Correction: This article has been corrected to include information about demand and readiness from Planned Parenthood North Central States, which is the largest provider of abortion services in Minnesota. They have not seen increased demand for services after the Texas law and say they are prepared for any coming increase in demand for services. The headline of the piece has also been corrected to reflect this information.
About 1,200 miles of I-35 separate the Texas capital of Austin from St. Paul, Minnesota. Despite that distance, in recent months, an increasing number of people from Texas are making the long journey to Minnesota for one reason: obtaining a legal abortion.
In June, Texas passed SB8, a law that bans abortions after six weeks of pregnancy (before many people even know that they are pregnant) and allows private citizens to sue anyone who may have played a role in facilitating a newly illegal abortion. The law is a direct challenge to the standards laid out in the 1992 Supreme Court decision Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which said states could not restrict abortion rights prior to fetal viability — about 24 weeks.
The Supreme Court heard arguments about a challenge to Texas’ law in October and is expected to issue a decision next summer. But for now, the law stands.
And that’s not the only challenge to abortion rights on the horizon. On December 1, the Supreme Court will hear arguments on Dobbs v. Jackson, a case coming out of Mississippi that bans most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. That law was declared unconstitutional by lower courts and is not currently in effect.
As a result of the Texas law, Minnesota abortion rights advocates are seeing more patients from outside the state, some of whom need financial assistance for their journey and medical care. That’s caused demand and costs to increase. If Dobbs doesn’t go the way they want it to, Minnesota could see even more out-of-state patients.
Influx of patients
Since Texas passed its restrictive abortion ban in September, several other state legislatures have introduced similar laws. For example, in Ohio lawmakers have introduced a bill that would make abortion at any stage of pregnancy illegal. In Minnesota, abortion rights activists are nervous about a “heartbeat bill” that has been proposed in the state legislature.
But a complete ban of abortions in Minnesota would necessitate changing the state’s constitution, which is unlikely. Additionally, Gov. Tim Walz has said that he would veto any anti-abortion bill that came across his desk. Walz is up for re-election next year.
At Our Justice, an organization that assists people in accessing abortion care in Minnesota by helping with costs of transportation, lodging, appointments and medication, staff members say they’ve seen an increase in people needing help in the last few months, especially since the Texas abortion ban went into effect. The group sent $6,000 to one clinic just in October, which is nearly triple what it would usually contribute.
“These last couple months we’ve had such an influx of people reaching out to us for funding,” said Shayla Walker, vision realization advisor at Our Justice. “And we’ve seen people even travel all the way from Texas to Minnesota.”
According to Our Justice staff members, the people that they help tend to be around half from Minnesota and half from out-of-state.
“We’re very used to people coming from Iowa and Wisconsin, and there’s been a lot more requests from people farther away,” said Megumi Rierson, communications manager at Our Justice.
“However,” Rierson said, “We’re overwhelmed now. And if Roe falls, the combination of state level restrictions [in other states] and the lack of providers here means that we’re not going to be able to meet the need if it’s federally overturned.”
Other organizations have not seen a significant change in demand after the passage of Texas’ law. Planned Parenthood is the largest provider of abortion services in the state, and is preparing to be able to serve the people who need care, according to Lauren Gilchrist, executive vice president of external affairs for Planned Parenthood North Central States.
“We are preparing, and with the support of donors, we believe we will be ready for a potential surge,” Gilchrist said. According to Gilchrist, Planned Parenthood in Minnesota has not seen a significant change in the number of people seeking abortions since the passage of SB8, but she said that she cannot speak for other independent providers within the state.
Gilchrist also said that the inequities in abortion care expand beyond those who, like many people in Texas, have to travel out-of-state to receive care.
“People who can travel will always have access to resources and abortion, but people who can’t get time off work and can’t get child care [or] are in abusive situations, those are the people who are going to be most disenfranchised.”
Despite their concerns for the future, both Rierson and Walker said that their main focus is just on working with what they have right now. Even after upcoming Supreme Court arguments, decisions may not come out until next summer at the earliest.
“We’re scared. And we have to prepare for the future. But we’ve also tried to be really clear with people that right now, and for the foreseeable future, you’ll be able to legally get an abortion in Minnesota,” Rierson said.
Overturning abortion precedent
The Supreme Court will hear arguments on December 1 in Mississippi’s bid to overturn Roe v. Wade, the Court’s landmark decision that guarantees a woman’s right to an abortion.
Mississippi is requesting that the Court uphold the state’s ban on most abortions after the 15th week of pregnancy, and the state has told the Court that it should overrule Roe and Planned Parenthood v. Casey. The Planned Parenthood case prevents states from banning abortion before viability, or the point at which a fetus can survive outside the womb, around 24 weeks of pregnancy.
The Supreme Court had previously turned down state appeals over pre-viability abortion bans. If the Court upholds Mississippi’s law, it would be the first ratification of an abortion ban before the point of viability.
“The Supreme Court doesn’t hear most cases that are presented to it. They pick and choose, and they don’t normally hear cases on well settled issues, but for some reason they did decide to hear this case, even though it’s been well settled for what is it now five decades,” said Jess Braverman, legal director at Gender Justice, an organization that addresses gender injustices by representing people in legal cases and educating the public. “So it’s really troubling, even just that they agreed to hear this case.”
The case could have a few different outcomes: The Supreme Court could strike down the Mississippi law, meaning that Roe is upheld and abortion policy in many states would stay as it is today. The Court could uphold the state law, which would effectively overturn Roe and turn over abortion laws to individual states. There are already several states with “trigger bans,” which would immediately ban abortion if Roe is overturned.
Braverman said that one worry some abortion rights advocates have is that the Supreme Court now has a 6-3 majority of conservative justices, some of whom have historically been against constitutional protection for abortion access, particularly Justice Clarence Thomas. Two new justices who were appointed during the Trump administration, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, have expressed some anti-abortion viewpoints in past court cases. Barrett in particular has a long record of personal opposition to abortion rights, co-authoring a 1998 law review article that said abortion is “always immoral.”
Minnesota ‘an oasis’
Because the right to an abortion is protected in Minnesota’s constitution, an overturn of Roe would not have immediate effects on legal access in the state. But some neighboring states, including North Dakota and South Dakota, have trigger bans, and Wisconsin still has an unenforced pre-Roe abortion ban that could potentially come back if Roe is overturned.
In Minnesota, current laws protect the right to an abortion until viability, which the state considers to be 23 weeks. After that, abortions are allowed when necessary to save a pregnant person’s life.
According to Unrestrict Minnesota, a reproductive rights group, Minnesota currently has eight abortion providers. And according to Our Justice staff, there is one abortion care provider in St. Paul that offers in-office surgical services after 12 weeks of pregnancy, and one provider in Duluth that will provide surgical abortions up to 16 weeks. Most other earlier abortions are administered by pill. But with increasing demand in Minnesota, waiting times also increase, meaning many patients cannot see a doctor for two to three weeks.
Delays like this can often result in more complex procedures, which tend to be more expensive. Medication abortions are usually cheaper and less invasive than surgical abortions, but they’re not recommended after 10 weeks of pregnancy. So a two week delay that many Minnesota patients are experiencing could push someone from being able to consider a medication option to a point where surgery is the only viable option.
“If you look within the letter of the law, Minnesota looks like quite an oasis or a haven for abortion access,” Rierson said. “But because of just a million different things including stigma… it’s so hard, and all the demand gets placed onto hub states like Minnesota.”
With only a few abortion providers still in Minnesota and the increase in out-of-state patients causing long waiting times, organizations like Our Justice are struggling to help patients and keep up with demand. And the demand for those services will only increase if Roe is overturned, said Braverman.
“Basically, we’d be flooded. We’d be inundated,” Braverman said. “So the question is, can we keep up with demand like that? Do we have the infrastructure, do we have the funding? The Minnesota constitution does protect us…but what will abortion access look like if the states around us ban it is a different question.”