Legislature advances new restrictions on abortions

State Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis
State Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, speaks on the floor of the Minnesota State Senate in a file photo. Berglin spoke Tuesday, April 11, 2011 in opposition of a bill that would ban taxpayer-funded abortions in Minnesota.
MPR File Photo/Nikki Tundel

Two pieces of legislation that would make big changes in Minnesota's abortion laws are making their way through the House and Senate.

Committees in both chambers approved the abortion bills Tuesday. One measure would prohibit taxpayer-funded abortions, and the other would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

TAXPAYER FUNDING BILL

Since a 1995 Minnesota Supreme Court ruling in the Doe vs. Gomez case that struck down a law limiting the use of state medical funds for abortions, women who cannot afford abortions are able to get them through a state-subsidized health care plan.

But Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, wants to end that practice. Thompson told members of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee that there's no public benefit in paying for abortions.

"It is not right for the public, through their taxpayer dollars, to have to fund abortions, which a very large percentage of Minnesotans find to be immoral or an improper way for people to conduct themselves," Thompson said.

Thompson's bill would prevent abortions through state-funded health programs. With an expectation of a future legal challenge, the bill also says that any constitutional challenge would go directly to the state Supreme Court.

Jason Adkins, executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, testified in support of the measure, and he described the Gomez ruling as misguided.

"Gomez coerces the people of Minnesota into paying for what science tells us is the destruction of human life," Gomez said. "That is not pro-choice. It is no choice. The Legislature should work to have Gomez reversed, and this bill goes a long way toward doing that."

But opponents argued the bill is unconstitutional. Karen Law, executive director of Pro-Choice Resources, warned that it would also force some women to seek dangerous alternatives to end their pregnancies.

"The bills introduced are simply an attack on poor women," Law said. "I hope that our state will be wiser than to spend our limited resources to take away a right that has been previously guaranteed under Minnesota law."

Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, said the bill would prompt a costly lawsuit at a time when state finances are tight. Berglin also questioned how the committee could take this step right after cutting spending for several important state programs.

"We have not funded subsidized adoption," Berglin noted. "We have not funded the counties adequately to help poor women who are trying to get of public assistance by seeking employment."

20 WEEKS BILL

The same committee also heard testimony on a bill that would prohibit abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, except in the case of a medical emergency. The bill, titled the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, is modeled after a first-in-the-nation law adopted last year in Nebraska.

Andrea Rau, a legislative associate for Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, insisted that 20 weeks is the point when a fetus can feel pain.

"We have many laws, customs and traditions that seek to protect others from pain," Rau said. "Should we not extend this to the most vulnerable child: the unborn child?"

Opponents of the bill argue the fetal pain assertion is unproven, and they don't want that language in state law. Linnea House, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Minnesota, urged lawmakers to stay out of the issue altogether.

"Women facing difficult and sometimes tragic complications in their pregnancies need to be able to make the best decision for this based on their medical condition, the recommendation of their doctor and the beliefs of their family," House said. "I trust women to make these decisions, and you should too."

Earlier in the day, the House Judiciary Policy and Finance Committee approved a version of the bill banning taxpayer funding for abortions. The panel sent that measure to the House floor on a divided voice vote. Both bills appear destined for vetoes.

Gov. Mark Dayton's spokeswoman declined to comment on either bill, but she offered a reminder that the DFL governor has supported abortion rights throughout his career.

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