We baby boomers are big on 50th anniversaries. If fading memory serves, I've just passed one — the 50th anniversary of my first abortion story as a journalist.
Writing for the Coe College Cosmos, my student newspaper, I reported a move by my Iowa college's student senate to create a loan fund that abortion-seeking female students could quietly tap to travel to New York state, where abortion had been legalized in 1970.
It wouldn't be until Jan. 22, 1973, that the U.S. Supreme Court would legalize abortion throughout the land. Travel to another state to end an unwanted pregnancy would become unnecessary.
Until its return in 2022? Or now, in Texas?
The possibility looms that the conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court will reverse Roe v. Wade next summer when it hands down its decision in the Mississippi case Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization. If it does, American women will find their reproductive rights quickly reduced to the same state-by-state patchwork that sent desperate pregnant women across state lines 50 years ago.
And that will be "incredibly cruel," lamented Sarah Stoesz. "It will only ban abortion for people who are unable to travel. Such a ban is elitist at its heart. It flies in the face of everything Planned Parenthood stands for."
Stoesz would know. For more than 20 years, she has been president and CEO of St. Paul-based Planned Parenthood North Central States — a role that has put her on the front lines of efforts in Minnesota and its neighboring states to the south and west to keep abortion legal and safely available for women regardless of means.
Last week, Stoesz announced that she'll step down from that role in October 2022. She will leave behind an organization that has done much to prepare Minnesota for whatever SCOTUS does to abortion rights next summer.
But Planned Parenthood is not primarily an advocacy organization, geared to wage legal and legislative battles. Planned Parenthood is first and foremost a health care provider, offering services that go well beyond abortion. Last year it served 73,000 patients in Minnesota at 18 clinics, 12 of them in Greater Minnesota. Two-thirds of their patients qualified as low-income.
A recent New York Times essay by journalist Amy Littlefield argued that Planned Parenthood arrived in the vanguard of abortion-rights advocacy by default. She contended that abortion rights defenders have failed through the decades to build a robust, well-funded political movement devoted to preserving abortion rights. Instead, they looked — naively, it now appears — to the courts to be their allies.
The result is that today, abortion defenders are in a politically weaker position than might be expected given the broad popular support for their cause that opinion polls register.
"In some ways, that criticism is fair," Stoesz allowed in an interview last week. Yet, she argued, there's strength in the fact that "the movement work we do is grounded in the health care we provide." The work of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, a separately governed political arm, draws from the real-world experiences of the patients Stoesz's organization serves.
The challenge confronting Planned Parenthood and its allies is to employ that strength in ways that inspire Americans to not only say they want abortion kept legal, but also to vote that way.
That will mean making abortion a priority issue up and down the ballot. On her watch at Planned Parenthood, Stoesz has successfully worked to defeat four ballot questions, two each in South Dakota and North Dakota, that would have restricted abortion, But in those same elections, voters sent anti-choice majorities to those respective states' legislatures. The result in those states are "trigger laws" that will automatically outlaw abortion if the Supremes overturn Roe v. Wade.
Minnesota has no such law, and no immediate prospect of enacting one. A pro-abortion rights governor, Tim Walz, and speaker of the state House, Melissa Hortman, stand in the way in 2022, even though both legislative chambers are believed to have anti-abortion majorities.
A more potent barrier to anti-abortion laws exists in this state's case law. A 1995 state Supreme Court decision asserted that an abortion ban would violate "a woman's fundamental right of privacy under the Minnesota Constitution."
That means that outlawing abortion in Minnesota would require a constitutional amendment or a high-court reversal. Difficult as those ploys would be, they aren't unthinkable — not if Minnesota's voters elect an anti-abortion governor and legislative majorities next November.
Even as Stoesz announced her retirement last week, she was both preparing Minnesota's Planned Parenthood to serve a potential influx of abortion seekers from other states (shades of 1971) and plotting an election strategy for keeping abortion legal in this state. The key, she says, will be campaigns that stress that preserving reproductive rights is about liberty, autonomy, fairness and inclusivity.
Those are values that cross partisan lines. Not much in today's polarized America can persuade voters to depart from their usual partisan patterns. But it could be that a threat to "a woman's fundamental right" would do the trick.
Lori Sturdevant is a retired Star Tribune editorial writer. She is at email@example.com.