Walz signs PRO Act, enshrining right to abortion into Minnesota law

Pro-life and pro-choice advocates gather at the Capitol
Pro-life advocates sing hymns in a prayer circle as pro-choice advocates chant from the floor above them at the Minnesota State Capitol building during the Minnesota Senate debate on the PRO Act on Friday, passed Saturday and signed into law Tuesday.
Nicole Neri for MPR News

On Tuesday, Governor Tim Walz signed the PRO Act, which immediately enshrines the right to abortion into Minnesota law. PRO stands for Protect Reproductive Options.

A state supreme court case already guarantees this right in Minnesota, so the law does not change the situation on the ground for doctors and patients.

But it will make it much harder to restrict abortion in the future, which was a top priority for DFL lawmakers on the campaign trail.

Back before the election, University of Minnesota Law Professor Jill Hasday joined Minnesota Now to talk about what could happen to abortion access in the state. She came back to help us understand the impact of this new law.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation. 

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: Couple of minutes ago, Governor Tim Walz signed the PRO Act into law. It will enshrine the right to an abortion into Minnesota law. PRO stands for Protect Reproductive Options. The state Supreme Court case already guarantees this right in Minnesota. So the law does not change the situation on the ground for doctors and patients, but it will make it much harder to restrict abortion in the future.

And that was a top priority for DFL lawmakers on the campaign trail. Back before the election, University of Minnesota Law Professor Jill Hasday joined us to talk about what could happen to abortion access in the state, and she's back today to help us understand the impact of this new law. Welcome back, Professor. Thank you for coming on the program.

JILL HASDAY: Thanks for having me.

CATHY WURZER: So this new law, the PRO Act, means that Minnesota will be the 16th state in the country to have law protecting abortion. How does this law compare to others?

JILL HASDAY: In some ways, I think this is, as you said, it's part of a trend. Minnesota has embedded in the Minnesota State Constitution a right to abortion. The Minnesota Supreme Court held in a 1995 case called Women of the State of Minnesota versus Gomez, that the right of privacy that the Minnesota Constitution protects includes a right of access to abortion.

And then, in a more recent case called Doe versus Minnesota with a district court in Minnesota decided two weeks after Dobbs, the district court relied on Gomez and struck down a lot of particular restrictions that Minnesota had on abortion, including 24-hour waiting periods and requirements to get both parents' consent before a minor could have an abortion.

The PRO Act-- the basic thing it does is it codifies the idea that there's a fundamental right to control your own reproduction, including the right to have an abortion. And I think the long-term goal of that legislation was as a hedge against a possible future Minnesota Supreme Court changing its mind.

CATHY WURZER: Now-- go ahead.

JILL HASDAY: Oh, I will say, in the short term, I think it does something in addition. The last provision of this Act says that a local government can't regulate an individual's ability to freely exercise the fundamental right to an abortion.

And I think that is targeted at a short-term and an immediate issue. So after this district court in Minnesota struck down most restrictions on abortion, Keith Ellison announced they're not appealing. So that decision stands.

Within a week, a local prosecutor in Traverse County announced he would actually like to intervene in that suit and appeal when the state doesn't want to appeal. And one of the things that this new statute does is that the state saying to localities, you don't have the authority to impose or pursue abortion restrictions that the state government isn't pursuing.

CATHY WURZER: So now that this law has passed, Professor, are there any options available to opponents of abortion? It doesn't seem like there would be.

JILL HASDAY: Not really in the short term. I mean, overturning Roe is a very long-term strategy of the anti-abortion movement. And of course, they could pursue that here. You can still pursue politics.

You can try to get a new anti-abortion governor elected, who might appoint anti-abortion justices, who would change their interpretation. Similarly, this is a statute. So it can always be repealed by a future legislature. There's nothing that stops that.

I would say in the immediate term, there are not really opportunities for the anti-abortion movement in Minnesota, but I also think it's a mistake to think that anti-abortion politics will no longer play out in Minnesota.

CATHY WURZER: In the act itself, PRO stands for Protect Reproductive Options. It also covers things like birth control, sterilization, and the right to carry a pregnancy to term. And I'm wondering, is that language, those protections unique in state laws involving reproductive health care elsewhere?

JILL HASDAY: I think that the PRO Act is part of a more general trend. So the reproductive justice movement talks about three tenants. One is the right not to be pregnant if you don't want to be pregnant, and that's about access to contraception or abortion.

But it's also about the right to be pregnant if you want to have a child. And that's about freedom from coerced sterilization. And third, it's about the right to raise your children in basic safety and with adequate food, et cetera.

And I think the PRO Act really reflects all three of those tenants, recognizing that abortion never really stands alone. It's really about the right to make decisions for yourself, either way-- to have a child or not.

CATHY WURZER: Exactly. I was watching the debate, which went on for hours in the state Senate, as you may have done the same on Friday night. And Republican lawmakers and abortion opponents were concerned-- had a lot of concern about late-term abortions. There were several amendments that they attempted to add to the bill and that were defeated.

In fact, in the House debate, Republican State Representative Matt Dean, former state representative Matt Dean, tweeted that Governor Walz promised not to extend abortion beyond viability, and then broke that promise by signing the bill. Can you fact-check that for us? Is that true? Do you know?

JILL HASDAY: I-- as a practical matter-- well, it's complicated, because what do you mean by abortion after viability? So viability right now is 23 or 24 weeks. I think Minnesota does have abortion after viability available, for instance, where the health of the pregnant person is at stake, the life of the pregnant person is at stake. To my knowledge, abortion is not available in Minnesota after viability outside of those circumstances.

CATHY WURZER: Anything else you want to add about this now-new law in the state of Minnesota, for some context for listeners?

JILL HASDAY: I think this is a moment when pro-choice people are-- this is all about Dobbs, obviously. So the Minnesota Supreme Court is the ultimate interpreter of what the Minnesota Constitution means. That doesn't change when the Supreme Court removes federal constitutional protections for abortion rights.

But still, the PRO Act really is a response to Dobbs, because I think that made very clear for people that ultimately, there's only so much you can count on the courts. The courts can change their mind, and it really got people focused on who support abortion rights.

What else can we do to try to protect these rights going forward? What are the other parts of the government that can help do that? And in that respect, I see the PRO Act as a response to Dobbs.

There's no suggestion that the Minnesota Supreme Court is going to go back on its 1995 decision in Gomez. But with the recent overturning of Roe in mind at the federal level, I think everyone is just much more worried about that, just as a general matter of courts changing their mind.

CATHY WURZER: All right. Professor, always appreciate your time and your insights. Thank you so much.

JILL HASDAY: Thanks for having me.

CATHY WURZER: Jill Hasday is a Distinguished McKnight University Professor at the University of Minnesota Law School. About 10 minutes ago, Governor Walz signed into law the PRO Act. It's now the law of the land in Minnesota.

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