Rep. Carlie Kotyza-Witthuhn had spent weeks working on her bill, but it wasn't until the eve of the first hearing — with discussions of security, television cameras and keeping the debate civil — that it fully dawned on her what she was taking on.
Seven months after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and two months after voters gave her party complete control of state government, she was sponsoring a proposal to enshrine the right to abortion in Minnesota law for the first time in the state's 165-year history.
The high court had kicked the abortion debate back to the states, and now she was running with it.
"This is one of the most impactful pieces of legislation that I'll ever pass," said the three-term DFL legislator from Eden Prairie.
The proposal, expected to be signed into law by Gov. Tim Walz before the end of the month, represents a massive shift in momentum on an issue that, for decades, state lawmakers could do little to change. In the post-Roe world, legislators across the country now have the power to shape the abortion landscape. And while many states are moving to ban or limit access to the procedure, Minnesota's DFL trifecta is rushing to guarantee abortion rights for decades to come.
The legislators leading the proposals in Minnesota are all women. Along with codifying the right to abortion, they're pushing legislation to repeal longstanding abortion regulations, put restrictions on state funding for crisis pregnancy centers and protect health care providers and women traveling to Minnesota for the procedure.
"We're really fortunate to live in Minnesota right now … because we have these pro-choice, pro-reproductive freedom majorities," said Sen. Jen McEwen, DFL-Duluth, who is carrying the proposal to codify abortion rights in the upper chamber. She sponsored the bill last year, but it didn't get a hearing in the GOP-led Senate.
The right to abortion is protected in Minnesota through a 1995 state Supreme Court ruling in Doe v. Gomez, and in July, a Ramsey County judge struck down a handful of abortion restrictions in law. But Democrats say what happened to Roe demonstrated how judicial precedents can be overturned.
Their proposals have been met with pushback from abortion opponents, who have come to Capitol hearings to tell personal stories of how abortion touched their lives. Sage Behnken, a high school senior, said in a Senate hearing that her mother was raped in Colombia and got pregnant with her as a result.
"She was faced with many decisions on whether she would keep the baby or not and the pressures of abortion," she said. "She felt that her baby should have a chance at a joyful life with a loving family." Behnken was adopted by a family in Minnesota months after she was born.
Legislators have also told personal stories. Sen. Erin Maye Quade, DFL-Apple Valley, talked about concerns in her own recent pregnancy as she presented her bill to remove abortion regulations in statute, including a requirement to report any abortion that results in a live birth.
"I was going through my five weeks of, is it the worst case scenario? Will my child survive in utero? Will I survive this pregnancy?" she said during a recent hearing on her bill. "There were two thoughts: I might not become a mom. The second one was, if I don't become a mom, I will have to relive the worst day of my life … in a report published by my government."
Kotyza-Witthuhn has shared her own story of adopting three children before unexpectedly getting pregnant during the pandemic after years of fertility challenges. Opponents often point to adoption as an alternative to abortion.
"I'm a big believer in adoption and I'm a big believer in creating your family in whatever way it's right for you, but that it should not be a political decision to say whether or not someone is required to become a parent," she said.
She has supported abortion rights as long as she can remember, disagreeing on the issue with some family members while growing up in Sheboygan, Wis. Kotyza-Witthuhn is even more motivated to push her proposal when she looks at what happened in her home state, where abortions were halted after Roe was struck down and an 1849 law again went into force.
"It's unbelievable that they've defaulted to a law before women even had the right to vote," she said.
Kotyza-Witthuhn is a founding member of the Reproductive Freedom Caucus at the Capitol, which has been discussing legislation since the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling overturning Roe was leaked last spring.
Some Republican women in the Legislature have also shared their experiences with pregnancy and loss, including Rep. Marion O'Neill, R-Maple Lake, who said on the House floor she lost an 18-month-old daughter 23 years ago.
"I have an incredible heart of compassion for mothers, mothers who have lost children," she said. "It changes you, it forever changes you."
At times, the debate has gotten contentious with Republicans, who have unsuccessfully tried to amend the bill to place more regulations on the procedure. Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, criticized Kotyza-Witthuhn for carrying the abortion measure after previously supporting a bill to provide young children and families with tax credits and early learning scholarships.
"Now she's done the complete 180," said Franson during the House debate. Kotyza-Witthuhn later pointed out that no Republicans supported the tax credits bill.
In one Senate hearing, someone testifying asked legislators who support the proposal to repent. Kotyza-Witthuhn said some correspondence about her bill has been heated, served with "a side of what they hope is intimidation." She's also been struck by the emotional testimony from both supporters and opponents.
"It can be difficult to listen to what has happened to people," she said. "They're pretty brave coming forward to share a story that could be challenging."
She doesn't think that conversation would be happening without a shift in recent years that's brought more women into office, including young mothers. Her office down the street from the Capitol is sparsely decorated, save for the magnets her kids play with. She keeps toys tucked away next to her legislative files.
More women serve in the Legislature than ever before — 76 total — and Kotyza-Witthuhn noted that the top DFL leaders in both the House and Senate are women.
"The more people we can have at the table that really reflects the people of Minnesota it's going to be for the betterment of the state," she said. "That's not just about me."