Abortion Debate Splits Minnesota’s Capitol

Andy Birkey

Perhaps the most contentious political issue in the Minnesota Capitol remains abortion. And both proponents and opponents of a woman's right to choose will be putting forward initiatives to advance their causes in the coming months.

Perhaps the most contentious political issue in the Minnesota
Capitol remains abortion. And despite a budget deficit topping the
legislative agenda, proponents of a woman’s right to choose and
opponents of legalized abortion will be putting forward initiatives and
playing politics to advance their causes in the coming months.

The divide doesn’t split neatly by party. Even with a DFL-dominated
legislature, anti-abortion and pro-choice numbers are close, as many
greater Minnesota DFLers side with Republicans on the issue. Perhaps no
other issue could cause a DFLer to break ranks and vote against the
re-election of House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, but that’s what happened last week when
DFL Rep. Mary Ellen Otremba from Long Prairie was the lone DFL objector
because Kelliher is pro-choice and Otremba anti-abortion.

Pro-choice advocates see an opportunity this year to promote
family-planning programs. Anti-abortion groups look to stop taxpayer
funds for such initiatives and put controversial bills up for a vote.

Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life launches its legislative
agenda each year at the March for Life at the Capitol on the
anniversary of the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision which
legalized abortion. Each year the event brings out big-name
politicians. Last year featured Republican U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann.
Democratic Reps. James Oberstar and Collin Peterson often send letters
of support that are read to the gathered crowd. It’s rare that Gov. Tim
Pawlenty doesn’t make an appearance.

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This year, MCCL has an agenda that includes protecting Positive
Alternatives, a state-funded program that helps women with unintended
pregnancies find alternatives to abortion. The group says that the
program has helped reduce the rate of abortion in the state. Supporters fear its funding might be cut in order to close the state’s budget deficit.

With little possibility of moving out of DFL-dominated committees,
several other MCCL initiatives serve a different purpose: to embarrass
pro-choice legislators in swing districts. A ban on saline abortions
tops their agenda. This rarely used abortion technique has fallen out
of favor with most physicians and constitutes 0.8 percent of procedures
in the United States.

The bill to ban the procedure, which was introduced last session,
didn’t make it out of committee. But the MCCL often cites votes against
it, either in committee or if it makes it to a floor vote, in its
campaign literature.

MCCL representatives declined to talk with the Minnesota Independent
about the group’s legislative agenda or their take on what the session
has in store for the anti-abortion movement.

On its Web site, the group claimed it had achieved "nearly all pro-life"
goals in the 2008 elections, increasing the number of state legislators
opposed to abortion and defeating pro-choice legislators.

Tim Stanley, senior director of government and public affairs for
Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota,
explained the strategy behind a bill such as a saline abortion ban:

"They use these to try and make legislators look bad. That’s been
their agenda for some time. They offer these bills that have no chance
of passing and then use the votes against opponents."

And, despite a strong year for progressive voters, the strategy worked.

"They ran campaigns against [Rep.] Ken Tschumper [DFL-La Crescent]
and [Rep.] Shelley Madore [DFL-Apple Valley] saying they took ‘19 votes
to kill babies,’" said Stanley. "They make it difficult for people in
close legislative districts."

The MCCL Web site says the group targeted Tschumper and Madore because of their efforts to de-fund Positive Alternatives.

With a looming budget battle, fiscal issues will take priority in
the politics of abortion. Planned Parenthood hopes to save the
Prevention First Initiative, a state-funded program that provides
family planning services as a tool to prevent abortion and unintended
pregnancy. It’s a program signed into law in 2007 by Pawlenty, who is a
strong supporter of MCCL.

"I give the governor credit for that one," said Stanley. "I think
the governor recognizes that you save money in the long term when you
make an investment to prevent unintended pregnancy." Stanley said
programs like Prevention First save $4 in social services costs for
every dollar spent.

With a budget battle in which leaders say "everything is on the
table," Stanley hopes to keep the program going. He says that 86
percent of the families and individuals have low incomes and are able
to take advantage of the program at little or no cost.

For both sides, the Legislature is close. The Senate has a more
pro-choice lean, while the House is closer with several DFLers whose
commitment to either side is questionable and whose votes could make
the difference. In short, the politics of abortion will remains highly
contested in St. Paul.

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Reproductive rights are a public health issue. That's a fact.

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