Abortion foes begin new battle at Capitol

  • Article by: ERIC ROPER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 24, 2011 - 11:48 AM

Efforts to restrict abortion gain strength across U.S.

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The annual MCCL March for Life took place at the State Capitol on Saturday, protesting the 38th anniversary of the Roe vs. Wade decision.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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A new era of abortion politics is gripping Minnesota and many other states, thanks to the sweeping Republican victories in November that brought a wave of conservatives into power.

For the first time since the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision, the Minnesota House and Senate are controlled by legislators who oppose abortion rights. They have already introduced a bill that would bar public funding for abortions, directly challenging a 1995 Minnesota Supreme Court ruling that said the state must provide abortion services for low-income women.

Bills being proposed in other states would ban most abortions at 20 weeks after conception, push women considering abortions to view a live ultrasound of the fetus, or curb insurance coverage.

"This is the best climate for passing pro-life laws in years," said Michael Gonidakis, executive director of Ohio Right to Life.

The change in fortunes was clear on the grounds outside the Minnesota State Capitol on Saturday, the 38th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade. The mood among the 1,000 people who held up signs reading "Protect Life" and "Abortion Kills Children" was celebratory.

"This year, with a pro-life House and a pro-life Senate, it's time to stop the killing," said Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life executive director Scott Fischbach, who was flanked by a group of state legislators and Minnesota's Republican congressional delegation.

"Although Gov. [Mark] Dayton isn't here today, I'm sure he'll hear about this," Fischbach said. "He needs to sign the bill to stop taxpayer funding of abortions."

In the past, DFL majorities stifled attempts to restrict abortion. Now Dayton, a Democrat and longtime supporter of abortion rights who managed to buck the GOP tide last fall, is the bulwark for abortion rights supporters.

Fischbach doesn't mince words about the battle ahead.

"I think we're going to have to see just how dedicated he is to using the taxpayer dollars of the state of Minnesota to kill unborn children," said Fischbach, whose wife, Michelle, is president of the Minnesota Senate and a sponsor of Friday's bill.

Far fewer firewalls

The Minnesota bill coincides with similar efforts elsewhere and in Washington. Republicans in Congress recently introduced legislation that would codify existing language that says federal money cannot pay for abortions except in cases of rape, incest or physical danger to the mother.

But laws at the state level have the greatest impact on access to abortion.

Fifteen states now have both a legislature and governor who are abortion opponents, according to NARAL Pro-Choice America. A year ago, the number was 10. In the Midwest, that includes Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin. Overall, 29 governors are foes of abortion, compared with 21 last year.

"This is worrisome because the governors have been the firewall, they've vetoed a lot of bad anti-choice legislation," said Ted Miller, a spokesman for NARAL. Social issues often were played down in last fall's campaigns, and states remain preoccupied by budget issues. But it appears likely that more measures limiting abortion rights could pass this year than in 2010, when more than 30 restrictive laws were adopted in at least nine states, according to Elizabeth Nash, who tracks state policies on abortion for the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization.

The U.S. abortion rate peaked at more than 29 abortions per 1,000 women in 1981. By 2008 it had fallen to slightly under 20 abortions per 1,000 women, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

In Minnesota, ending taxpayer subsidies is just one of the goals of Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life. The group also hopes to ban the few abortions done after 20 weeks, mirroring a recently passed Nebraska law, and to prevent cuts to programs that encourage pregnant women to give birth.

"I don't believe that the taxpayers should be asked to fund things that a large percentage of the population finds morally repugnant," said Sen. David Thompson, R-Lakeville, who is sponsoring the bill to end state funding of the procedure along with Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, and other Republicans.

If the bill were to become law, it would alter an arrangement in which state and federal funding paid for about 3,700 Minnesota abortions in 2008, at a cost of $1.5 million, according to the Minnesota Department of Human Services. The department didn't break down the cost between state and federal funds.

But given Dayton's beliefs, unless legislators propose a constitutional amendment, any legislation restricting abortion may be doomed.

Members of Planned Parenthood also were at the Capitol on Saturday, criticizing legislative leaders for what they see as straying from a promise to focus on the state's budget woes.

On Thursday, abortion rights leaders gathered in a Hennepin Avenue restaurant to take stock and discuss how to re-energize their base.

"I'll be blunt. These are going to be incredibly challenging times for us," Linnea House, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Minnesota, told about 60 abortion rights supporters eating sushi at Wondrous Azian Kitchen. "And our opponents are organized, they're funded and they are ready to go."

House said the new political landscape has forced her to rethink legislative strategy. She plans to spend more time at the Capitol this session and prodding group members to contact their representatives.

"The one bright spot that we do have is that we have a pro-choice governor in Mark Dayton, which is great news," House said to applause.

Minnesota's abortion laws have remained largely unchanged since the 1980s, except for major legislation in 2003 dubbed "Woman's Right to Know." That law requires abortion providers to give women seeking an abortion information about potential medical risks, and to offer descriptions and photographs of developing fetuses.

Any law banning taxpayer funding of abortions or abortions after 20 weeks would likely face a court challenge.

The state's high court has seen major changes since the 1995 Doe vs. Gomez decision, which determined that state health programs for the poor must pay for abortions. Only two of the seven justices who heard that case remain. Four others were appointed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty, an opponent of abortion rights.

"The court has radically changed'' since Doe vs. Gomez, Fischbach said.

This report contains material from the New York Times. Eric Roper • 651-222-1210

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