Politics and Government

Court rulings put spotlight on abortion issue in governor’s race

Protesters hold a banner during a march
Hundreds of people marched through the streets of Minneapolis against the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade on June 24, 2022.
Caroline Yang for MPR

Minnesota’s legal landscape on abortion has grown more liberal as restrictions in much of the country get more conservative.

On Monday, a state court judge in Minnesota struck down abortion restrictions, including a 24-hour waiting period, two-parent notification for minors and requirements around who can do the procedure, when and where. An appeal is possible but not assured.

It’s a major ruling that came just weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the almost 50-year-old Roe v. Wade precedent that made abortion legal across the country. In many states, abortion-access protections are gone due to strict laws triggered by the reversal.

Almost overnight, Gov. Tim Walz made defense of reproductive rights a centerpiece of his re-election campaign.

"The stakes are clear. They could not be higher,” the DFL governor said. “[The] governor's office is now the last line of defense against an abortion ban in Minnesota."

Walz wasn't made available for an interview. Nor has he commented on the state court decision and whether it should be appealed. A spokesperson said the governor “appreciates the judge’s thoughtful approach and is reviewing the ruling.”

Meanwhile, Walz and his campaign have sent dozens of tweets, fundraising pitches and other messages sounding an alarm about abortion access in the weeks since the nation's highest court ruled. 

Governor at podium
DFL Gov. Tim Walz speaks at a news conference at the Minnesota State Capitol on June 25, a day after a U.S. Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe v. Wade.
Estelle Timar-Wilcox | MPR News

What often goes unsaid is that abortion has constitutional protection in Minnesota under a 1995 state court decision. Undoing that would take a different outcome in a new case or a voter-approved ballot measure — both tall orders.

Still, the federal ruling put endorsed Republican candidate Scott Jensen in a politically sensitive spot. The physician and former state legislator has made clear he personally opposes legalized abortion. But he’s gradually moderated his comments about what he’d do about it as governor.

“I would try to ban abortion,” Jensen told MPR News in March when asked about a potential Supreme Court decision that matched the eventual outcome. “I think that we’re basically in a situation where we should be governed by pro-life. There is no reason for us to be having abortions going on. We have tremendous opportunities and availability of birth control. We don’t need to be snuffing out lives that, if left alone, will produce a viable newborn that may go on to be the next Albert Einstein.”

Since the federal ruling last month — and after Jensen all but locked down the Republican nomination — has altered his rhetoric. 

Now he’s raising exceptions to an all-out ban. He says the mother’s health would come first. This month on WCCO Radio, Jensen said that the calculation would include whether there is a medical or mental health emergency or the pregnancy is a result of incest or rape.

“And at that point in time, it’s a medical matter that is protected by privacy,” Jensen said.

A man smiles and shakes someone's hand
Republican gubernatorial candidate Dr. Scott Jensen greets supporters at Kaposia Park in South St. Paul on July 11, 2022.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

After the state judge threw out some restrictions this week, Jensen criticized the decision but said he would leave it to the Legislature to take the next steps. He told MPR News he wouldn’t push for or support a constitutional amendment banning abortion.

“Well, an abortion is a life-saving medical procedure in certain, specific, given situations,” Jensen said. “I think we need to remember that. I mean, it's again, it's got to be about the woman who's pregnant. Her life is first and foremost, paramount.”

Walz expects the abortion issue to motivate voters in a midterm election when turnout tends to dip and as his party faces political headwinds.

Jensen argues other things matter more to voters — from gas and grocery prices to crime and education trends.

Jensen accuses Walz of “fear mongering” about the future of abortion in Minnesota.

Walz pushes back on that idea.

"If you don't think that these anti-choice, anti-health care bills are real, Gov. Dayton was forced to veto eight of those in a time when Roe stood,” Walz said. “So if you don't think it's coming, it absolutely is."

MPR News reporter Matt Sepic contributed to this story.