Abortion bills part of end-of-session mix

Anti-abortion rally St. Paul
Hundreds of people opposed to abortion rallied at the Minnesota State Capitol on Jan. 22, 2012, to mark the 39th anniversary of the Supreme Court's Roe vs. Wade decision.
MPR Photo/Rupa Shenoy

When the Minnesota House and Senate both held floor votes this week on two separate abortion-related bills, they did so as other work -- including a healthcare spending bill and a tax bill -- remained unfinished.

That prompted criticism from opponents of the abortion measures, who say the Republican-controlled Legislature is too focused on abortion at the expense of the state's priorities.

The House passed a measure that would require a doctor to be present when a woman receives the abortion pill RU-486. Eight other states have passed similar laws.

The Senate passed legislation that would require clinics that provide abortions to be licensed with the state and be subject to random inspections. About half of states have similar regulations that specifically target abortion clinics.

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Last year, the Republican-controlled Legislature sent several bills to Gov. Mark Dayton, including one that would ban abortions after 20 weeks. Dayton, a Democrat, vetoed each bill.

Abortion opponents decided this year to push just two bills that they say are more likely to enjoy broad support. Scott Fischbach, director of Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, said members of his group also noted the shortened session and the fact that many lawmakers are thinking about re-election.

"They've had the stadium stuff on their minds, they've had the new districts on their minds," Fischbach said. "It's an election year, they've got lots going on. Our legislative approach this year, our legislative strategy, with Governor Dayton's veto pen at the ready, [was] to try to advance legislation that would possibly have a chance with him.

Planned Parenthood supporters
Planned Parenthood supporters marched near a Pro-Life Action Ministries prayer vigil near the Planned Parenthood building in St. Paul, Minn. Friday, April 6, 2012.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

"We would hope that he thinks it wasn't going too far, because we did have the experience that we had last year with the ... bills ... going to him, and he vetoed every one."

Some Democrats have criticized GOP leaders for spending time debating abortion when there is other unfinished business waiting. House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said lawmakers should be spending their time on bills that have a better chance of becoming law.

"I would prefer to be focused on those bread-and-butter issues, around jobs and around property taxes and some of the health care cuts that were made last year, and get that work done and then move on to other things if there's time left," Thissen said.

Despite competing priorities and an election year, Minnesota has joined several other state legislatures in considering abortion-related bills.

"It is a little confounding to me that we're seeing so much attention around abortion," said Elizabeth Nash, a policy analyst for the Guttmacher Institute, which supports abortion rights. She said that typically isn't the case in state legislatures during election years.

"We see more attention to budgets, making sure the education department is educating children, and making sure the transportation department is filling potholes," Nash said.

Abortion opponents say many lawmakers believe placing restrictions on abortion should be a priority.

Last year states passed a record number of laws restricting abortion, said Daniel McConchie, vice president of government affairs for Americans United for Life, an anti-abortion group. He said legislative activity on abortion has dropped this year, but not as much as he expected.

"We have seen somewhat of a decrease, but not a significant decrease in the amount of activity, in part because there's still a lot of things these legislators are looking at doing," he said.

In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, signed three abortion-related bills earlier this month, including one that would require doctors to speak alone and in person with a woman before an abortion procedure.

Arizona law now bans abortions after 20 weeks, and Mississippi passed a law this year that could force the state's only abortion clinic to close.