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Abortion rights groups file lawsuit to block future Minnesota restrictions on procedure

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Hundreds gather at the Capitol for an abortion rights rally in St Paul.
Hundreds gather at the State Capitol for an abortion rights rally in St Paul on May 21, 2019. Abortion rights supporters said Wednesday they're launching a preemptive legal strike on existing abortion restrictions in Minnesota.
Christine Nguyen | MPR News file

Abortion rights supporters say they're launching a legal strike on abortion restrictions in Minnesota, as laws governing the procedure expand across the country.

A coalition of women's and abortion rights groups, along with the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, announced a lawsuit in St. Paul on Wednesday. They said a 1995 state Supreme Court decision made a number of existing regulations unconstitutional, including a waiting period and parental notification requirements.

"Minnesota's abortion laws are not only outdated, they're harmful," said Megan Peterson, executive director of St. Paul-based Gender Justice. "Far too often they prevent people from getting the care they need when they need it. They force providers to follow politically motivated mandates, rather than best practices and standards of care."

The lawsuit is on behalf of two unnamed women. The First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis is the only named plaintiff. The suit was filed in Ramsey County.

"The First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis has a long history of supporting reproductive health rights and justice," said the Rev. Kelli Clement, the social justice minister for the society. "We affirm that Minnesotans should be able to make their own personal health care decisions — without shame or stigma."

Abortion rights opponents called the lawsuit "extreme."

"It tries to undo all these very modest, mainstream types of statutes that I think the vast majority of Minnesotans support," said Paul Stark, communications director for Minneapolis-based Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life. 

Kelli Clement spoke at a St. Paul press conference
Kelli Clement, social justice minister for the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, speaks at a St. Paul press conference Wednesday, announcing a lawsuit against existing state restrictions on abortion.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

"The lawsuit tries to overturn, for example, informed consent before an abortion," he said. "It tries to overturn our abortion reporting law where we collect basic information about the way abortion is practiced in the state. It tries to overturn the physician-only requirement."

The parties backing the suit said that the Minnesota Supreme Court's Doe v. Gomez decision affirmed an expansive right to abortion in the state, and would be the basis for a constitutional challenge to abortion restrictions.

Erin Maye Quade, former DFL legislator and advocacy director at Gender Justice, said recent abortion restrictions enacted in Alabama and other states had spurred abortion rights supporters in Minnesota to take action, presumably before a possible U.S. Supreme Court decision that may restore a state's rights to further limit abortions.

"I have that all the fear in the world that we will follow Alabama, Missouri, Georgia if we don't fully avail ourselves of the protections that we have, because [we are] one governor [and] a few legislators away from our from being that," she said.

A crowd gathered for a protest against abortion bans at the state Capitol.
A crowd gathered for a protest against abortion bans on May 21, 2019, at the State Capitol in St. Paul. The demonstration was one of 350 events across the country.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News file

The lawsuit names the state, the office of the attorney general, the commissioner of health, the Minnesota Board of Medical Practice and the Minnesota Board of Nursing as defendants. First-term DFL Attorney General Keith Ellison ultimately will be responsible for defending state statutes in court.

Ellison himself has been an outspoken supporter of abortion rights.

"I am also Minnesota's chief legal officer," Ellison said in a statement released in response to the suit. "In that capacity, I have a duty to defend the constitutionality of Minnesota statutes and will do so in this case. We will review the complaint as soon as we are served, will evaluate our strategy, and will respond in due course."