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Minnesota Democrats push bill to protect abortion rights

Codifying the state's right to abortion access is a top priority for the newly Democrat-controlled government.

ST. PAUL, Minn. (CN) — Minnesota Democrats began making use of their newfound power in state government Thursday, introducing a bill that would codify a right to abortion and other reproductive health care and prevent local governments from restricting it. 

Democratic Representative Carlie Kotyza-Witthuhn of Eden Prairie authored the bill, dubbed the Protect Reproductive Options Act, or the PRO Act, and presented it to the Minnesota House’s Health Finance and Policy Committee. The committee voted 11-7 on partisan lines Thursday to refer the bill to the Committee on Judiciary Finance and Civil Law, rejecting a series of amendments proposed by Republican committee members. 

Kotyza-Witthuhn pitched the bill to the committee as a means of shoring up Minnesota’s existing abortion-rights position. The state’s Supreme Court established a constitutional right to abortion in its 1995 Doe v. Gomez decision, but the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent reversal on the abortion rights codified in Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey has stirred efforts to backstop Minnesota’s protections. 

“What happened to Roe could happen in Minnesota, too,” Kotyza-Witthuhn said while introducing her bill. “Over a mere months, 15 states across the country could ban abortion.” With many of those states neighboring Minnesota, she said, making abortion access a sure thing for all comers became still more important. 

Ramsey County District Court judge Thomas Gilligan recently declared a number of the state’s abortion restrictions unconstitutional, a decision that Democratic Attorney General Keith Ellison’s office opted not to appeal. Appeals are pending on whether nonparty abortion opponents have the right to appeal that decision. At Thursday’s hearing, Minnesota ACLU policy associate Munira Mohamed praised Kotyza-Witthuhn’s bill and encouraged lawmakers to go further by properly repealing those restrictions. 

The high court’s backpedal on Roe has also galvanized the state’s abortion opponents, who made use of Thursday’s committee hearing to make themselves heard.

“God says… that ‘all those who hate me love death,’ and that’s obvious in this legislation,” lobbyist and activist Ben Dorr told committee members. “We will never forget this vote, and we will never let the pro-life community forget this vote,” he continued, adding that he and his organization Minnesota Right to Life planned to “expose” Republicans who voted in favor of the bill. 

Republican committee members, for their part, spent much of Thursday’s meeting proposing amendments to temper what they called an “extreme” position on abortion. One would have required that second- and third-trimester abortions be performed in hospitals and imposed felony penalties for violations – a repeat of one of the rules Gilligan declared unconstitutional. Another would have banned partial-birth abortions. Both were struck down handily by the committee’s Democrats, who hold an 11-7 majority. 

Republican Representative Anne Neu Brindley of North Branch took issue with those rejections.

“It seems clear form the conversation today that my Democrat colleagues are not even willing to make concessions on the most extreme situations,” she said. “This bill codifies the absolute most extreme position on abortion, that allows full access to any abortion at any point in pregnancy.” 

Kotyza-Witthuhn disagreed. “I don’t think it’s extreme to give Minnesotans the ultimate say over their body,” she said. 

The 2022 midterm elections were good to Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. They won a narrow majority in the state Senate, retained one in the House of Representatives and held on to the governor’s mansion with the reelection of incumbent Tim Walz, putting them in their strongest position since 2014’s Tea Party wave. 

Following their Senate wins, Democratic leadership has promised action to further secure the state’s constitutionally codified abortion rights alongside environmental measures, increased education funding and a handful of gun-control actions. Thursday also brought a commitment from party leadership to legalize marijuana by the end of the year, a Walz campaign plank which went by the wayside in his first term in part because of a flat refusal by Republican Senate leadership to consider legalization. 

 Kotyza-Witthuhn’s bill has been added to the Committee on Judiciary Finance and Civil Law’s Jan. 10 agenda.

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