How a law about circuses allowed Minnesota politicians to restrict abortion

The law that requires you wait 24 hours to have an abortion was tucked inside a bill eliminating a prohibition on circuses around State Fair time.

The law that requires you wait 24 hours to have an abortion was tucked inside a bill eliminating a prohibition on circuses around State Fair time. YouTube

In Minnesota, you aren’t legally allowed to get an abortion unless you wait a full day and let a doctor tell you it may somehow give you breast cancer. Not a lot of people know this, but even fewer people know the reason why.

The story involves the State Fair, circuses, and a little legislative trickery. It’s the subject of a new video produced by the Abortion Access Front in the style of the popular TV show Drunk History.

“I’m totally sober,” Lizz Winstead of the Abortion Access Front says in the intro. “But I’m going to sound completely hammered as I explain to you the history of how sneaky Minnesota politicians crammed a buttload of abortion restrictions into law.”

This all started with a little bill introduced in January 2003, which was supposed to eliminate old legal language that prohibited circuses around State Fair time. It was co-written by Reps. Marty Seifert (R-Marshall) and Gene Pelowski, Jr. (D-Winona).

Pretty much everyone could get on board with tossing out a law that had become, by this point, the equivalent of a vestigial limb. By February, it had been lobbed over to the Senate and gotten a unanimous vote of approval.

But in April, Seifert and his Republican colleague, Mary Liz Holberg of Lakeville, made a few changes. They included switching up the title and inserting a new section entitled the “Women’s Right to Know Act.”

You may assume it has nothing to do with the State Fair or circuses. You'd be right. The new language featured a measure pro-life groups had been trying to pass for nearly a decade, without much success.

It would require anyone seeking an abortion to listen to a script about the possible risks of the procedure. Then they’d have to look at pictures of embryos in various stages of pregnancy, learn how old their fetus would be by the time the abortion happens, and hear rough estimates about how much it would allegedly hurt the fetus to be aborted.

Finally, they’d have to sit on that information for 24 hours before going through with it. Proponents said it was a good way to ensure obtaining an abortion was always an educated decision. Opponents said it was a better way to hassle, guilt, or scare people out of it.

Then-Sen. Becky Lourey told MPR the bill required physicians to give patients misleading or even false information. That included warning them that abortion may increase the risk of developing breast cancer… which, according to the American Cancer Society and the U.S. National Cancer Institute, isn’t actually a thing.

Because the House, thinking they were voting on the rights of circus performers, approved it, neither it nor the Senate could pick it apart or amend it. One Democratic rep went as far to call the process itself a “three-ring circus.” 

“I’m really appalled by what’s happened here in this body,” Democratic Rep. Barb Goodwin said of the switch. “This is a real abuse of power… I’m ashamed to be in the legislature and part of this process.”

Yes, the bill’s supporters admitted to MPR, it was a parlor trick—or, rather, a parliamentary one. But they felt it necessary.

“This is the only way that we can get it to the floor,” Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life member Marice Rosenberg said.

It worked. Attempts to halt or change the bill were thwarted. Republicans and a critical mass of pro-life Democrats in the Senate passed the modified version. Then Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed it into law. To this day, you still have to wait 24 hours and listen to a “medically inaccurate script written by politicians,” as Winstead puts it.

Which is why Unrestrict Minnesota is trying to get this law—and others like it—tossed out, partially with the help of a lawsuit by Gender Justice and the Lawyering Project. The complaint calls these restrictions “burdensome and unnecessary,” and challenges Minnesota courts to provide legitimate reasons for why we should keep them on the books.

But the first step to changing any policy is reminding people that said policy exists. No matter how buckwild it sounds.