Michigan’s abortion amendment was co-authored by a new US citizen, an ACLU attorney

Bonsitu Kitaba was among many new American citizens voting for the first time in the 2022 midterm elections.

But Kitaba’s first vote was particularly significant: a constitutional amendment she co-authored and worked to pass was on her ballot. The Reproductive Freedom for All Amendment, or Proposition 3, passed by a margin of 13 points and enshrines the right to access to abortion and broader reproductive freedoms in the Michigan state constitution.

“I think that’s an ultimate career highlight,” Kitaba, assistant legal director of Michigan’s American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), told The 19th. “I don’t think I could top that again.”

Kitaba said it was “surreal” to receive her absentee ballot, turn it face down to see the 100-word summary of the constitutional amendment she helped write, and realize her vote would be one of those which they would accept. “Something in the universe made this possible,” she said.

“I’ve been really focused on getting this constitutional amendment eligible for the vote, collecting enough signatures and clearing all the hurdles to get there,” she added. “And I don’t think it really hit me until a few days after election night, after we won, that this is actually real.”

Kitaba grew up in Canada to a Guyanese mother and an Ethiopian father. She said being the daughter of two immigrants pushed her towards a career in civil rights law. Her father continued to campaign for freedom for the people of his homeland after coming to Canada as a refugee.

“Both he and my mother were very politically active,” she said. “He’s still very involved. And I think it really inspired me to work in human rights and civil rights work.”

Kitaba moved to Michigan in 2011 to attend Wayne State University law school. She knew immediately that Detroit was her home and that she wanted to practice law in the local community.

“I never thought that one day I would become a citizen and then vote in an election on something that I helped create,” she said.

The seed for Proposal 3 was first planted in 2018 and 2019 by ACLU advocates nationally and in Michigan. By that time, the ACLU and other groups had spent decades campaigning against abortion restrictions proposed by Michigan’s Republican legislature, which transitioned to Democratic control in 2022. And they saw Michigan, which passed two major citizen initiatives on voting rights and early elections, as fertile ground for an ambitious measure to protect access to abortion in 2018.

“It’s no coincidence that Michigan came out the gate first here,” said ACLU Senior Policy Counselor Jessica Arons, who co-wrote the text of Proposal 3 with Kitaba. “They have the capacity, the know-how, the mind and the wisdom to make this happen, and so a real disagreement ensued.”

Kitaba worked closely with Arons to co-author a unique constitutional amendment that would affirm the right not only to access abortion, but also to contraception, miscarriage treatment, fertility treatment, and antenatal and postnatal care.

“It was a bit of a strenuous experience, but also very rewarding and very exciting,” Arons said. “I felt I had a really great partnership with Bonsitu. It was nice for each other to be a sounding board for each other.”

An organizer helps a volunteer register and pick up signs at a Reproductive Freedom for All campaign office.  Purple and orange balloons decorate a table and "Agree Yes to Pillar 3" Farm signs can be seen in the .  Background.
An organizer helps a volunteer register and pick up signs at a Reproductive Freedom for All campaign office in Royal Oak, Michigan, in October 2022.
(Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images)

The two also worked with a variety of reproductive rights groups, local attorneys and constitutional attorneys who had run abortion cases to craft an amendment that would protect the widest range of reproductive rights while standing up to legal scrutiny.

“We have been collecting feedback on how to strengthen this constitutional amendment to ensure that it is interpreted correctly – the way we want it to be interpreted – and that it is not constrained and not used to harm people,” Kitaba said. “Those are really difficult questions.”

Her work took on new urgency when the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, the case in which the court would set aside Roe v. Wade. Kitaba said she, Arons and their staff would “test scenarios 100 times” for how the change could be challenged or undermined.

“It’s the broadest constitutional limit protecting reproductive rights, and I think it will hopefully influence other constitutional electoral policies that move forward,” Kitaba said of Michigan’s change.

Both the broad wording that encompasses a wide range of rights and the approval of advocates and organizers on the ground were critical in driving the momentum behind the change and mobilizing voters to get involved, Arons and Kitaba said.

“People felt invested in the effort and felt that their priorities were reflected in the language,” Arons said. In addition to passing Proposal 3, voters re-elected the three Democratic women at the top of the list, giving Democrats control of both houses of the state legislature.

Arons said that while Dobbs was a “low point,” the immediate dynamic behind the change and the number of volunteers who signed up to collect signatures were “exciting” and “gratifying.”

“People craved opportunities to get involved and do something to fight back,” she said. “It was really great to have this as a solution to turn to.”

Tom Bonier, a Democratic strategist and CEO of data analytics and research firm TargetSmart, told reporters that he saw the intensity behind the measure when he was approached several times in the days that followed by recruiters collecting signatures on a short trip to Michigan Dobb’s decision.

“When I first set foot in Michigan, someone came up to me and asked me to sign a petition for the election initiative,” he said when calling for Supermajority, a group focused on mobilizing women voters.

Kitaba said different aspects of the measure, whether it be guaranteeing the right to make personal health choices or addressing differential maternal mortality rates among black women, resonated with different voters. “It really motivated and touched everyone,” she said.

Before co-authoring the Reproductive Freedom for All measure, Kitaba worked on the 2018 constitutional amendment that introduced no-excuse absentee voting and automatic same-day voter registration in Michigan.

Kitaba said the increases in choices brought about by the 2018 amendment “absolutely” set the stage for Proposal 3 to pass.

“I saw for myself hundreds of students in Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan lining up to register to register to vote the same day and then cast their ballot for reproductive freedom for all,” she said. “It was really a moment that came full circle.”

Arons said 2022 was a “tipping point” for the passage of pro-abortion ballots nationwide and the failure of anti-abortion policies in Kansas, Kentucky and Montana. Voters in two other states, California and Vermont, also passed abortion-rights amendments this year. Proponents want to put similar measures to the vote as early as 2023 and 2024.

“I think the common thread is that people are really not going to tolerate having their rights taken away from them,” she said. “And if you give them an opportunity to take back their power, they will – and electoral action is certainly a way forward.”

Kitaba said the key lessons from her own history and the success of Proposal 3 are that “immigrants can make it” — and that democracy is something that citizens must fight to preserve and uphold every day.

“Many people are skeptical or indifferent to ‘politics’, but it’s so much more than that – our system of democracy in this country is so rich and beautiful,” she said. “And we take it for granted.”

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