Fanning the Flames

While attacking same-sex marriage, state rep Mary Liz Holberg has also taken steps to chill what medical providers can say about reproductive rights.
Bill Kelley

Two weeks ago, the big news coming out of the Capitol was the debate over same-sex unions. A Republican-backed bill that would let voters decide whether to outlaw homosexual marriage cleared its first hurdle, passing in the House Civil Law Committee, in a vote that was along party lines. But while the culture wars have shifted into high gear, and the clash has moved to gay marriage, little has been heard from the old battleground: abortion.

The abortion issue coyly appeared this session with the introduction of two bills about family planning grants. While a Republican-backed bill would prohibit clinics that receive the grants from discussing abortions, another bill with DFL support would increase funding for such programs five-fold. That these bills would become laws anytime soon is unlikely, but still possible. Even so, the message coming from the Capitol is clear: A moral debate has turned into one about health education.

Family planning grants help fund nonprofit efforts to educate about contraceptives, test for disease, and provide counseling about reproductive health. While Planned Parenthood of Minnesota/South Dakota will receive $850,000--more money than any other organization--the rest of some $4 million was divvied up between more than 30 smaller organizations this year. The idea is to reach folks who have difficulty accessing reproductive health information, such as those without insurance or with lower incomes. In 1996, studies used by Planned Parenthood estimated that in the absence of such publicly funded family planning, the number of abortions performed in the United States each year would be 40 percent higher.

For instance, a clinic like the West Suburban Teen Clinic in Excelsior--which, among other things, offers testing for sexually transmitted infections--depends on the public dollars for about half of its budget. The clinic currently follows an ethical obligation to inform patients about all their health care options. If the Republican bill, the so-called "Taxpayer Protection Act," becomes law, that would change.

The Taxpayer act would go much further in restricting what could be done with the grants, or with any state grants that directly or indirectly fund family planning. For starters, doctors couldn't answer patients' questions about abortions if they wanted to keep funding. But legislation would do more than monetarily reward doctors for not mentioning abortions to their patients: It would also prohibit clinics from supporting the passage or defeat of abortion legislation or from endorsing a politician based on views of reproductive rights. What's lost in all of this is one minor detail: State law already prohibits family planning grants from funding abortions.

The House author of the bill, State Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, a Lakeville Republican who also authored the anti-gay marriage bill, had little convincing to do during a Health and Human Services Policy Committee hearing, and she expects the same support when it goes to the full House. When asked about her rationale for the bill, Holberg simply says, "The distribution of grants should only provide state funds for family planning." Pressed further, she offers, "Abortion is not family planning."

The Senate author of the bill, Senator Tom Neuville, a GOPer from Northfield, didn't even try to have what opponents call the "Gag Rule" heard in its assigned committee. Instead, Neuville, who declines to disclose his strategy, says there are various ways to get it to the Senate floor.


Just because the Holberg/Neuville bill is flying under the public radar doesn't mean there isn't cause for concern. Last year's passage of the 24-hour-wait bill, which postpones a woman's right to have an abortion, showed there are various ways of bypassing a committee hearing. (The controversial law also dictates what medical providers tell women--including alternatives to abortion--before such a procedure.) The bill was tacked onto one that made it legal for a circus to come to town during the State Fair. In the specious move, a Senate committee hearing was sidestepped, and the legislation went directly to the floor. Then it became law.

The anti-abortion powerhouse Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life (MCCL), which successfully lobbied for the 24-hour law, has vowed to get the Gag Rule passed this year.

Because of last year's shenanigans, getting around a committee hearing became more difficult this year when the Senate approved a rule directing bills to a conference committee if they have an attached amendment that is substantially different from the bill itself. If the rule had been in place last year, the circus bill would have gone to a conference committee, and it might not have made it to the floor. Whether the Gag Rule will get to the floor is unclear, but if it does it will be welcomed by an increasingly conservative Senate.

But on the other side of the abortion rights scuffle, Sen. John Marty, a Roseville DFLer, has offered up his own reproductive health education bill that he says is intended to counter antiabortion rhetoric. He introduced a family planning bill that adds $20 million to what is currently a $4 million program. Notably, it would require comprehensive sexuality education, including reforming the Department of Health's abstinence-only sex ed program Education Now and Babies Later (ENABL). While abstinence would still be taught, his bill puts male "sexual responsibility" measures, including condom usage, into play.

Marty's bill, he argues, contends that family planning grants reduce the need for abortions by educating women about their reproductive health. It's a bill he thinks pro-lifers should support. "This legislation would single-handedly prevent more abortions than all the restrictions MCCL and the antiabortion lobby have passed in the last 30 years," Marty says.

While the bill was passed in one Senate committee and referred to another, Marty concedes it has little chance of becoming law this year because of the money it requires. But it's his intent to have it passed in the next couple of years. Whether it passes or not, Marty believes it does balance the debate.

Finally, yet another piece of this battle is the proposed repeal of something called minor's consent. Current law allows teenagers to keep medical information about sexually transmitted infections and pregnancies confidential; conservatives want to do away with it altogether. While the bill attacking minor's consent garnered attention, it wasn't passed out of its Senate committee. No doubt, some legislators hope to see it live another day.

The move to repeal minor's consent is as duplicitous as the Taxpayer act. In most cases, a separate state law already requires pregnant teenagers seeking abortions to tell both of their parents. Abortion is not the issue. It's about what kinds of health care information are disseminated, and those who favor the repeal of minor's consent want to control the discussion. In other words, it dovetails nicely with the fuss over family planning grants.

Meanwhile, the fight over reproduction is raging elsewhere. With the news last month that the South Dakota legislature blatantly challenged Roe vs. Wade by passing a bill to make most abortions illegal, a woman's right to choose remains under fire. With partisans on both sides watching as the South Dakota measure wends its way toward the courts, it's certain that reproductive rights are being chipped away here in Minnesota.

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