The national rift over abortion and birth control split the Minnesota Capitol on Thursday with Republicans and Democrats colliding over dueling proposals on the politically charged issues.
While a GOP-backed measure to ban abortions after 20 weeks post-fertilization cleared a key hurdle in the Senate, House Democrats weighed two bills aimed at increasing access to free birth control and other reproductive services.
Both proposals face long odds given the political dynamics in the nation’s only divided legislature. At a time of deepening political divisions on health care, Democrats across the country have made protecting access to abortion a centerpiece of their policy agendas and campaigns. Meanwhile, Republicans on the state and federal level have sought further restrictions on abortion, including banning the procedure earlier in pregnancy.
Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, has pushed to follow the example of some Republican-led states that have sought to ban most abortions at 20 weeks post-fertilization, which translates to 22 weeks of pregnancy under standard medical dating, a move that could expose doctors who perform abortions after that point to felony charges. Benson said the proposal reflects changing social mores about abortion at a time of medical and scientific advancements on fetal viability. Some hospitals, she noted, use anesthesia for in-utero surgeries performed after 20 weeks.
“We want to say clearly we believe there’s a state interest in protecting those children who can feel pain,” Benson said.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists disputes that fetuses can experience pain at that age.
Opponents argue that abortions later in pregnancy remain rare — more than 90 percent are performed before the 13-week mark, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The vast majority of abortions beyond that point, supporters of abortion rights say, are due to fetal abnormalities or complications that threaten a mother’s health that are not detected until later in pregnancy.
Democrats cited the case of Tippy Amundson. The 32-year-old kindergarten teacher from Brooklyn Center said she and her husband were thrilled to learn she was pregnant in 2016. In the days leading up to her 20-week ultrasound, the couple excitedly planned a gender reveal party.
But instead of sharing the sex of their baby, the doctors delivered devastating news. Their baby had developed serious complications and would not likely survive the pregnancy. Scans showed an enlarged placenta that would put Amundson’s ability to carry children in the future at risk.
“The world just kind of crumbled,” Amundson recalled through tears.
Given the prognosis and risk of losing her dream of having a child of her own, the couple decided to seek an abortion. She’s now the mother of a healthy 18-month-old son, whom she brought to the Capitol.
“It literally shows me that they don’t understand and they don’t have a big enough picture of what happens at the 20-week ultrasound that everyone looks forward to, and they don’t have a big enough picture of everything that goes wrong in a pregnancy,” Amundson said of Benson’s bill.
Benson, who chairs the Senate’s Health and Human Services Finance and Policy Committee, said she wants to emphasize palliative hospice for families whose child may die before birth. She noted that her bill includes an exemption for medical emergencies and situations that threaten the life of the mother.
“This is not about shaming women who are in a difficult situation,” she said. “This is about acknowledging and protecting the life of that 20-week-and-beyond child.”
While Benson said she’s hopeful the bill will get a vote on the Senate floor, the proposal currently has no chance of passing the DFL-controlled House.
“We believe women’s health care decisions should be between women and their doctors, not between politicians and women and not between employers and women,” House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, told reporters Thursday.
Hortman said she will not hold hearings this legislative session on bills that further restrict abortion.
Meanwhile, the Democrats’ bills on birth control and family planning funding also face uphill battles. A House committee moved Thursday to consider several proposals, including one that would provide $10 million in family planning grants over the next two years. But Benson, the Senate deputy majority leader, signaled that the money might face tough going in the Senate, saying she wants to “see where it fits” into existing coverage and funding for birth control.
While none of the competing proposals are likely to win final passage, lawmakers on both sides could spar over the measures on the campaign trail as both parties fight for control of the Legislature. Advocates supporting abortion rights and stricter gun laws were seen as instrumental in Democrats’ midterm wins in suburban swing districts. Some of the most competitive Senate seats in 2020 are in those same areas.
“Whether it is women in pink T-shirts or women in red T-shirts, there is an army of women who flipped seats in 2018,” Hortman said. “And there is a direct connection between elections and the policy we can enact at the State Capitol.”