DFL lawmakers get early start on push to codify abortion rights

Democratic legislative leaders said they’d work right out of the gate to reinforce state protections for abortion rights.

Opponents of abortion regulation legislation combined with those objecting to other Republican-sponsored provisions May 4, 2017, in protesting Minnesota legislative actions. Don Davis / Forum News Service
Abortion regulation opponents rally May 4, 2017, at the Minnesota Capitol. Democrats now control the Legislature and the governor's office and are pushing to codify abortion rights into state law.
Don Davis / Forum News Service

ST. PAUL — A bill codifying the right to an abortion in Minnesota quickly cleared its first hurdle in the House of Representatives Thursday, Jan. 5, as legislative Democrats work to make good on their pledge to move quickly on the issue.

The Protect Reproductive Options Act, or PRO Act, saw a packed hearing Thursday of the House Health Committee, its first stop as Democrats try to boost reproductive rights protections by formally establishing them in state law.

Federal abortion protections ended last summer when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, but access to the procedure remains a right in Minnesota under a 1995 state Supreme Court decision. Democratic-Farmer-Labor lawmakers, however, said they won’t take current protections for granted.

DFL leaders on Wednesday started to reveal a little more about their plans.

“What happened to Roe could happen in Minnesota, too,” said Rep. Carlie Kotyza-Witthun, an Eden Prairie DFLer who is carrying the bill in the House. “Over mere months, 15 states across the country have banned abortion. This November, voters spoke decisively and told us they believe every Minnesotan should be able to make their own reproductive health care decisions.”

Health Committee Chair Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, said it's atypical for the committee to immediately take up a bill like the PRO Act during its first hearing of the session. But Minnesota Democratic leaders said they’d work right out of the gate to reinforce state protections for abortion rights.


The PRO Act, the first bill introduced in both the House and Senate this session, is a relatively short piece of legislation that boosts existing constitutional protections for abortion in Minnesota. It recognizes a right to use or refuse reproductive health care and a right to continue a pregnancy and give birth, or obtain an abortion. Additionally, the bill would also prevent local governments from passing any regulations on birth control or abortion.

Nearly 20 people testified for and against the bill Thursday. Supporters of the bill included Planned Parenthood, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the American Civil Liberties Union. Opponents who appeared at the hearing to testify included representatives from the Minnesota Family Council and other religious-affiliated groups.

Republican lawmakers on the committee decried the PRO Act as extreme and attempted to introduce multiple amendments to the bill that would place some restrictions on abortion such as a requirement for second- and third-trimester abortions to take place in a medical facility. They also attempted to pass an amendment to limit abortion to the first and second trimesters of pregnancy. Both failed on party lines.

“This bill codifies the absolute most extreme position on abortion,” said Rep. Anne Neu Brindley, R-North Branch. “The entire civilized world recognizes that there are some reasonable restrictions that should take place.”

Minnesota law currently bans abortion after viability, the point at which a fetus would be able to survive on its own outside the womb. Generally, that point is at about 24 weeks, though it can vary between pregnancies. The PRO Act does not specifically address viability.

After an hour and a half of debate and testimony, Health Committee members voted 11-8 on party lines to pass the PRO Act to the House Judiciary and Civil Law Committee. The Senate and House versions of the bill will have to move through several committees before coming to a floor vote in each chamber. Gov. Tim Walz has said he would sign a bill codifying abortion rights once one reaches his desk. That's more likely to happen this session than in previous years as Democrats control a majority in both chambers of the Legislature.

In addition to codifying abortion rights in state law, legislators have also discussed the possibility of placing a constitutional amendment on the ballot for Minnesota voters to decide on in 2024. But so far, the idea has merely been floated as a possibility and leaders have not announced any formal plans.

Following the end of Roe, Minnesota is a virtual island for abortion access in the Upper Midwest. Advocates scored a victory last summer when a Ramsey County district judge ruled Minnesota abortion regulations violated fundamental rights to abortion and privacy under the state constitution. The ruling eliminated the waiting period and other restrictions including parental disclosure requirements for minors, restrictions on which medical staff can perform abortions, and felony penalties for violations.


It also blocked a requirement for second-trimester abortions to be performed in a hospital and ruled the state’s requirement for health care providers to give abortion seekers an “informed consent” statement to be in violation of free speech protections.

A group of anti-abortion activists is attempting to intervene in the case after Attorney General Keith Ellison declined to challenge the decision.

A St. Paul district court judge earlier this month said state restrictions on abortion were unconstitutional and blocked their enforcement.

Alex Derosier covers Minnesota breaking news and state government for Forum News Service.
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