Minnesota may have a staggeringly-large $17.6 billion budget surplus this year, but as the first week of the 2023 legislative session draws to a close, the biggest and most controversial issue in front of lawmakers so far has been abortion.
Top DFL leaders say moving fast to cement abortion access in state law — as a backstop to a 1995 state Supreme Court ruling establishing rights in the Minnesota Constitution — is a top priority for the nascent Legislature, showing urgency driven less by any sort of deadline than a desire to capitalize on an issue Democrats believe is the reason they have full control of the Legislature.
“I think the electorate sent a really strong message to their elected leaders in the state of Minnesota that they value their reproductive freedom and bodily autonomy,” said House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, talking with reporters on Tuesday.
Both Hortman and Senate Majority Leader Kari Dziedzic, DFL-Minneapolis, have promised since last month to pass what’s known at the Capitol as the “PRO Act” — which stands for the Protect Reproductive Options Act — perhaps within the first several weeks of session, which is practically warp speed for legislators that often wait months to negotiate what can pass the Legislature. The legislation received the ceremonial titles of House File 1 and Senate File 1, indicating Big Deal status.
Key Republicans have also blamed their losses on abortion. But the GOP has vociferously objected to the PRO Act, portraying it as allowing a late-term abortion free for all. (About 88 percent of Minnesota abortions in 2021 took place within the first trimester, and only one was reported after 24 weeks.) This week, the GOP and anti-abortion groups pushed for limits on the procedure, such as a ban on most third-trimester abortions or parental notification requirements, but haven’t focused on more stringent restrictions like a “fetal heartbeat” policy.
“I do know that Minnesotans are not extreme,” said House Minority Leader Lisa Demuth, R-Cold Spring. “Abortion should not be legal up to the moment of birth.”
What Democrats want to pass
The PRO Act, which received its first hearing in a House committee on Thursday, has been a priority for many DFL lawmakers in years past. But Democrats say it’s even more top of mind after Roe v. Wade was reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Minnesota has its own constitutional protections for abortion access. That means the PRO Act doesn’t necessarily change anything at all, especially considering Gov. Tim Walz is unlikely to appoint any anti-abortion justices to the state Supreme Court.
Still, the bill’s chief author Rep. Carlie Kotyza-Witthuhn, DFL-Eden Prairie, told the House’s Health Finance and Policy Committee that Minnesota’s court ruling could nevertheless be overturned in the future.
“What happened to Roe could happen in Minnesota, too,” Kotyza-Witthuhn said.
The bill itself is short but broad in scope. Its two pages currently say every person has a “fundamental right to make autonomous decisions about the individual’s own reproductive health.” And it would establish a universal “fundamental right” to continue a pregnancy and give birth, or to obtain an abortion.
Reproductive health care is defined not just as abortion, but contraception, sterilization, maternity care and more. In addition, the bill would explicitly ban local governments from regulating reproductive health care.
A mix of supporters and opponents testified at the committee, including new Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Brooke Cunningham, who said restraining reproductive health care “tends to impact members of our most disadvantaged communities the most.” Dr. Sarah Traxler, chief medical officer for Planned Parenthood North Central States, said her organization has seen a 13% increase in patients coming from outside their region since Roe was overturned, and a 40% increase in second trimester abortions.
The GOP pushback
State Rep. Anne Neu Brindley, R-North Branch, said the legislation should include some limits, like a law notifying parents when a minor seeks an abortion. And Republicans on the Health committee proposed requiring abortions to be performed in a hospital past the first trimester. Both restrictions were in state law until a Ramsey County district court judge ruled them unconstitutional last year, a decision Attorney General Keith Ellison did not appeal.
Neu Brindley said without a parental notification requirement, an abuser or rapist could take a teen to get an abortion to cover up their crime without anyone knowing. Neu Brindley also said there should be restrictions on third trimester abortions.
The anti-abortion coalition Mothers Offering Maternal Support was at the Capitol on Thursday to advocate for their effort to intervene in the legal case and sidestep Ellison to appeal the Ramsey County decision. Teresa Collett, an attorney for the group and director of the University of St. Thomas School of Law’s Prolife Center, said the PRO Act could undercut those restrictions even if judges ruled in their favor.
The GOP in the past has sought to further limit abortion. But they did not propose those types of amendments Thursday.
Demuth told reporters the House GOP is a “pro-life caucus.” However, banning abortion altogether or during the first trimester was broadly unpopular in a June poll by MinnPost/Change Research. And she told MinnPost in December that many Minnesotans are “concerned about a total ban.”
“My Democrat colleagues want to advance the most extreme position on abortion they can possibly advance,” Neu Brindley said.
Minnesota law does not currently include any enforceable age limits or ban on late-term abortions. Though abortion providers and DFLers argue late-term abortions are exceedingly rare and medical professionals won’t perform them without a significant reason, like if a woman’s life was in danger.
A handful of other states, including Colorado and New Mexico don’t have enforceable statutory limits on late-term abortions. Of the 10,136 abortions reported by Minnesota in 2021, only one was after 24 weeks and 159 were reported between 21 and 24 weeks.
While the GOP may fight the PRO Act — Demuth and Senate Minority Leader Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks, both predicted abortion would be the most controversial issue at the Legislature this year — the DFL can muscle through the legislation if they can band together without losing many votes.
Both Hortman and Dziedzic say they have “pro-choice majorities” in their respective chambers. And they said at a Minnesota Chamber of Commerce event on Wednesday they expect the legislation to move quickly.
Hortman also said earlier this week that House and Senate DFL leaders will discuss whether to ask voters to decide whether to explicitly establish abortion access rights in the Minnesota Constitution. “I personally believe that we should do it, and we should do it as soon as possible,” she said.