Abortion bills move to forefront

ST. PAUL -- After simmering quietly in the background lately, abortion issues are set to take on new prominence this year at the Minnesota Capitol. With anti-abortion leaders back in charge of the Minnesota House, restrictions on abortion and abo...


ST. PAUL - After simmering quietly in the background lately, abortion issues are set to take on new prominence this year at the Minnesota Capitol.
With anti-abortion leaders back in charge of the Minnesota House, restrictions on abortion and abortion providers are winning hearings and netting votes. Abortion politics could weave their way into the Senate floor debates and become an issue in end-of-session budget fights.
In other states, abortion fights have caused filibusters, turmoil and brutal fights of late. One study found that more states enacted abortion restrictions from 2011 through 2013 than in the previous decade.
But in Minnesota, owing largely to the veto pen of Democratic-Farmer-Labor Gov. Mark Dayton and abortion-rights advocates leading the Legislature, a fragile peace had muted efforts to restrict abortion.
Although Dayton is still in the governor’s office and Senate Majority Tom Bakk says the Senate will give little time to “social issues,” anti-abortion advocates in Minnesota are seeing new hope. Republicans took over the House this year, and advocates are using that strength to highlight the policies.
“I think we will make our own decision regardless of what the governor says,” said House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers.
Top of the list: requiring more extensive licensing of abortion clinics and banning state funding for most abortions.
Dayton, who has been celebrated by abortion-rights advocates, saw and vetoed nearly identical legislation in his first term. The newly re-elected governor has pledged to do the same again.
“I’m not in favor of any legislation that changes current law in Minnesota that relates to abortions,” the DFL governor said last week.
Anti-abortion views win hearings
Advocates have reason to believe their views will be heard. Last week, the licensing measure and the restrictions on state payments for abortion won approval in a House committee. Both have sponsorship from Peppin and House Speaker Kurt Daudt, among many other House members.
Even if those do not become law, those votes and hearings serve a purpose.
“It keeps the issue in front of the Legislature but also keeps the issue in front of the people,” said Scott Fischbach, executive director of Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life. The MCCL is the state’s largest anti-abortion organization.
The measure’s sponsors cast their plans as common ground on abortion.
“I’m not debating the right to have an abortion, but I am debating the right to make sure that everything is safe,” said Rep. Debra Kiel, R-Crookston, sponsor of the licensure bill.
Similarly, Rep. Cindy Pugh, R-Chanhassen, said her bill takes no position on abortion itself but “whether taxpayers should be required to subsidize the practice.”
Opponents disagree.
“This bill is not about women’s health, this bill is about restricting access to abortion,” said Laurie Casey, executive director of the Women’s Health Center of Duluth, testifying against Kiel’s bill. She estimated it would cost $800,000 to renovate her facility to comply with the new law, which would leave no choice but to close.
In other states, similar measures have forced clinic closures, said Karen Law, executive director of Pro-Choice Resources in Minneapolis.
“It doesn’t matter if (abortion is) legal, if it’s not accessible,” Law said.
Those measures are unlikely to be welcomed in the DFL-dominated Senate or by Dayton, but those who support abortion access still are on the alert.
“The anti-women’s-health folks are back in charge of the House, and so we’re seeing these bills pop up again,” said Jen Aulwes, spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood Minnesota-North Dakota-South Dakota.
Finding agreement
But anti-abortion forces are also moving on fronts they hope Dayton and Senate DFLers will not block.
“What we need to do now is work in the realm of what’s possible,” Fischbach said.
Inspired by “An Accidental Life,” the fictional account of the post-abortion babies dumped in a soiled utility room to die, Rep. Abigail Whelan, R-Anoka, decided Minnesota needed a new law. She is offering the “Born Alive Infants Protection Act,” which would reinforce the humanity of newborns delivered after failed abortions.
She said she did not know if any would-be aborted newborns have been improperly treated in Minnesota but, “I would say one is too many.”
Opponents say the measure is unneeded. But 34 House members and a bipartisan cadre of five senators sponsoring the bill disagree and say they want Dayton to sign the protections into law.
With backing from both anti-abortion and abortion-access advocacy groups, lawmakers are proposing additional funding for the state’s existing “Safe Place for Newborns” law. It allows women to drop off newborns at hospitals with no questions asked. Supporters want to fund an education campaign to raise awareness of the law.
“I think that it’s got a great chance of passing,” said Sen. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, who’s sponsoring the Safe Place bill in the Senate. He said that measure would not inflame the abortion fight as the licensure or taxpayer-funding bills would.
While the GOP-controlled House may underscore their beliefs about abortion in committee and floor votes, the Senate is unlikely to do the same this year.
“This is a budget year. We’re going to really focus our attention on the budget,” said Bakk, the DFL state senator from Cook. “I’m not going to get into long, drawn-out conversations about social issues.”

The Pioneer Press is a media partner of Forum News Service.

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