DETROIT—When Michigan Democratic gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed thinks about reproductive justice, he thinks “about it as building the space within which women are empowered to make their best decision at every point along which they might make a decision about their fertility, and their reproductive choices.”
That’s what he told Rewire on Saturday during an interview at the Women’s Convention in Detroit, where he was a speaker for a plenary session on engaging new voters in 2018 elections. El-Sayed is running in Michigan’s Democratic primary in hopes of replacing term-limited Gov. Rick Snyder (R).
His campaign website engages in both reproductive rights and justice, noting that the latter “goes beyond health care” and touches on other issues such as jobs and pay. “This is something that I believe in deeply,” he said, pointing to the experiences he and his wife, who is nine months pregnant with their first child, have had. “She’s a doctor, and the set of challenges that she’s had to face around thinking about child care, around what we can do together to create the best means for raising our daughter and empowering my wife as she continues forward in her medical career—those are hard things to deal with.”
“And you know, we’re really privileged,” he continued. “But there’s a lot to think about there: Breastfeeding, how we want to feed the child, what access to child care we have and where we want to go. Those are complications that when people just talk about you know, pro-choice, pro-life, right, they don’t get baked into the picture. Now, you can imagine if Sarah and I didn’t have the means that we had, or Sarah had to make this decision alone—those are deep, complicated choices, but it reaffirms the point to me that this always is an individual decision and we have to empower women to make that decision whichever way it works out.”
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El-Sayed, 32, was born and raised in Michigan, the son of Egyptian immigrants. He would be the nation’s first Muslim governor if elected. He faces an August 7, 2018, Democratic primary against candidates including former state Sen. Gretchen Whitmer.
He served as the executive director of Detroit’s Health Department, where he helped build the SisterFriends program. According to its website, the program “connect[s] pregnant moms and families to existing programs and resources—and to each other” in order to address the high rates of infant mortality in Detroit. El-Sayed described the effort as “a partnership program where the health department helps to train sister friends, or partners, who are interested in taking on a little sister—somebody who is facing pregnancy—and being a partner, role model, resource for that individual as she moves through her pregnancy and into the first year of life.”
Noting that he had worked on the program prior to leaving the Department of Public Health and that it launched just after his departure, he said he was “very proud of it.”
El-Sayed said “the best way to prevent an abortion is to prevent an unwanted pregnancy in the first place.” Under his leadership as public health commissioner in Detroit, the department worked to address unplanned teen pregnancy, and he has discussed the importance of providing contraception such as long-acting reversible options in reducing poverty.
If elected to the governor’s office, El-Sayed told Rewire that advocacy would be a part of putting his pro-choice views into action. “One of things that you have as the governor is a position on which to weigh in on critical issues, and I will always use that position to advocate for pro-choice policy and to advocate for Planned Parenthood, and to advocate based on my own experiences and the data we have in Michigan,” he said.
Part of that would mean applying his positions on health care to the state’s budget, he suggested. “Our public health budget Michigan is 1.5 percent of the overall budget,” said El-Sayed. “That is crazy in a state that poisoned 9,000 kids in Flint, right? And the level to which we have invested in family-planning services and empowering women across the extent of their capacity to choose, I think is very limited, and I think there is a responsibility for us to really invest there because, well, if you’re empowering women to make their best choice, it has knock-on effects over the long-term.”
“That’s a great investment in public health as a public-health practitioner,” he continued.
El-Sayed said he would “want to appoint cabinet-level leaders who believe in the responsibility to empower women in the right to choose.”
“I’d want to make investments that signal that,” he said, “to how we invest as a state, to how we advocate around federal policy, to how we empower local health departments to work.”
Given that Republicans hold the majority in Michigan’s state legislature, El-Sayed vowed to use the power of his office to block anti-choice measures that came across his desk. “I have a pretty strong pen as a governor, you know, and I’ll veto anything that comes along my desk that would limit a woman’s right to make her best choice,” he said.
He mentioned what he saw as a “responsibility we have to push a broader narrative about why this matters” and to “personalize these conversations” about reproductive rights. “I think if we bring empathy to this conversation,” he said, “share people’s stories and empower them to share their stories, I think it changes the conversation.”
“It is an area that I will unabashedly lead on because I think in a civilized society like ours we need to be able to empower people to be able to make their best decisions about when and with whom and how and what circumstances to bring a person into the world,” El-Sayed said.