Minnesota's newest abortion battleground might be a town of 500 people on the western prairie.
The Kandiyohi County city of Prinsburg is considering an ordinance that would allow residents to sue abortion providers. Although the town doesn't have an abortion clinic, the proposed law also would allow lawsuits against companies that provide abortion drugs by mail.
It's the first step in a campaign that organizers hope will spread across the state, especially in conservative rural areas. Tim Miller, a Prinsburg Republican who currently represents the area in the Legislature, said he's stepping down from office to devote himself to spreading the idea.
"This is not just an impulse," Miller said. "This is in God's timing. We need to start somewhere [and] we will be working to pass ordinances in other communities."
The proposed ordinance had its first public hearing at a City Council meeting last week. It's based on a Texas law passed last year that allows private citizens to sue anyone who "aids or abets" an abortion after six weeks of pregnancy — a time before many women know they're pregnant.
Jonathan Mitchell, the Texas lawyer who wrote that law, is working on the Prinsburg proposal with Pro-Life Action Ministries of St. Paul, Miller said.
The intent of the proposed law isn't to penalize a woman who has an abortion, Miller said, but to stop "the animals who tell her that's OK and profit from it.
"We know these women are suffering," he said. "We want the Christian community to wrap their arms around them."
Roger Ahrenholz, mayor of Prinsburg, confirmed that the city is considering the anti-abortion ordinance.
"The Prinsburg community, and surrounding area, is very much a pro-life community," he said in an email. "Thus, when Mr. Tim Miller approached the city council about adopting this ordinance, the council decided to consider it." Ahrenholz said the city is doing its due diligence and doesn't have a timeline for voting on the proposal.
Miller said he's confident the ordinance can withstand legal challenges, but a law professor was skeptical.
"This is something that I am pretty darn sure is outside the power of this municipality to promulgate," said Laura Hermer, a professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law. Minnesota law and court decisions have affirmed the right to abortion in the state, she said, and it makes no sense to allow a city to pass a law overriding that.
"While the state of Minnesota may not be able to restrict a given right, to say your neighbor can — and the state can allow your neighbor to effectively take away that right — it makes a mockery of what we call rights," she said.
"It is such an affront to the rule of law."
Similar ordinances have been passed by cities in a handful of states, including Texas and Nebraska. The difference is, abortion was already illegal in those states, said Emily Bisek, a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota Action Fund.
"Typically, the ordinances are difficult to enforce and carry little weight," she said. "But they do scare abortion patients and confuse them, and further stigmatize abortion patients."
With continuing court challenges and legislation, women seeking an abortion face shifting terrain that further hinders their efforts to exercise their rights, she said.
"The legal landscape patients are navigating is extremely confusing and extremely limiting," Bisek said. "The future could be individual cities or counties having different laws, and that is not conducive to providing accessible healthcare.
"If this passes, we will of course look at it very seriously and figure out what comes next," she said. "The people in Prinsburg deserve to have access to sexual and reproductive health care.
"Politicians shouldn't be in the exam room."
Miller said his effort is backed by the Thomas More Society, a national nonprofit law firm focused on opposition to abortion and other conservative "culture war" causes. If Prinsburg — or any other city — were sued over an anti-abortion ordinance, the society would defend the case at no cost, he said.
"If this law professor doesn't think it will stand up in Minnesota court, they can file the lawsuit," he said.
Miller said he realized that abortion wouldn't get "the attention it needs" in the Legislature and decided to devote himself to his cause.
"This is my mission; this is my work," he said. "This is what God is calling me to do. I can better serve the state of Minnesota through this."