Minnesota House passes right to abortion bill as supporters and opponents gather

Supporters of abortion hold signs
DFLers have fast tracked abortion rights in the House this year, culminating in an hours long debate Thursday.
Dana Ferguson | MPR News

Updated Jan. 19, 7:30 p.m.

The Minnesota House of Representatives late Thursday approved a proposal to enshrine in state law the right to an abortion – and access to other reproductive health care.

After hours of passionate debate, the House voted 69-65 to pass the bill. The Senate is expected to debate it next week. Gov. Tim Walz has said he would sign it into law if it reaches his desk.

Only one Democrat, Rep. Gene Pelowski of Winona, joined all House Republicans in opposing the bill. The rest of the DFLers in the House voted for it.

The issue spurred dozens of supporters, as well as opponents to crowd the entry to the House chamber Thursday afternoon. And they faced off, lifting signs and chanting back and forth across the rotunda.

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Meanwhile, lawmakers had to make their way through the crowds to take up their discussion.

Minnesotans already have the right to an abortion under a 1995 state Supreme Court ruling. But the bill’s authors said that could change under future courts, as evidenced by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision reversing the federal right to an abortion last summer. 

The debate came after DFL leaders at the Capitol said they would prioritize the bill, called the Protect Reproductive Options or PRO Act, and fast track it to the governor’s desk after voters handed them majorities in the state House and Senate and the governor’s office. On its path to a floor vote, it has faced support as well as blowback in a series of committee hearings.

“Today, in passing the PRO Act, the Minnesota House will make sure that what happened to Roe does not happen here in Minnesota,” bill author Rep. Carlie Kotyza-Witthuhn, DFL-Eden Prairie, said. “It is our duty to keep our constituents and our neighbors in Minnesota safe and ensure that future politicians do not have the power to take away the right to reproductive health care in Minnesota.”

The bill goes a step further than current law in protecting access to birth control, sterilization and family planning help. It would prohibit local governments from imposing additional restrictions on reproductive health care.

Legislative leaders ahead of the debate said they’d heard concerns about the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on the campaign trail and they vowed to guarantee the right to abortion access if elected. And with House File 1, they said they were making good on that promise.

A woman stands up and talks
Rep. Carlie Kotyza-Witthuhn, DFL-Eden Prairie, introduces House File 1, a proposal to enshrine in law the right to an abortion and other reproductive health care options in state law on Thursday.
Dana Ferguson | MPR News

“People told us, parents told us they did not want their children to grow up with fewer rights than they had,” Senate Majority Kari Dziedzic, DFL-Minneapolis, said. “The PRO Act is about expanding rights and freedoms in Minnesota, not taking them away.”

Republicans said Democrats were misreading the results of the 2022 elections. They repeatedly called the measure “extreme.” And they brought forward several amendments to it aimed at paring it back.

People stand up in a room and look toward a man
Rep. Jim Nash, a Waconia Republican, offers an amendment to a proposal to codify the right to an abortion on Thursday.
Dana Ferguson | MPR News

“We think that there are really reasonable things that we can do to put some guardrails on this, on this issue,” Rep. Anne Neu Brindley, R-North Branch, said. “But right now, the Democrats and what we are passing tonight out of the Minnesota House of Representatives, is the most extreme position on abortion on the world stage.”

Republican attempts to add licensing requirements to places where abortions are performed and to restrict late term abortions failed during the House debate. 

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. 

The debate was solemn and at times personal. One lawmaker shared a story about her own abortion, while others spoke of their high-risk pregnancies. An anti-abortion protester shouted from the gallery following a speech by a DFL lawmaker in favor of the bill. The man was threatened with removal if he persisted. Debate carried on after.

Ahead of the floor vote, Gov. Tim Walz and legislative leaders met with U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra to highlight abortion access in Minnesota. They told reporters that the state would advance proposals that solidify the right to abortion access and would welcome people traveling from other states to access abortion services.

“The Minnesota House of Representatives will pass incredible protections that women across Minnesota and across this country will know Minnesota is a safe place for you,” Walz said. “Minnesota is a safe place where we will lift you up and we will lift up your decisions around your own health care and reproductive rights.”

Children sit on the floor and hold signs against abortion
Supporters and opponents of House File 1, a proposal to enshrine in law the right to an abortion, crowded the Capitol rotunda on Thursday before lawmakers were set to vote on the bill.
Dana Ferguson | MPR News

Senate leaders have said they are confident that they can pass the measure and send it to Walz for his signature. 

Cynthia Lonnquist, of Mendota Heights, rallied with other opponents of the proposal at the Capitol and said a sign she carried reading, “This baby is a human,” would encourage lawmakers to do some soul searching.

“I am praying for that. All of these legislators will be facing their voters in a couple of years but more importantly, we all will face our maker someday and need to account for everything we’ve done in this life,” Lonnquist said.

Melissa Brunson, a mother of three, wore a bright pink Planned Parenthood shirt, and hoisted a matching “Bans off our bodies” sign outside the House Chamber. She said she hoped that lawmakers would approve the bill.

“We are a state around many states that unfortunately don’t have access and we are really just kind of an oasis in the desert so it’s even more important because of that,” she said. “It’s not necessarily for me, it’s for all the other women.”