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A Michigan judge tried to block an abortion rights measure. His ex-wife says he helped her get an abortion in college.

Brian Zahra is up for re-election to Michigan’s Supreme Court, with a prominent anti-abortion group spending heavily to boost his candidacy.
Abortion rights supporters gather outside the Michigan State Capitol during a "Restore Roe" rally in Lansing, on Sept. 7, 2022.
Abortion-rights supporters gather outside the Michigan state Capitol in Lansing at a "Restore Roe" rally on Sept. 7.Jeff Kowalsky / AFP via Getty Images

PLYMOUTH, Mich. — When Brian Zahra learned that he had impregnated his 20-year-old girlfriend in May 1983, he grabbed the Yellow Pages, found an abortion clinic in the Detroit suburbs and made an appointment, the woman told NBC News in an interview last month.

They were of the same mind regarding what to do about the pregnancy and did not discuss other options, according to Alyssa Jones, who went by her maiden name, Alyssa Watson, at the time.

On May 18 that year, Jones said, Zahra drove her to the clinic and paid for her abortion. As they sat in the car afterward, Jones, then a sophomore in college, hung her head and wept, feeling the conflicting emotions of a life-changing experience. Zahra, she said, seemed frustrated that she was upset and that he couldn’t console her. He yelled at her, she recalled: If you didn’t want to do this, why did we do this?

Zahra, then a 23-year-old small-business owner who was a little more than a year away from enrolling in law school, is now a state judge and up for re-election to Michigan’s Supreme Court. 

“I’m grateful I had a choice, and I think he’s grateful he had a choice,” Jones said in an interview.

In early September, thirty-nine years after Jones says she terminated the pregnancy, Zahra voted to block a ballot initiative — known as Proposal 3 — that would enshrine abortion rights in the Michigan Constitution, arguing in a dissenting opinion that insufficient spacing between some words on the petition rendered it incompatible with Michigan law.

According to campaign finance records, a prominent anti-abortion group in the state is currently spending to help him win another term.

Zahra did not respond to detailed questions. But five hours after NBC News first contacted him Monday, he called Jones and left a voice message.

“Alyssa, this is Brian,” Zahra said. “I was contacted by a Washington reporter today who asked me some questions about you on a voicemail. I haven’t called back. I’d like to talk to you.” 

Jones, who said it was the first time she remembers him calling her since 1995, said she did not return that call.

Jones shared the details of her experience exclusively with NBC News in two interviews, one in late October and one at her home on Tuesday. She said she was moved to do so after a series of national and state events, including the Supreme Court’s decision this year to overturn federal protections for abortion rights and Zahra’s vote against the Michigan ballot proposal.

Jones said she was incensed by what she views as hypocrisy by Zahra, since she believes the termination of her pregnancy ultimately helped him build a successful law career, and that his vote was an attempt to deny others a similar choice.

Jones confided in a friend in 1983, within months of the abortion, the friend said. And she told her current husband, Dennis Jones, shortly after they began dating in 1994, he said. Medical records show she disclosed an abortion and two miscarriages to her doctor more than five years ago. Zahra and Jones would go on to marry in 1987 and divorce in 1993. 

Michigan Supreme Court Justice Brian Zahra.
Michigan Supreme Court Justice Brian Zahra.Michigan Courts

Aside from Zahra, Jones said she did not immediately tell anyone that she was pregnant in May 1983. But later that year, she told Margi Flanagan, a close friend and sorority sister who had asked why Jones seemed “mopey.”

“She broke down and told me why,” Flanagan told NBC News in an interview.

Flanagan had known Zahra’s family for a long time because she went to Catholic school with his younger brother, and she would later attend Zahra’s 1987 wedding to Jones, she said.

They separated for a time in 1992, but then Zahra returned to their home and the two underwent marriage counseling, Jones said. They divorced in December 1993, with Jones declining to retain her own lawyer because a friend handled the case for both of them, an account confirmed by court records and a note from the lawyer that Jones shared with NBC News. She said she had no desire to contest the divorce and took no action to do so.

It was amicable enough that they resumed dating after the divorce, well into 1994, she said.

She broke things off with Zahra when she met Jones that year, she said, and has seen her ex-husband only a handful of times in public settings since then. In an interview, Dennis Jones said Alyssa told him about her abortion shortly after they started dating in 1994. 

Zahra remarried and has two children; Alyssa and Dennis Jones have one child.

Abortion became a much more salient policy and political issue in Michigan in June, as it did across the country, when the Supreme Court overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision protecting abortion rights nationwide. In August, a county judge temporarily blocked enforcement of a 1931 Michigan law that bans abortion except in cases when it is “necessary to preserve the life” of a woman, but Jones said she worries about how Zahra would rule on that and other related issues.

“It’s not just terminations, it’s all reproductive rights,” she said. “It’s all of those rights I fear for right now.”

In January, a coalition of pro abortion-rights groups formed and began circulating a petition to put a state constitutional amendment protecting abortion access on the Michigan ballot. The coalition easily passed the threshold for putting Proposal 3, as it was known, before voters, but the measure was temporarily blocked when the state Board of Canvassers refused to certify it because of GOP objections to the formatting of the petition’s text. The abortion-rights coalition sued to place it on the ballot, and the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of the coalition — ordering state officials to put the proposed amendment to voters on Nov. 8.

Zahra, who has said little about the issue of abortion according to an NBC News review of public records and news articles, dissented.

“As a wordsmith and a member of Michigan’s court of last resort, a court that routinely scrutinizes in great detail the words used in statutes and constitutional provisions, I find it an unremarkable proposition that spaces between words matter,” he wrote. “Words separated by spaces cease being words or become new words when the spaces between them are removed.”

He added that his conclusion was “not a statement regarding the substance of the proposed amendment, but rather a statement about the presentation of the proposal.” 

Zahra routinely describes his judicial philosophy in nonpartisan terms, as he did in an August interview with the MIRS’ Monday, a public policy and politics podcast in Michigan, saying “our job is to interpret the law” and “we aren’t the political branch of government.”

His career has been supported by the favor of powerful Republicans, and Jones said that she and Zahra were both active in GOP politics when they were a couple.

Beginning in 1994, two Michigan governors, both Republicans — John Engler (1991-2002) and Rick Snyder (2011-2018) — appointed Zahra to a series of judgeships on the Wayne County Circuit Court, the Michigan court of appeals and the state Supreme Court. He subsequently won election to full terms in each post following his appointments.

Right to Life of Michigan endorsed him in his two previous Supreme Court races and again in this year’s contest, and he has the support of Citizens for Traditional Values, a Lansing-based conservative nonprofit that opposes abortion rights

Zahra spoke at a CTV luncheon in June, according to a write-up on the group’s website.

In urging voters not to re-elect Zahra, for reasons including his dissent in the abortion ballot initiative case, the Detroit Free Press Editorial Board wrote that Zahra says Right to Life endorsed without his input. 

Anti-abortion groups appeared to take note of his September dissent. In the two weeks after he wrote it, the super PAC Right to Life of Michigan Victory Fund spent nearly $10,000 to support the judge’s re-election campaign, according to state campaign finance records. In a campaign finance filing with the Michigan secretary of state, the super PAC reported sending 78 separate batches of newsletters and sample ballots to voters to help Zahra win, an NBC News analysis of the data found.

Emily Kroll, one of Right to Life of Michigan’s leaders, did not respond to a request to explain the endorsement of Zahra. 

Right to Life of Michigan lays out criteria for its endorsements on its website, including that “a candidate must be prolife with no exceptions other than the life of the mother.” 

Additionally, the group has a policy of endorsing incumbents it has favored before, “provided that the incumbent has maintained an acceptable prolife voting record since their last election and successfully completed a current questionnaire.”

Zahra and Jones met through the Greek system at Wayne State University, a commuter school in Detroit, in May 1982. He was a “Pike” — Pi Kappa Alpha — and she was in Delta Zeta. After running into each other at a fraternity party the following school year, they began dating on Sept. 18, 1982, Jones recalled.

She lived at her father’s house in Taylor. He lived with his Maltese-immigrant parents in Dearborn, where he had attended Divine Child, a prominent Roman Catholic school. He co-owned a small business — AAA Discount — while he worked toward a degree.

At a dinner and dance in May 1983, after they had been dating for a little more than half a year, Jones noticed that she was feeling faint. She calculated her menstrual cycle and told Zahra she thought she might be pregnant. He obtained a home-pregnancy test, said Jones, who was studying medical technology and is now an embryologist.

Alone in her childhood bedroom, Jones opened the set and began a byzantine mixology process that took at least 45 minutes to complete. When she saw a ring appear at the bottom of a test tube, she knew she was pregnant, she said.

“I called him,” she said. “From what I recall, he came over right away.”

When Zahra arrived, Jones recalled, they sat together at the kitchen table, with Jones still dressed in the burgundy velvet bathrobe she had on while she awaited the test result. He pulled out a copy of the yellow pages and found the abortion clinic, she said.  

He would drive her twice to the clinic, she said: once for a test confirming her pregnancy and once for the abortion. Zahra did not join her for the procedure, she said, because he was not allowed in the room. He wanted to accompany her, she said.

“I never disagreed with it, I didn’t feel like he was strong-arming me,” Jones recalled. “I do remember talking during the procedure, saying, ‘You know, we just need to finish school, we’re not ready to have a family, we need to finish school.’”

She was in a state of conscious sedation at the time, speaking to the medical professionals in the room, she recalled.

Jones said she felt “relieved” when it was over, despite the stronger emotions that swept over her when she sat next to Zahra in the car afterward. He snapped at her while she cried, then drove her to Arby’s, she said.

“And then we never really talked about it again,” Jones said. “We didn’t discuss it at all. It was done.”