, waving signs objecting to Michigan’s strict stay-at-home order. They were 18 and 16 when just a few months later at dinner one night, their mom told them that, “just so you know,” there was going to be a story coming out soon about “some people plotting to kidnap and kill me.”

Now Sherry is 20 and Sydney is 18.

Six days after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs, the Whitmer family gathered at the governor’s summer residence on Mackinac Island, a three-hour drive from Lansing, plus a 15-minute ferry ride. The conversations here were different, more immediate and personal. Yes, Whitmer was leading one of the nation’s most precarious political and legal battles over reproductive health care. She was a woman, a star in the Democratic Party defined as much by her bold executive action as by the pique it provoked in state Republicans, aggravated by her use of executive power during the pandemic years. She was a pro-abortion rights governor of a pro-abortion rights state, now in danger of reinstating a law enacted by men more than 90 years ago. But she was also a mother to two young women, navigating the consequences of America’s new reality inside her own home. When she talked about abortion access, Whitmer was also talking to and about her daughters.

Whitmer is one of just nine women governors. At 50, she is also among the youngest. Roe v. Wade had been in place for as long as she was old enough to know the word “abortion.” When she was in school, kids did tornado drills and learned about the ozone layer. Sherry and Sydney have grown up with active shooter protocols and the threat of political violence. Now, sitting on the porch overlooking the Straits of Mackinac, Whitmer heard the girls consider possibilities that frightened her.

Sydney said she wasn’t even sure she wanted to have kids anymore.

Sherry said she had changed her mind about the birth control.

She thought no at first, because she didn’t need it, really.

“To be fair, I was hesitant because I am gay,” she said. The risk of unwanted pregnancy “is not a thing that’s on my mind all the time.” Sherry is out to family and friends but not on “the national scene,” as her mom puts it. That Friday, reading the majority ruling from Justice Clarence Thomas, she’d seen the language suggesting the court review other precedents, including the right to use contraceptives and for two women to be married. These were conversations she was having in private, but she recently told the family she was ready to share them in public, too, though Whitmer didn’t know she was going to do it here on the island. Like thousands of other women, Sherry now felt she had to imagine, to account for, even make plans for, the nightmare possibilities of the unimaginable.

“I live on a college campus,” Sherry said. “There are people out there who would force me into conceiving. It’s a scary thought, but I’ve made the decision.”

Inside the Mackinac Island residence, a three-story house that sits at the top of a steep hill, the Whitmer family looked accustomed to some measure of crisis. Sherry sat on the couch in the sunroom watching television. Sydney had just come in from an afternoon ferry, brow wet from the uphill summer walk. Their stepfather Marc Mallory, a dentist who recently retired, brought out a cardboard granola bar box containing the rocks he’d been collecting around the island, a new hobby. Granite, pumice, quartz, feldspar, dolomite. He held up each one, looking for glimmers in the light. Marc had been reading books about rocks from the pre-Cambrian age Canadian shield. They were 4.03 billion years old, he said. Sherry rolled her eyes.

Mackinac Island is small — a strange and beautiful place, eight miles round, with about 400 year-round residents. Cars are forbidden. Everyone rides bikes and horse-drawn buggies. The island smells like manure and chocolate. Fudge shops line all of Main Street.

At the top of the hill, just beyond an 18th-century French Canadian fort, tourists lingered outside the residence. In a room just off the kitchen, Whitmer’s security detail monitored a grid display of the scene out front. A pantry room to the side held stacks of card games, a Ouija board, sets of Tupperware. Around the corner, the governor was back from a health policy conference on the island, watching as caterers set up a spread of food and drinks for a reception on the porch.

The family’s two merle-colored Aussiedoodles, Kevin and Doug, ran outside behind the governor and her daughters.

“Marc?” Whitmer said.

Marc came out holding a slim paperback: “Great Lakes Rocks: 4 Billion Years of Geologic History in the Great Lakes Region.”

“How’d they get out?”

“I don’t know. Who let ’em out?”

“We did,” Whitmer said, sitting down with Sherry and Sydney. “But you’re in charge, so get them in.”

All week long, Whitmer had been getting questions about the abortion fight. She told her daughters she saw Gina Raimondo, the commerce secretary and a former Democratic governor from Rhode Island, a few days earlier in Washington.

“Why do you seem so calm?” she said Raimondo had asked her.

On the porch, Whitmer shrugged. “What are my options? To light my hair on fire or to crawl under a rock? No.”

“We are stoic people,” she said.

The name Gretchen Whitmer, if it’s known outside Michigan, is set against a story of upheaval and unrest.

It begins with the pandemic, when the caseload and fatality rates in her state ranked among the highest in the nation. She was one of the first governors to criticize President Donald Trump’s management of the outbreak. And she was among the first to implement a far-reaching state lockdown, setting off armed protests at the Michigan Capitol just 16 months into her tenure as governor.

Even then, her view of politics wasn’t particularly ideological. She would denounce Republicans in her state, and do it sharply, but the fights inside her own party didn’t seem to hold her interest.

Her father, Richard Whitmer, was a Republican, an aide to moderate, pro-business governors George Romney and William Milliken. Her late mother, Sherry Whitmer, was a Democrat, an assistant attorney general serving under Frank Kelley. Whitmer’s husband Marc, who has three sons from a previous marriage, has historically voted Republican. He now identifies as a fiscal conservative and social liberal. (Sherry and Sydney’s father, Gary Shrewsbury, is still close with Whitmer. A photographer, he occasionally helped take photos during her 2018 campaign.)

Politics was a kind of family trade, and Whitmer described it as one might a business passed down from one generation to the next, with an eye toward the process itself. When she came into office in January 2019, she wrote a one-page “Values Outline” to her staff, instructing them to “do less and obsess about doing it well” and “move deliberately and quickly in all things.” No department, division, or person, she wrote, would take credit for an achievement. “It is always given to the S.O.M.,” i.e. the state of Michigan. Meetings were to be held without phones and according to her rules of “Pathological Punctuality,” meaning, “If you’re on time, you’re late. Seriously.” Be present, she wrote. “Don’t waste time. No distractions.”

The abortion fight was another process, to be tackled with all the “tools” of government available. She was leading litigation to challenge the 1931 law, asking the Michigan Supreme Court to rule on whether the state’s constitution protected the right to an abortion. She was urging volunteers to collect signatures to put the issue to voters in a ballot measure this fall. She was instructing all department and agency officials — from education to transportation — to present her with new ideas for protecting abortion and contraceptive access. And she was pushing President Biden to be more aggressive in his preparations.

On a call with a few other governors and health secretary Xavier Becerra, Whitmer said, she told him Biden needed to think through “what it would take” to help Canada set up abortion clinics just across the border. If abortion were banned in neighboring Michigan, a state to which women from Ohio and Indiana also travel to receive abortions, Canada would see an influx of patients seeking care. When she raised the idea, Whitmer recalled, she heard the governors of Oregon and Maine, both women and Democrats, gasp on the other line.

“Right now, their states are fine on this issue. They don’t have to think about things like this,” she said. “I hope like hell it doesn’t come to that — but if it does, you got to have a plan.”

This week, Whitmer again called on the administration to account for women seeking care across the border. There was “conflicting guidance” from the federal government as to whether Americans are allowed to bring medication from Canada into the United States, including pills that abort a pregnancy, she wrote in a letter to Becerra and Biden’s homeland security secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas. “Americans deserve to know all their legal options as they seek vital health care,” she wrote. “We must lead.”

There was already confusion and alarm in Michigan about the status of the law. On the night of the Dobbs ruling, the state’s largest health system, Beaumont-Spectrum Health, said they would no longer administer abortions for fear of legal action, only to reverse the policy later that weekend. At least two conservative prosecutors in the state have already threatened to bring cases against providers. An antiabortion state representative, Steve Carra, has introduced a bill to outlaw Plan B and penalize abortion providers with prison time. In the Republican primary to challenge Whitmer for reelection this fall, the candidates describe her tenure as a time of “draconian” pandemic restrictions that closed schools and, they argue, discouraged businesses and families from settling in Michigan. The 1931 lawsuit, according to Carra, the lawmaker behind the abortion bill, was another example of Whitmer’s “tyrannical type of government.”

Whitmer is an exasperating political rival in the Republican-controlled legislature, particularly among men. At the height of the pandemic, she recalled, a fellow Democratic governor said to her, “Gretchen, why do you take so much more heat than anyone else? We’re all doing the same thing.” As soon as he said it, he cut himself off, the reason suddenly obvious. “Don’t answer that,” he told her.

Whitmer is a woman, but she is also an attractive woman, and her use of executive power, when wielded broadly, seems to deeply trigger her male antagonists. The Republican leader of the state Senate, Mike Shirkey, bragged on a hot mic that he had “spanked her hard on budget, spanked her hard on appointments,” and also contemplated “inviting her to a fistfight on the Capitol lawn.” Another Republican lawmaker, Sen. Ed McBroom, complained that Whitmer had been “neutering” him and his colleagues, the cause of the legislature’s “emasculation.”

“I don’t talk about gender,” she said. “But I am treated differently.”

At the start of the pandemic, Whitmer urged the federal government to supply more equipment to Michigan. On live television from the White House press briefing room, Trump dismissed her as “the woman from Michigan.” She was in national headlines. Democrats called it a political gift. Joe Biden thought about making her vice president, inviting her to Delaware to talk about the job in secret.

But that’s also when the threats started. Hundreds that don’t make it into the media, she said. And then there were the armed protests. And then there was the hit list with her name on it, belonging to a man who shot and killed a former Wisconsin judge. And then there was the kidnapping plot, a saga that began in the fall of 2020 and stretched on into a trial this year. Four men were charged, their plans and fantasies spelled out in public court filings: hogtying the governor, laying the governor out on a table, shooting the governor in the skull, shooting the governor in her doorway. She tried not to follow the trial coverage, but the headlines always passed by on Twitter and in push alerts. How could she not look? “Like, for weeks that this trial was going … every day,” she said. “So even if I wasn’t reading those articles, I couldn’t get away from them.”

The hardest moment came on April 8, 2022, the day the jury delivered its verdict: two men acquitted, two granted a mistrial. “It was awful,” said Whitmer. “It felt like my life’s not worth …”

She didn’t finish the thought. “We’re supposed to expect this now? People plot to kidnap and kill a governor?”

And this was something else that bothered Whitmer. Why did people always call it a “kidnapping” plot?

“The man who turned himself in outside of [Justice] Brett Kavanaugh’s house, they said it was an assassination plot,” Whitmer said.

“Does anyone think these kidnappers wanted to keep me or ransom me?” she asked. “No. They were going to put me on a trial and then execute me. It was an assassination plot, but no one talks about it that way. Even the way people talk about it has muted the seriousness of it.”

Sherry and Sydney listened in silence.

“No one thinks about it,” their mother said. “I do!”

Whitmer’s position and accompanying fame is now bigger than anything the girls remember from her years in the state legislature. It can be frightening, knowing their mom is vulnerable in public.

“But then again, I never feel out of control,” Sherry told her mother. “You’re always safe.”

“When the kidnapping plot was announced, it was summer. And people were blowing up your phone, right?” Whitmer asked.

“Oh, yeah,” said Sydney.

By then, Whitmer’s daughters had already known about it for a month or so. Friends and teachers emailed and texted. “I hope you’re OK,” they said. “I know this is really terrifying,” they said. “It must be really scary.”

Sherry laughed. “By that time, I’d already processed it.”

This is the running conversation between Whitmer and her daughters.

The unimaginable possibility that Sherry felt she had to imagine in the days after the ruling — a rape on her college campus — was a horrible one. But she knew it could happen because it happened all the time. It happened to her mother.

Whitmer was the state Senate minority leader in late 2013 when she shared the story for the first time as a public official. It was a last-minute decision, amid a debate over a bill that would require women to purchase additional insurance coverage for elective abortion, without exceptions for rape or incest.

Whitmer had urged a colleague to share the story of his family’s fertility journey. After multiple IVF treatments, the colleague’s wife had required an abortion because the fetus posed a threat to her health. But the colleague said he wasn’t ready to talk about it. It was too raw. Before she was set to deliver a speech about the bill on the floor of the Senate, Whitmer felt the sting of hypocrisy: How could she ask him to share his story if she wasn’t willing to do the same, she thought. So she did.

“I am not enjoying talking about it,” Whitmer told her colleagues. “It’s something I’ve hidden for a long time. But I think you need to see the face of the women that you are impacting.”

Now, after Dobbs, Whitmer was talking about it again, and this was difficult. “It’s traumatizing. Every time a woman shares her assault story with me, I get teary because I go right back to that place. But I’ve gotten to a point where I can talk about it,” she said. Her staff put together roundtables with women this summer, and it was usually here that Whitmer recalled that feeling in the days after the assault — “coming to terms with, ‘Oh my God, what if I’m pregnant.’” She wasn’t, but if she had been, she would have had access to care.

Now her daughters would be the ones to bear the impact. The Whitmer family has been in Michigan for five generations. But if her daughters don’t have the same choices — if they don’t have full reproductive rights, the governor said; if Sherry doesn’t have full marriage rights, she said — they will probably settle their lives elsewhere. “And it breaks my heart to even say that.”

They didn’t want to leave, they said, but they would.

“I always see myself coming back here and settling down. It’s where my family is,” Sydney said.

“I want to be here with you,” Sherry said to her mother. “I would be really sad if I couldn’t — if I would have to make that choice.”

Seated between the two girls, Whitmer put an arm around each daughter.

As a governor, she said, “I want them to consider Michigan.”

“And as a parent — not as a governor — I would encourage them to go where they can live their fullest, truest lives.”

correction

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the given name of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s father. His name is Richard, not Bill, Whitmer.

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