The night before more than a thousand people would rally during the March for Life at the State Capitol on Wednesday, two dozen abortion rights activists threw a quiet birthday party at Planned Parenthood headquarters in St. Paul amid streamers and pink-frosted cupcakes.
In an election year when abortion could be on the agenda in the Legislature and the courts, both sides in the nationwide battle were mobilizing to mark the 47th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling guaranteeing legal abortion.
The day held special significance in Minnesota and across the nation now that — after five decades — the decision that legalized abortion in America is hanging in the balance.
“It’s hard to believe that it’s 47 years ago that we got Roe, and it’s so hard to believe that because we are still fighting these battles,” DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman told volunteers at Planned Parenthood on Tuesday evening before they broke off to call voters about the March 3 presidential primary.
At the Capitol on Wednesday, marchers heard from an array of prominent conservative activists and Minnesota Republican leaders urging them to stay active and vote.
“As we look forward to the coming year, to pending court cases, legislative battles and the elections this fall that could impact life for decades to come, let’s remember the crucial importance of every single human being,” Cathy Blaeser, treasurer of Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, told the crowd gathered at the annual March for Life.
Even before Roe, abortion has been a steady and polarizing presence in politics. With a presidential election that could further alter the ideological balance of the Supreme Court, the issue is taking on even greater weight this year.
At the top of the 2020 GOP ticket, President Donald Trump has energized abortion opponents with Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court, cementing a conservative majority that could reconsider and possibly overturn Roe. At the rally in St. Paul, some marchers carried cutouts of Trump along with signs that said, “Abortion is not healthcare,” and “God says you shall not murder.”
Meanwhile in the Democratic primary race, the entire field of candidates has pledged to support the most far-reaching abortion rights agendas in electoral history.
Abortion groups are promising to spend more on this election than any before it. Planned Parenthood will spend $45 million in nine targeted states in 2020 — including Minnesota — and anti-abortion rights group Susan B. Anthony List is putting $52 million into Trump’s re-election campaign.
It’s not just the presidential race. Abortion groups are looking all the way down the ballot in Minnesota, where Republicans hold a narrow majority in the Senate and have blocked Planned Parenthood-backed proposals pushed by the DFL-controlled House and Gov. Tim Walz. All 201 legislative seats are up for election this fall, along with eight congressional seats and the race for a U.S. Senate seat held by DFLer Tina Smith, a former Planned Parenthood executive and a member of its board.
So far it’s been state legislatures that have taken the most sweeping action on abortion, with Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi and Ohio all passing “heartbeat bills,” which ban abortion at six weeks, or when doctors can typically start detecting a fetal heartbeat. Opponents say many women don’t even know they’re pregnant that early on.
Those bans are not in effect while Roe stands, but Sarah Stoesz, president of the region’s Planned Parenthood Action Fund, said that’s the point. “The floodgates have really opened and many, many states have passed abortion bans or near-bans with the not unrealistic hope that we would challenge those bans and they would go before the Supreme Court and Roe would be overturned,” she said.
The Supreme Court is slated to take up at least one major abortion case this year centered on a 2014 Louisiana law that requires any doctor who performs abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles. If the law is upheld, opponents say it would leave the entire state of Louisiana with a single doctor who can perform abortions, making it the first state with almost no practical access to abortion since Roe.
On the other side, abortion opponents in Minnesota are worried about a lawsuit in Ramsey County that aims to undo state abortion restrictions, including a 24-hour waiting period and a requirement to notify parents of a patient who’s under 18.
“It could wipe out all of that in one court case and actually have unregulated abortion in Minnesota,” said Scott Fischbach, executive director of Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life. “It could be devastating.”
Bills to both restrict and expand abortion access in Minnesota have mostly stalled over the years with a divided Legislature. Walz, who is not on the ballot this year, said he expects more abortion measures to come up in the 2020 legislative session, which convenes on Feb. 11.
“That’s what happens during an election year,” he said. “My job will be to rein them back, focus on work that Minnesotans want to get done.”
With little chance of movement either way in the current Legislature, activists on both sides are shifting their focus to the fall election. At the march, first-time voter Heather Bruley carried a sign that read: “Only true feminists protect the unborn.”
“It’s definitely going to sway my vote depending on who is going to save people’s lives and who’s going to take them away,” said Bruley, who supports Trump.
Fischbach, noting a larger-than-usual crowd at the march, said historically the abortion issue has motivated more conservatives to get out to vote than Democrats. “Our side is intense. We care about this issue and we vote on this issue and it makes a big difference,” he said. “In Minnesota, when you have a straight-on pro-choice candidate and a straight-on pro-life candidate, the pro-life candidate gets a net gain of 5 to 7 [percentage] points.”
For her part, Hortman looks to the 2018 midterm election, two years after Trump came to office and shortly after Kavanaugh’s appointment. Minnesota voter turnout topped the nation, in large part because of a boost among women voters in the suburbs. They helped Democrats pick up 18 seats in the House and take back the majority.
“We had women in pink T-shirts who came out, and that was the difference,” Hortman said. “Now [Trump] is on the ballot and this issue is on the ballot in 2020 in a way it’s never been before.”
Staff writer Jessie Van Berkel contributed to this report.