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How Minnesota became an island of abortion rights in the Midwest

As Wisconsin considers further restrictions on abortions, Minnesota’s lack of legislation around the always-contentious issue has made it an outlier among its neighbors. 

Two abortion-related bills were supported by Republicans in the House and Senate this year, but neither got close to getting full legislative approval.
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach

For all the trouble they had completing their work this year, Minnesota legislators didn’t get bogged down in one issue that certainly has the ability to bog down a session: abortion. 

Just two bills were brought up in the regular session: One would have banned taxpayer funding (via Medicaid) for abortions; the other would have required strict licensing of any clinic where more than 10 abortions per month were performed. Both bills were supported by Republicans in the House and Senate, but neither got close to getting full legislative approval.

That relative lack of action around the always-contentious issue has made Minnesota a conspicuous outlier among its Midwestern cohorts.  

Across the country, since Republicans won big during the 2010 elections, states have enacted 231 bills restricting abortions, said Sarah Stoesz, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Minnesota, South and North Dakota. The result: today, Minnesota is surrounded by states where abortion rights have been curtailed in recent years. 

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In South Dakota, there is only one clinic that offers abortions: a Planned Parenthood in Sioux Falls. There’s a 72-hour waiting period between when a woman says she wants an abortion and when she can undergo the procedure. (Weekends and holidays are excluded in the wait time.) And no South Dakota physicians are performing abortions, according to Stoesz, meaning each time an abortion is to be performed a physician from Minnesota must go to Sioux Falls.

Yet, anti-abortion as South Dakota appears, in 2008 the state’s voters rejected an initiative that would have prohibited all abortions, except for when the mother’s health was at stake. 

North Dakota’s story is similar to South Dakota’s. In 2013, the state legislature passed the most restrictive abortion bill in the nation, one that would have prohibited the procedure at the point the heartbeat of the fetus occurs. Typically, that’s at between six to eight weeks.

Last year, however, U.S. District Court Daniel Hovland said the law was unconstitutional. “A woman’s constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy before viability has been recognized by the United States Supreme Court for more than 40 years,’’ Hovland wrote. Viability doesn’t occur until 27 or 28 weeks into a pregnancy. 

Like South Dakotans, North Dakotans proved they may not be as opposed to abortion rights as some thought. In 2014 a “personhood” initiative, which declared “the right to life of every human being at any stage of development’’ was soundly defeated at the polls. Not only did the initiative go down, but two long-time pro-life legislators were defeated. 

Iowa has been relatively quiet, though there has been a strange twist to a law passed in 2013 that requires the state’s governor to approve each publicly funded abortion. The University of Iowa Medical School decided to “stay out of the politics of the issue” by absorbing the costs of abortions that would have needed the approval of Gov. Terry Branstad, a pro-life Republican. 

Wisconsin set to pass new restrictions

But nowhere is the issue more hotly debated right now than in Wisconsin. Since Gov. Scott Walker was elected and the GOP won legislative majorities, there have been a series of abortion restrictions passed. Women seeking abortions are required to undergo ultrasounds. Physicians are banned from performing abortions in hospitals in which they don’t have admitting privileges. Planned Parenthood lost state funding, causing a number of its facilities to close.

And this week, the Republican majority in the Wisconsin senate is expected to pass a bill that would ban abortion after 20 weeks. Though the state’s Assembly has yet to put the bill on its calendar, Walker has promised to sign it.

Proponents of the law claim that at 20 weeks a fetus can feel pain, a point Walker touted on a recent interview on CNN. “Whether you’re pro-life or not, that’s a good time to say that shouldn’t be legal after a time when a child can literally feel pain,” he said. But according to Doug Laube, a Madison physician and former president of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the oft-mentioned pain theory Walker cited is “junk science.” Studies have shown that, given fetal brain development, it would not be possible for pain to be felt until 26 to 27 weeks of development, Laube says.

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But the biggest issue with the bill, Laube says,  “is the safety of the mother.’’ At 20 weeks, doctor and mother are confronted with gut-wrenching legal decisions.  Under the law, the well-being of the fetus — no matter its viability — appears to be placed ahead of the well-being of the mother. A physician who would abort a fetus at 21 weeks could face 3½ years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

Dayton’s role

So how did Minnesota become such a conspicuous exception to the recent trend toward further restricting abortions? Gov. Mark Dayton. 

Dayton’s narrow first-term victory came the same year Minnesota Republicans took over the House and Senate. Over the next two years, those GOP majorities passed four bills restricting abortion in various ways. One, similar to the law proposed in Wisconsin, would have banned abortions after 20 weeks. Another would have required the state to license any clinic where abortions are performed. Another would have required a physician to be physically present when prescribing an abortion pill. And a fourth would have prohibited state funding of any abortion. All were vetoed by Dayton.

Those moves have earned the governor plaudits among pro-choice activists. “Minnesota has become a beacon of women’s health,” said Planned Parenthood’s Sarah Stoesz. Echoes Laube, the Madison physician: “People in Minnesota should be glad they live in such an enlightened state.”

Whether Minnesota is “enlightened” depends on your point of view regarding abortion, of course. But prior to the elections of 2010, Minnesota wasn’t such an island. In fact, there was little difference between Minnesota and Wisconsin regarding abortion rights. Now the two states are moving toward opposite ends of the abortion spectrum.