Gretchen Whitmer’s abortion fight — from the porch with her daughters


The Washington Post


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)


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.

T he 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…


Read More: Gretchen Whitmer’s abortion fight — from the porch with her daughters

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments