If a woman is going to take an abortion pill, she should do it under the eyes of her doctor, the Minnesota House decided on Wednesday.

But legislators rejected an amendment -- offered by a woman -- that would have required a physician's presence every time a man pops a Viagra.

Framed by some Republicans as common-sense discussions about women's health and by some DFLers as a Minnesota skirmish in a wider effort to restrict women's rights, Wednesday's debates in the House and Senate brought the national debate home.

The House debated medical abortions -- a bill that would require a doctor to be physically present when prescribing pills like RU-486, and present again when the woman took the pill. The Senate took up the issue of surgical abortions, calling on the state to begin licensing the state's seven active abortion clinics.

"I view this as just another one of those bills that is just another attempt to stop women from exercising their right to terminate a pregnancy," said Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester.

Rochester's Planned Parenthood clinic triggered part of the House abortion bill. Physicians there were prescribing the abortion pill RU-486 remotely via a video conference screen. The bill's sponsor, Rep. Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, included a ban on abortion telemedicine in  legislation requiring doctors to be present when women ingest the pills. The bill passed 80-48.

"This bill is about women's health," Peppin said. "Just a few statistics about this type of drug: 14 deaths, 612 hospitalizations, 58 ectopic pregnancies. That's something to be taken seriously."

Liebling countered that RU-486 is safer than many other types of medicine and safer than childbirth. The death rate from medically induced abortions is about one out of every 100,000 women who take RU-486, she said. By contrast, the death rate for Viagra is about 5 of every 100,000.

"There are fewer deaths from this drug than there are from Viagra or even Tylenol," Liebling said, noting that the pill would not take effect until long after the woman left the doctor's office. "Having a medical abortion is less dangerous than having a live birth. So this is not about women's health."

The debate touched a nerve for Rep. Duane Quam, R-Byron. Comparing an abortion pill to a pain pill, he said, trivializes the issue.

"My wife and I lost our first child through a miscarriage early in the pregnancy," Quam said. "Some of us ... believe that each occasion (RU-486 is used), there is a death. That is why I believe this is not a trivial prescription for Tylenol or anything else. That's where I'm voting on this, is from that conviction and belief."

The bill is more modest in scope than some of the abortion-restriction bills brought forward in other states. Abortion rights were established by the U.S. Supreme Court nearly 40 years ago, but legislatures have been passing laws that narrow access to the procedure. Arizona has all but banned abortions beyond 20 weeks. Mississippi just imposed limits that could force the state's lone abortion clinic to close its doors. Virginia came close to forcing women by law to submit to vaginal probes before an abortion.

Gov. Mark Dayton has not discussed any of the bills with his staff, but they say it's highly unlikely that he'd sign any of them.

Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, took a page from the national playbook and tried to subject men's sexual activity to the same scrutiny as women would face. She offered an amendment, similar to ironic proposals offered in other states, that would require medical supervision for every dose of Viagra.

Moreover, Kahn suggested, there should be counseling involved. Perhaps the man's wife should be consulted about whether she wants him to enhance his sexual performance?

"If you vote yes on this amendment, you understand that men do have some responsibility for what happens in the event that leads to an abortion," Kahn said.

The amendment failed by a vote of 95-28.

"I know it might sound funny to add Viagra and erectile dysfunction drugs. That might be funny to you. I don't find that funny," Peppin said.

Liebling didn't find the debate amusing either.

"This is not about women's health. This is not about health at all," she said. "It is legal for women to make that decision at nine weeks, and that's the point. What you're trying to do here is infringe on that right."

While the House debated abortion pills, the Senate was considering subjecting the facilities that provide surgical abortions to new licensing requirements.

The Senate bill would require the state to license clinics that provide more than 10 abortions a month. Senate sponsor Claire Robling, R-Jordan, has questioned why Minnesota licenses tattoo parlors and hair-braiding salons but not abortion clinics.

Opponents point out that Minnesota licenses doctors and nurses but not clinics that provide outpatient surgery of any kind. If the Legislature is going to license one type of facility, they said, it should license them all.

"I believe that it's just common sense and practical to have licensing and oversight," Robling said. The House and Senate could vote on each others' bills later this week.

Jennifer Brooks • 651-925-5049