State DFL lawmakers on Friday introduced the Legislature's first Reproductive Freedom Caucus amid a fresh wave of efforts nationwide to limit abortion rights.
Citing legislation passed in Texas criminalizing most abortions — and the looming U.S. Supreme Court fight over the law — Minnesota lawmakers and advocates alike billed the coalition as a new chapter uniting activism and legislation over reproductive rights.
"We will not let what is happening in Texas and across the country happen here in Minnesota," said Rep. Kelly Morrison, a Deephaven Democrat who has worked as an obstetrician-gynecologist in Minnesota for two decades. "We will work together to protect and expand access to the care people need to lead healthy and thriving lives."
Morrison, a vice chair of the new caucus, introduced a bill earlier this year that would put into state law protections for Minnesotans' rights to contraception, the right to carry a pregnancy to term and the right to an abortion.
Caucus members on Friday said the group will focus not only on crafting legislation to expand and protect abortion rights but will also push bills to broaden sex education and access to contraception and end disparities in health outcomes for BIPOC women.
The caucus has 55 members between the two legislative bodies, all Democrats, including House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, and Senate Minority Leader Melisa López Franzen, DFL-Edina.
In a statement Friday, Hortman cited the "extreme, dangerous abortion ban in Texas" and similar legislation pursued by Minnesota Republicans as evidence of the need for such a caucus.
Democrats have singled out a proposal from Rep. Tim Miller, R-Prinsburg, who is sponsoring legislation that would outlaw abortions if a heartbeat can be detected in the fetus.
"Abortion is the most important issue of our age," Miller said in a statement this week. "Decades from now, future generations will look back and judge us by whether we supported abortion or opposed it."
Sen. Julia Coleman, R-Chanhassen, said in a statement Friday that her GOP caucus "stands together in support of the rights of the unborn, rather than cheering the choice to take an innocent life."
"There is significant common ground available in support of women choosing life, and I look forward to working with colleagues to ensure we are doing all we can to advance policies to protect every life, at every stage, in every part of the state," Coleman said.
The fight over reproductive rights reached a fever pitch this month when the Texas law, one of the country's most restrictive, went into effect. It is being challenged in a lawsuit before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and is expected to be before the U.S. Supreme Court before long.
The U.S. House on Friday, meanwhile, passed legislation to guarantee a woman's right to an abortion, an effort to codify the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Republican opposition in the U.S. Senate means that the bill is unlikely to become law.
Minnesota has long been seen as having fewer restrictions on abortion rights than neighboring states. Though some Minnesota Republicans have signaled support for passing restrictions here similar to the Texas law, the divided Legislature and DFL Gov. Tim Walz's opposition makes that all but impossible under the present power dynamics.
Still, DFL lawmakers on Friday described the new caucus as a shift away from playing defense in response to what they described as attacks on reproductive freedom. Caucus member Sen. Lindsey Port, DFL-Burnsville, described reproductive rights as "more under attack than ever by extremist policies that don't reflect the realities faced by Minnesotans."
Erin Maye Quade, a former state representative who works as an advocacy director at Gender Justice, called 2021 the worst legislative year on record for abortion rights and reproductive freedom. On Friday, she applauded the "historic shift" from the reproductive rights movement to an organized effort among lawmakers.
"We know that the decision whether and when to become a parent belongs to each individual Minnesotan and not the government," she said. The new caucus is "getting involved to get out of your business."
Megumi Rierson, communications director for Our Justice, a group that provides financial support for people seeking abortions, said her organization has seen requests for help climb from 241 in 2019 to more than 700 so far this year.
Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, attributed the caucus' formation to the new class of lawmakers sworn into office in January, and added that concerns voiced by constituents after the Texas law passed had heightened urgency.
"This ability to control our bodies and what happens to our bodies is perhaps the most fundamental right that we have as human beings and that is what we are here today to push forward and champion," she said.
Stephen Montemayor • 612-673-1755