A fast-tracked proposal to enshrine access to abortion into Minnesota law cleared its first legislative hurdle on Thursday, signaling newfound urgency on an issue that has been static for years under divided government.
Abortion rights supporters and abortion opponents packed a House hearing and offered more than an hour of emotional testimony on the issue, their first opportunity since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to overturn Roe v. Wade this summer, sending the issue of abortion back to individual states.
"What happened to Roe could happen in Minnesota," said Rep. Carlie Kotyza-Witthuhn, DFL-Eden Prairie, the sponsor of the proposal in the House. "Over mere months, 15 states across the country have banned abortion."
Access to abortion is protected in Minnesota through a 1995 state Supreme Court ruling in the case Doe v. Gomez, but there is no law on the books that legalizes the procedure. Democrats, now wielding a trifecta of power in St. Paul, are moving swiftly to enshrine access in state law, arguing that a future set of Minnesota Supreme Court justices could overturn that precedent similarly to Roe.
Opposition also was clear Thursday, when abortion opponents and Republican legislators criticized the proposal as "one of the most extreme" in the country for not including parental notification requirements or restrictions on abortions after a certain point in pregnancy.
"It's abhorrent," said Rep. Anne Neu Brindley, R-North Branch. "The entire civilized world recognizes that some restrictions should take place."
The proposal — dubbed the Protect Reproductive Options Act — defines reproductive health care and states that every individual who becomes pregnant has a fundamental right "to continue the pregnancy and give birth, or obtain an abortion, and to make autonomous decisions about how to exercise this fundamental right," according to the bill language.
Minnesota has become a haven for the procedure in the region, with neighboring states such as South Dakota and Wisconsin banning most abortions. There's been a 13% uptick in people traveling to Minnesota for abortions from outside the region since Roe's reversal, said Dr. Sarah Traxler, chief medical officer for Planned Parenthood North Central States.
"I see the reality of people forced to travel out of state for abortion care," Traxler said. "Minnesota's abortion access is critical right now, for Minnesotans and for people across the country."
Minnesotans from all walks of life traveled to St. Paul through snowy conditions to testify on the bill in person, many sharing personal stories about how the issue of abortion touched their lives. Tammy Barry from Vergas, Minn., said her 17-year old daughter got an abortion and didn't tell her until after the procedure, when she was struggling with the decision.
"The grief is real; the aftereffect of that decision is devastating," she said. "At no time did anyone tell her there were other options or tell her this could harm her mental health."
Liz Padilla testified that she had been thrilled to be pregnant and was 18 weeks along, expecting a baby boy, when her doctor called her in after an ultrasound to tell her the fetus was "not compatible with life."
"I was devastated. I also felt trapped because I was still pregnant," she said. "Access to a safe abortion gave me agency in a terrible circumstance. It ended my suffering."
A ruling from a Ramsey County judge in July expanded access to abortion in Minnesota by knocking down longstanding regulations such as a two-parent notification requirement for minors and a requirement that only physicians, and not other medical practitioners, must administer abortions. Also on Thursday, a group of women opposing abortion argued in court to try to appeal that ruling.
At the Capitol, Republican legislators attempted to add restrictions on third-trimester abortions to the bill, with exceptions for rape and incest and when the life of the mother is threatened, but Democrats rejected those changes, arguing that such abortions are rare. The proposal passed out of the House Human Services Finance Committee on a party-line vote.
The bill includes contraception, sterilization, family planning and counseling related to abortion under the definition of reproductive health care, while also prohibiting local governments from enacting their own ordinances to restrict access to abortion. In December, the City Council in Prinsburg, Minn., rejected an effort to allow residents to sue abortion providers.
The issue of abortion has gone nowhere for years at the Capitol, where divided government kept either party from seriously pursuing efforts to restrict or expand access to the procedure. But Minnesota Democrats credit their narrow majorities in the House and Senate to fury from their voters over the overturning of Roe.
Democrats say they now have pro-abortion rights majorities in both chambers for the first time in state history. Both the House and Senate introduced the proposal to codify access as their first bill, a symbolic move to signal their unified support.
The proposal to codify abortion rights could land this month on the desk of Gov. Tim Walz, who has promised to sign it into law. Democrats may also move to strip outdated language related to abortions from state lawbooks, while also passing protections for people who travel to Minnesota to seek the procedure.