WASHINGTON — The lone senator who previously worked for Planned Parenthood was overwhelmed when she learned the U.S. Supreme Court had overturned Roe v. Wade, upending decades of nationwide abortion rights.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Tina Smith of Minnesota had been preparing for the ruling. But after news broke of the court's decision, realizing Democrats' fears and fulfilling Republican hopes, Smith said she confided to a staffer that she thought she would cry before pulling herself together.
"Just because you know something terrible is going to happen doesn't mean that when it actually happens you don't feel really angry and upset," said Smith, who was vice president for external affairs at what was then Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota from 2003 to 2006.
Even though she didn't provide care, Smith remembers seeing what it took. She saw the people in Planned Parenthood's waiting room "getting the health care that they needed so that they could live the lives that they wanted to live." In a post-Roe America, Smith's experience is primed to make her an important figure in a Democratic party shaken by the Supreme Court's decision.
"She's going to be a leading voice when it comes to protecting women's reproductive freedom," fellow Democratic U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar said.
It's also likely to bring more scorn from Minnesota critics.
"I don't think it's a badge of honor," said Paul Stark, a spokesperson for Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life. "I don't think her views on this issue are actually representative of mainstream Minnesota."
Abortion access in Minnesota is constitutionally protected through a 1995 state Supreme Court decision. Yet the rejection of Roe by the nation's high court means that "trigger bans" in some states are taking effect. More restrictions in other parts of the country could come in the months and years ahead depending on which party controls governors' offices and statehouses.
Sarah Stoesz, the longtime CEO of the Planned Parenthood North Central States, which serves Minnesota, said the affiliate was facing significant financial challenges and other issues about the time Smith took on the vice president role. Smith's work included overseeing the public affairs staff focused on advocacy and responsibility for education programs.
Stoesz credits Smith's leadership with helping set in place today's organization, one that expects women to come to Minnesota for abortions they can't get back in their home states post-Roe.
"She is able to help her colleagues understand the work that we do, in personal terms, in ways that is much more difficult for us on the outside of the United States Senate to do," Stoesz said of Smith, who had a Planned Parenthood board role before assuming the vice president position.
When it comes to the senator's own view on whether there should be limits on abortion, a spokesperson for Smith said in an e-mail that the Democrat "believes that the government should not have a role in the deeply personal decisions made between a woman and her doctor."
Smith, who has served in the Senate since 2018, didn't wait for the ruling to come down to ready for what was coming. On the eve of the Supreme Court decision clearing the way for states to ban abortion, she introduced a bill that would protect access to medication abortion in places where it would still be legal once Roe fell.
The bill got national headlines and social media attention, but it is highly unlikely to pass.
"The United States Senate is where it is on protecting abortion," Smith said, explaining that the votes aren't there to defeat a legislative filibuster. "That doesn't mean that we don't keep trying."
Ahead of the Supreme Court's ruling, Maggee Becker, policy associate for the Minnesota Catholic Conference, said in an e-mail that "Smith should not, through congressional legislation, try to impose abortion-on-demand on states that decide legal abortion is contrary to their principles."
While those like Smith are deeply alarmed by the ramifications of the ruling, others are celebrating the high court throwing the issue back to the states.
"For nearly five decades, abortion has remained one of the biggest tragedies of our nation," GOP U.S. Rep. Michelle Fischbach said during a news conference after the ruling. "Roe put judges in charge of abortion policy, imposing laws legislated by unelected judges that left Americans with no voice. Now, the American people will be able to decide the issue of abortion through their elected officials. This is what democracy looks like."
The three justices chosen by former President Donald Trump and confirmed over the objections of most Democrats proved instrumental in overturning Roe. Smith, who is one of only a few Democratic senators supporting a bill that would add four justices to the high court, charged that Friday's decision represented "an extremist minority overwhelming the views of the general public."
"We're not going to be able to repair the damage that's been done overnight or in just one election," Smith said. "But we will persevere, and we will not go back."
In the decades since Roe in 1973, Congress could have codified federal abortion protections. Yet, even early in Barack Obama's presidency, when Democrats had unified control and the party's strength in the Senate was at a recent peak, liberals didn't use that power to pass a nationwide right to an abortion into law.
Senate Democrats made a push on such a bill in May after a leaked draft opinion showed Roe was likely doomed. The attempt couldn't overcome a Republican filibuster, meeting the same fate as a similar failed effort in February that had cleared the House.
During an interview in her Senate office earlier this month, Smith bristled at a question about whether Democrats were at fault and should have done more. That's like blaming the victim, she said, for Republicans "taking away people's fundamental freedoms."
"If you have control over your health care, if you have control over your reproductive life, then you have control over your life," Smith said. "If you don't, you don't have any control."