Minnesota Republicans attempt to ban abortion coverage for poor women

If Minnesota denies Medicaid coverage for abortion, 4,000 Minnesota mothers who make poverty wages would either have to have a baby they can't support, or find their own way of terminating the pregnancy.

If Minnesota denies Medicaid coverage for abortion, 4,000 Minnesota mothers who make poverty wages would either have to have a baby they can't support, or find their own way of terminating the pregnancy. Beatrice Murch

Minnesota House Republicans voted Monday to deny abortion coverage for low-income women and pile regulations on clinics, which have forced them to close in other states. 

These bills aren't new. Republicans try something similar every time they get a majority in the legislature, arguing that public Medicaid funds shouldn't be used to fund abortion.

The bills don't have much of a chance to become law. Gov. Mark Dayton says he will veto them if the Republicany Senate follows suit, just as he had in 2011 and 2012.

There are already court rulings that consider both measures unconstitutional. In 1995, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled in Doe v. Gomez that government had no place in a woman's decision to have an abortion. Just last summer, the U.S. Supreme Court found that a Texas law placing undue regulations on clinics was unconstitutional because its purpose was clearly to purge the state of abortion providers, rather than protecting women's health.

Yet, Minnesota gets consistently close to banning public funds for abortion. So what would happen to women on Medicaid if that were to pass?

According to the state Department of Human Services, Minnesota health care programs covered the cost of 4,218 abortions in 2015. The women who received these abortions are the poorest of the poor -- people with a maximum income of about $16,000.

When the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that the basic necessities (food and shelter) of raising a child cost $13,000 a year, most of these women had no possible way to support a child. 

And because most women who seek abortions are already mothers, they had to consider the quality of life for their other children, says Andrea Ledger of NARAL Pro-Choice Minnesota.

"That makes them even more aware of whether they want to continue with pregnacy or not because at that point they're potentially putting their other kids at risk, if they're not emotionally prepared, financially prepared," she says. "Women have all different reasons for seeking an abortion, but for most women it would be taking care of the kids they already have."

If their insurance fails, a number of these 4,000-some women would invariably have to carry their pregnancies to term. Those who are determined to end a pregnancy could try their luck with one of the state's two private abortion funds. There is Pro-Choice Resources in Minneapolis and HOTDISH Militia in Duluth. Both "last-chance" funds are supported entirely by donations, and cannot help everyone who comes looking for aid.

Karen Law of Pro-Choice Resources says the many woman who seek private aid include those whose private insurance won't cover it, government employees, incarcerated women, Native American women with insurance through Indian Health Services, victims of domestic or sexual violence who can't have the procedure show up on an insurance bill, and minors.

If Minnesota decides to drop coverage for Medicaid, the private organizations could not begin to cover the gap, she says. Pro-Choice, for example, can give only $100,000 in a good year.

"We would be saying no nine out of 10," Law says. "There's this misinformation out there that the community has the ability to cover that. For me, it's the same way as someone who needs care for birth defects being told, 'Oh, the March of Dimes can give you money.'"

So what becomes of those women without cash, without public insurance, and without private support?

A 2015 study of a set of since-overturned Texas laws provides some insight. Researchers of the Texas Policy Evaluation Project found a rise in self-induced abortions, with women using self-medication with prescription or illegal drugs, homeopathic herbs, and self-harm.

"Women will find a means to terminate their pregnancies," Law says. "Historically, we know that. It's safer in our society where abortion is covered so that women can have safe abortions. And when the financial means are not there, women are reduced to finding ways that are not healthy."