Party lines hold as abortion bill moves through MN Legislature

People hold signs and yell during a rally outside.
A protester takes part in a chant during an abortion rights march to the Minnesota State Capitol on July 17.
Tim Evans for MPR News

Abortion rights legislation that Minnesota Democrats made a session priority advanced through more committees Tuesday, attracting both intense support and opposition in testimony along the way. 

The bill aims to shore up abortion and other reproductive health access in Minnesota in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that overturned Roe vs. Wade. Minnesota has its own court ruling that establishes a legal right to abortion, but bill proponents say it could change if judicial makeup does.

The Senate Health and Human Services Committee voted 6-3 to push the bill forward. It got through a second House committee, Judiciary Finance and Civil Law, also on a party-line vote with DFLers in favor and Republicans opposed.

“The real point of this bill is to make government neutral in these decisions,” said the lead sponsor, DFL Sen. Jen McEwen of Duluth. “To make sure that Minnesotans are trusted to make individual decisions with their health care providers.”

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Sen. Paul Utke, R-Park Rapids, warned it would “open the floodgates” for abortion. He and other Republicans on the Senate committee tried unsuccessfully to add restrictions into the bill.

“Any time we put something in statute, now we’ve set the bar. Whether that’s the high bar or the low bar, people will refer to ‘This is the law,’” Utke said. “It takes out of the equation the doctor, the patient and everybody else involved.”

Aside from defining decisions around abortion, contraception and fertility services as fundamental rights, the bill would also bar local governments from enacting their own regulations.

Democratic majorities in the House and Senate intend to pass the bill soon, with another House committee hearing set for Thursday. DFL Gov. Tim Walz has pledged to sign it.

New Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Brooke Cunningham told state lawmakers Tuesday that it’s an equity issue.

“Constraining reproductive choice and access will worsen health disparities, especially maternal and child health disparities,” said Cunningham, a doctor and expert in racial equity in medicine. “Minnesota already has some of the worst disparities in the country on a number of metrics, and we need to focus on lifting up the health of all and avoiding any steps that make those disparities worse.”

Some bill opponents argued women would be coerced into ending their pregnancies and others quoted scripture, with one clergy member demanding that lawmakers “repent” for bringing it forward. A few testifiers with medical backgrounds said a lack of specific limitations for the procedure would make the state an outlier.

Steve Calvin, a Minneapolis physician who specializes in obstetrics and gynecology, is connected to a group that opposes legal abortion. He said at a minimum there should be gestational age restrictions around abortion.

“Senate File One is deceptively straightforward, but it is very problematic. I believe it will limit the conscience rights of providers,” he said. “It will also interfere with the provision of resource options such as perinatal hospice care, and will limit prenatal information regarding the availability of care and support for individuals with Down syndrome.”

According to the most-recent Department of Health report on abortions, about 90 percent of the 10,136 abortions conducted in 2021 were in the first trimester of pregnancy. 

Bill supporters pushed back on characterizations that late-pregnancy abortions are common, saying they tend to be done as a result of a medical emergency involving the fetus or the mother.

DFL Sen. Alice Mann, a doctor from Edina, said preserving abortion and reproductive rights are critical to safeguarding women’s health.

“We paint a picture of women walking around eight months pregnant and saying, ‘You know what? I don’t want to be pregnant anymore. Let’s kill this baby.’ And that’s not real. We don’t trust women in this society to make capable and appropriate medical decisions for themselves and for their families. And we need to change the way we think about that,” Mann said. “We need to change the way we treat women in this society.”