Vengeance Is Theirs

Thanks to last fall's elections, there is overwhelming antiabortion sentiment in the Minnesota House, Senate, and Governor's Office for the first time in a dozen years. Despite the fact that many of the elections were close, and many of the anti-choice candidates deflected questions about abortion during their campaigns, today they are proclaiming an antiabortion mandate.

In a session that coincides with the 30th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's Roe vs. Wade decision establishing the legal right to abortion, Minnesota lawmakers are poised to dramatically reduce women's reproductive choice. The proposed anti-choice legislation might seem like typical legislative maneuvering at first. It doesn't tinker with the legality of abortion per se. But the supposedly innocuous measures would chisel away at funding, access, and the doctor-patient relationship, effectively creating the same end result: the further restriction of a woman's ability to decide what happens to her body.

The most prominent legislation so far has been the long-controversial waiting period bill, requiring a woman seeking an abortion to wait 24 hours before having the procedure. The bill, which was on its way to the governor's office as this issue went to press, would also force doctors to offer scripted information describing, among other things, the age of the fetus and the potential pain it feels during the surgery. Equally dangerous is the "Super Gag Rule," which could effectively wipe out all state funding to any health care or family planning organization that even mentions abortion as part of the continuum of reproductive health.

"It's more than a nibble. It's a big bite," declares Jane Ransom, president of the Women's Foundation of Minnesota, who has counted eight bills this session that aim to hinder women's reproductive choice. "We already have huge access problems."

The waiting period measure would not only throw obstacles into the path of women seeking abortions, but it might also place hurdles in front of women undergoing fertility treatments. The gag rule could severely limit information made available to women--especially those who can only afford to go to state-subsidized clinics.

"It's insidious," Ransom says. "It's not as black and white as to rule out abortion. It cuts funding to people who talk about abortion. It's medieval. We're going to teach that the world is flat."

Instead of reducing the number of abortions in the state, the anti-choice measures could have the opposite effect, offers Tina Flint Smith, a lobbyist for Planned Parenthood of Minnesota/South Dakota. Without access to reliable information about pregnancy prevention, "more young people will have unintended pregnancies and abortions," Smith predicts. "Which is something none of us want."

The irony is that the two measures would succeed in scripting what doctors can say to patients in some situations, and restricting what they can say in others.

Seeing an opening by virtue of the new makeup of the legislature and the election of Tim Pawlenty, the anti-choice faction has also stepped up its political shenanigans this session. Even though the House had already passed the waiting period bill in a lopsided vote, House Republicans maneuvered to attach the bill to an unrelated measure on circuses. The effort, denounced by DFLers as nothing short of a bait-and-switch, effectively cut the Senate out of the debate, severely limiting its ability to amend the legislation (and the plan worked-- senators voted not to send the bill to a conference committee and instead passed the House version).

At the same time, as a Senate committee attempted to hold hearings on the waiting period and gag rule bills, the authors pulled them at the last minute. This meant that the committee could hear testimony on the bills, but couldn't vote on them, again preventing members from altering the bills and raising concerns that further scheming might be on the horizon.

This year pro-choice advocates tried to get out in front of the backlash, introducing legislation of their own, but they have found little success. Two family planning bills (one aimed at mandating that emergency rooms provide emergency contraception for sexual assault victims, the other at forcing all health plans that offer prescription services to offer contraceptives as well) were quickly killed off.

Instead the pro-choice movement has wound up on the defensive. After the House's circus move, for example, pro-choice advocates staged a protest at the capitol, where volunteers in clown suits held signs imploring lawmakers not to turn women's health care into a circus. Antiabortion protesters were well prepared, however, and showed up in droves, nearly overshadowing the beleaguered clowns.

In fact there have been few times when the pro-choice movement has managed to stage protests that weren't co-opted by antiabortion foes. The morning when senators were first to vote on the abortion/circus bill, a couple hundred pro-choice protesters lined the hallways and stairs leading to the Senate chambers. When news filtered down that the Senate wouldn't be taking up the bill that day, the assembled mass rejoiced at the victory.

But it turned out to be simply a postponement of the inevitable, and even the staunchest pro-choice advocates fear that it's a sign of things to come.

"It's a tough time," says Smith. "We have a lot of work to do."

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