Leaders of an annual march against abortion said Sunday that sweeping victories for Republican candidates in the last election had brought them something new and important: optimism.
They have organized the March for Life for more than 40 years on the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court ruling legalizing abortion. Each year, they urged passage of laws to restrict abortion. But with a Republican in the White House and Republican majorities in both Congress and in the Minnesota Legislature, they believe this could be the year they achieve goals like defunding Planned Parenthood, closing abortion clinics and maybe getting abortion banned altogether.
“A new day is dawning for the right-to-life movement in 2017,” said Leo LaLonde, president of Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, which organized the march in St. Paul.
“The 2016 election all across the nation has brought us new hope and new responsibility.”
Police estimated that between 4,500 and 5,000 people attended Sunday’s event, which began with a march around the Capitol grounds and ended with speeches and a trumpeter playing taps. The crowd included men and women of all ages and a large number of young children. Many in the group cheered as march organizers mentioned Republicans’ success in the election and the promise of what changes those lawmakers could achieve.
Barb Truzinski, 68, of Cleveland, Minn., said she and her husband attend the march every year. They are feeling particularly optimistic this year.
“I think it’s going to happen quickly,” she said of lawmakers’ action to ban abortion. “I think people at the top of the government mean it when they say they want this to happen.”
At several points, cheers of “defund, defund” broke out when speakers made mention of Planned Parenthood, public funding for abortions or DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, who is a major hurdle for abortion opponents looking to change state laws. Republican leaders in the Minnesota Legislature, including House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, pledged to do their best to follow through with those goals.
“With your prayers and your help, I believe we can end taxpayer-funded abortions and defund Planned Parenthood,” Daudt said.
Daudt told the crowd that both chambers of the Legislature now have a majority of members who don’t support abortion — and that he believes a majority of Minnesotans are also opposed to it.
Later, Daudt said the comment was based on his own belief about broader opposition to abortion, not specific polling or other data. He noted that the Legislature contains both Republicans and DFLers who are opposed to abortion, adding that “life is not a partisan issue.”
But abortion rights supporters, who also see the election as an opening for abortion opponents, disagree.
Many in the crowd of 90,000 to 100,000 who descended on the Capitol a day earlier for the Women’s March Minnesota carried signs with messages supporting abortion rights. Some said they see challenges to abortion laws as part of a bigger push to restrict women’s health care decisions.
Andrea Ledger, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Minnesota, said she didn’t see abortion as a primary issue that drove voters to the polls on Election Day. She said her group believes there is “broad support” for abortion rights across the country, including in Minnesota.
“I think that it would be a mistake on the part of state lawmakers or federal lawmakers to prioritize this issue,” Ledger said.
A 2014 study from the Pew Research Center found that 52 percent of people in Minnesota believed abortion should be legal in all or most cases, and 45 percent believed it should be illegal. Nationwide, a Gallup poll from May 2016 found that 47 percent of Americans surveyed considered themselves “pro-choice,” while 46 percent said they were “pro-life.”
Leaders on both sides of the debate are particularly interested in Trump’s Supreme Court picks, who could favor overturning Roe vs. Wade.
“With an open Supreme Court seat and large Republican majorities in Congress, the threats to women’s health are the most serious in a generation,” said Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn.
In Minnesota, abortion opponents in the Legislature have kept up lobbying pressure, offering bills on issues ranging from licensing requirements for clinics to Medicaid funding of abortions. But unlike other nearby states that have passed abortion restrictions, those proposals haven’t gained enough support to pass the Legislature and the governor’s office.
GOP lawmakers acknowledged that Dayton still poses a major obstacle to their plans — and maybe even an insurmountable one. Still, they believe they’re getting closer.
Rep. Debra Kiel, R-Crookston, said she plans to bring forward a bill she has introduced in the past: one that would require facilities performing abortions to be licensed and inspected by state health officials. Kiel said the plan would ensure that clinics were equipped to deal with unexpected medical complications, while abortion-rights advocates say it would reduce options for women seeking abortions.
“I’m at least hoping it gets to the governor’s desk,” Kiel said.