This is part one of a five-part series from MPR News examining the state of abortion in Minnesota one year after Roe v. Wade was overturned.
Minnesota House Speaker Melissa Hortman said that’s what she and her allies felt last year on June 24 as the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Fifty years of constitutional protection for abortion was gone.
Almost immediately, states around the country began locking down access to legal abortion. Minnesota still had protections in state constitutional law, but supporters worried it wouldn’t hold. The ground seemed to be shifting rapidly. How would Minnesota respond?
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By November, the answer was clear — and stunning. DFLers at the polls held their House majority and won the Senate. For the first time in state history, Minnesota held majorities in each chamber supporting expanded access to abortion.
With a DFL governor in place, the stage was set for Minnesota to remake the political landscape on the issue. In less than a year, the party transformed abortion access in ways that surprised even some supporters and angered abortion opponents, removing nearly all abortion restrictions.
“There was a vocal rage for the two weeks” after Roe was overturned, “but there was a simmering rage that did not stop,” Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, told reporters the day after the election. “I was hopeful that voters would take that energy and put it on the ballot and vote for Democrats. And thankfully they did.”
Then-Senate Minority Leader Melisa López Franzen, DFL-Edina, was more succinct. “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.”
Even before the end of Roe, Minnesota was an island of abortion access in the Upper Midwest. Abortion clinics regularly saw people seeking care from out of state. In 2021, there were more than 1,000 occurrences of people from other states coming to seek abortions, according to the state Health Department.
A Minnesota Supreme Court ruling, Doe v. Gomez, had kept abortion legal in the state for nearly 30 years. Some restrictions remained but the ruling ensured a right to abortion and its weight was felt across the state’s courts.
Weeks after the Supreme Court overturned Roe, Ramsey County Judge Thomas Gilligan ruled many of the state’s restrictions on abortion violated the state Constitution and he blocked them from being enforced.
Minnesota abortion providers applauded the ruling and said at the time that it would allow them to treat more patients without having to jump through these hurdles, particularly the 24-hour waiting period and the parental notification laws. That was especially crucial, they said, as they prepared for more patients coming to the state from places that had limited or banned abortion.
Despite the court’s support, abortion backers understood how quickly laws and judicial majorities could change.
On the campaign trail and at the Capitol, Democrats said the Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling striking down Roe showed that the laws could be removed from the books. They made the case to voters that Minnesota’s laws should be updated to ensure the right to an abortion in the event that the court shifted and reversed its stance on the Constitution guaranteeing that right.
DFL candidates focused on the issue on the campaign trail and drove home the differences between their stance on abortion access compared to their Republican opponents. Meanwhile, Republicans centered their campaigns around crime and the economy.
In the end, the DFL message galvanized its base and helped keep control in the House and serve up a one-vote majority in the Senate, despite predictions that the GOP would win both. By a margin of dozens of votes, DFLer Grant Hauschild won a northern Minnesota Senate seat and swung the chamber to DFL control.
The election ushered in a class of younger, more diverse lawmakers at the Capitol. And for the first time in state history, the House and Senate were controlled by women and majorities in both chambers supported expanding abortion access.
With Gov. Tim Walz ready and willing to sign into law measures that would boost abortion access and wipe out restrictions that had long been on the books, Democrats took office with a goal to safeguard abortion in Minnesota.
“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.”
What followed over the nearly five-month legislative session, was the largest law change around abortion that the state had seen in more than two generations.
Within a month, lawmakers guaranteed the right to an abortion without restrictions — along with other reproductive health care services — in state law. Then they stood up legal protections for patients coming to Minnesota for abortions and for abortion providers.
“The decisions of our courts, the upholding of our fundamental human rights, are only as strong as the judges that uphold them,” Sen. Jennifer McEwen, DFL-Duluth, said during a debate on House File 1, known as the PRO Act.
“We have a duty to answer the call of Minnesotans to truly protect those reproductive freedoms, to enshrine them not simply in case law, but in our statutory law,” McEwen continued. “These are our values, this is the practice in Minnesota. This is what we believe.”
In the final hours of session, they struck several restrictions on abortion, aligning state statute with Judge Gilligan’s ruling. They also went further, boosting state funding to clinics that offer abortion services and to Medical Assistance reimbursement rates for abortion services.
And they zeroed out state funding to centers that advocate against abortion, also known as “crisis pregnancy centers”
The PRO Act, which was one of the first bills filed this session, was approved by 103 state lawmakers
“It took, you know, 103 votes, but the Legislature got all 201 legislators out of Minnesotans’ doctors’ offices,” said Megan Peterson, executive director of abortion access advocacy group Gender Justice. That number refers to the 34 votes in the Senate and the 69 in the House that approved the legislation — all came from DFLers.
“We have removed basically all the restrictions on abortion in Minnesota,” she continued. “And so that's very exciting to have succeeded at restoring abortion as part of health care and to be treated in our laws the same way that other pregnancy related health care is treated.”
After coming into the legislative session with dozens of requests of lawmakers, abortion access advocates said they came away with just about everything they wanted.
“There's always a wish list of things that I wish could, you know, expand and improve,” Dr. Sarah Traxler, chief medical director at Planned Parenthood North Central States said. “But I am not one who is too, like, ‘It's not enough.’ Because I feel like we have accomplished incredible things in the state of Minnesota this year.”
‘They do not have a mandate’
Abortion opponents agree that it was an unprecedented year for abortion law changes in Minnesota, but they argued that the moves are out of step with what most people wanted. And they said they’ll leverage that frustration to urge change.
Pew Research Center polling from April shows that most Americans – 62 percent – say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, though that figure varies significantly when broken down by partisan affiliation. Eighty-four percent of Democrats or those who lean Democratic said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, compared to 40 percent of Republicans or voters who lean toward Republicans.
“People are just outraged,” Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life Co-Executive Director Cathy Blaeser said. “They're outraged at what has happened during this legislative session. It is not what anybody was asking for.”
While medical associations, abortion providers and some faith leaders backed the efforts, conservative and anti-abortion groups and other faith communities said the restrictions should remain since they were approved with bipartisan backing.
They also said that while voters sent Democrats to St. Paul with control over the Legislature and governor’s office, they handed them very narrow majorities and argued most Minnesotans wouldn’t agree to all the changes that DFLers put forward.
“This is a bill that is going to give Minnesota a black eye in many respects, and that’s sad,” Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, said during a floor debate on a proposal to grant legal protections abortion providers and patients that seek abortions in Minnesota.
Republicans and anti-abortion groups said the changes had fired up many Minnesotans and they expected those groups would push for change come 2024. Members of the Minnesota House of Representatives will be on the ballot but senators and Gov. Tim Walz will keep their seats through 2026.
“While Democrats won a close election here in this state, they do not have a mandate for this, this policy,” Rep. Anne Neu Brindley, R-North Branch, said earlier this year.
DFLers, though, are looking already at next steps in the next session.
Democrats have discussed taking another step to safeguard abortion access by putting a constitutional amendment before voters in 2024 or 2026 that would guarantee the right to an abortion. But they’ve so far not been able to reach agreement on the language for such a proposal.
Providers and advocates say they need legislation that not only guarantees access but makes it easier for people to get to, and afford, appointments.
Shayla Walker, executive director of Our Justice – a nonprofit that offers financial and logistical help to those seeking an abortion – said that the legislative progress was “a beautiful way to cross your t’s and dot your i’s” but didn’t do enough to help people access care.
“What we needed, in addition to the laws being removed through the legislature, was an increase in Medicaid reimbursement,” Walker said. “Because that's what keeps clinics open.”
Minnesota is one of more than a dozen states providing funding for abortions through state Medicaid reimbursement.
While programs like Medicaid are jointly administered by federal and state authorities, the federal Hyde Amendment prohibits federal dollars from being used to fund abortions, except in cases of rape, incest or to save the person’s life. In all other cases, states must solely use their own revenues to cover it.
While state lawmakers did increase the Medical Assistance reimbursement rate during the session, providers and advocates said it should be higher since the reimbursement rate right now still results in a financial loss.
Walker said these low rates could leave independent abortion clinics — those without a national presence, like Planned Parenthood clinics — “underwater” financially, impacting access.
Walker and others, said they want to see lawmakers take that on next session, to not only guarantee the right to seek an abortion, but also make it easier to do so.