DFLers see ‘historic’ chance to solidify legal abortion in Minnesota

People hold signs and yell during a rally outside.
People chant during an abortion rights march at the Minnesota Capitol in July after Roe v. Wade was overturned. Voters on Tuesday gave the DFL full control of state government. DFL leaders say they'll use that power to solidify the state's abortion protections.
Tim Evans for MPR News

Tuesday’s elections delivered majorities to the Minnesota House and Senate that favor enshrining access to abortion in state law. Supporters say they’re preparing now to flex that new political power quickly next year at the Capitol.

For the first time in Minnesota history, both houses will hold enough votes to pass bills protecting abortion and contraception rights, with a governor ready to sign those protections into law. Lawmakers may also seek to place a constitutional amendment on the 2024 ballot affirming the right to an abortion.

“One of my favorite lines is when you come for our rights, we will come for your seats. And we did. And we got it done,” outgoing Senate Minority Leader Melisa López Franzen, DFL-Edina, said Wednesday. “We're going to be able to pass pass the progressive policies, not just for abortion care, but so many other care and reproductive supports that families need.”

A senator speaks
Senate Minority Leader Melisa López Franzen speaks to reporters Wednesday at the Capitol about the DFL's priorities around abortion rights.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

While abortion has been constitutionally protected in Minnesota since 1995, supporters have long worried future justices or lawmakers might try to unravel those rights. The new political landscape, they say, offers an unprecedented chance to seal rights for patients and providers into law and to make more funding available to patients seeking abortion services.

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Anti-abortion groups say they’re prepared to push back at the Capitol next year and that DFL proposals are out of step with what most Minnesotans would support.

“I don't think the election was in any way a a mandate for abortion on demand at any time,” Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life Communications Director Paul Stark said. “I don't think that's the view that is supported by the public, the majority of the public, and it would be a mistake to interpret the election that way.”

A person holds a sign against abortion restrictions
Abortion activists counter-protested against the Pro-Life Action Ministries rally in St. Paul on June 24.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

‘Historic moment’

While Minnesotans didn’t directly vote Tuesday on the question of abortion access, supporters believe the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in June to overturn Roe v. Wade and end a nationwide legal right to abortion galvanized many voters as they chose candidates for the Legislature.

Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan credited volunteers from Planned Parenthood and other groups that support abortion rights as being instrumental in helping the DFL win the House, Senate and governor’s office.

“This is about freedom. It is about bodily autonomy,” said Planned Parenthood Minnesota Political Action Fund President Sarah Stoesz. “And for the very first time, we now have a Legislature, a governor, we've got an attorney general, we have a strong, strong framework of leadership in our state that is going to protect us far into the future. It is a historic moment.”

A crowd gathers to near a stage.
House Speaker Melissa Hortman thanks her team for their work in the midterm campaign during the DFL's election night party.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said that voters had expressed their frustration and anger about Roe being overturned during the election cycle but that Republican campaigns centered on crime and inflation didn’t pick up on the level of anger over Roe. 

“What I think Minnesota said is, ‘We care about our rights. We care about our democracy, and we care about our bodily autonomy,’” Hortman said. “If you don't have freedom over your own body, none of the rest of it matters.”

Senate Majority Leader Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks, said he wasn’t sure yet how his caucus would come down on the proposals since they’d not yet talked in-depth about policy issues as of Thursday.

Will funding follow?

Abortion providers and advocates applauded Tuesday’s election results and expressed hope that reproductive health issues beyond abortion would also be passed into law. 

Over the summer, for instance, a St. Paul judge ruled that several Minnesota statutes around abortion, including parental notification laws and a mandatory 24-hour waiting period, violated the state constitution. 

While abortion providers are currently covered by that decision, advocates say codifying the judge’s ruling is an essential next step, along with removing old laws from the books. 

Megan Peterson, executive director of the nonprofit group Gender Justice, noted that abortion bans or restrictions in some states that were still on the books but effectively dead when Roe v. Wade was the law of the land were suddenly resurrected after Roe was overturned.

That includes Wisconsin, where a law from the 1800s banning nearly all abortions, snapped  back into effect. “If you don’t get old, unconstitutional laws off your books, if the courts change they can come back alive,” Peterson said. 

Minnesota lawmakers may also be called on to address some of the access issues related to funding abortions and increasing reimbursement rates for Minnesota Medical Assistance, the state’s Medicaid program for low-income people. 

The reimbursement rate from Minnesota Medical Assistance is so low that providers “don't get reimbursed anywhere near what it costs us to perform [the] procedure,” said Laurie Casey, executive director of WE Health Clinic in Duluth. The clinic, she added, has to hold fundraisers and work with existing abortion funds to try and make up the difference.

MinnesotaCare, a health care program for low-income people funded by a state tax on Minnesota hospitals and health care providers doesn’t cover abortion, “so those patients have to pay out of pocket,” said Paulina Briggs, lab supervisor at WE Health.

Since WE Health Clinic is the only abortion clinic in the Duluth area, they sometimes see patients from Wisconsin and occasionally Michigan. 

Shortly after Roe was overturned, Gov. Tim Walz signed an executive order in June to protect people traveling to Minnesota for abortion care from prosecution by other states. But Briggs said it would be nice if that was codified into law too.

Signs say "Prayer is nice, but birth control works."
After Roe v. Wade was overturned WE Health Clinic in Duluth saw an increase of patients seeking abortion care. The clinic is the only abortion provider in northern Minnesota.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

It’s not clear how the Legislature will handle funding even as abortion rights supporters move to codify abortion protections. Advocates, though, say factoring in the financial concerns of clinics and clients is important.

Peterson noted that overall financial worries are often related to why someone chooses to seek an abortion. Economic concerns were among the top reasons people listed for seeking an abortion, according to a 2021 Minnesota Health Department report.

“There was kind of this approach [during the election] that you either care about the economy and inflation, or you care about abortion,” she said. “It's like, well, reproductive health care, and being able to make a decision about the size and shape of your family is, I think, for almost everyone who considers having children or expanding their family, a financial consideration as well. They're not disconnected.”