Women lawmakers are driving the push to shape the future of access to abortion in Minnesota

Carlie Kotyza-Witthuhn had been working on her bill for weeks, but it wasn’t until the eve of the first hearing—with discussions about security, television cameras, and a civil debate—that it dawned on her what she was up to.

Seven months after the US Supreme Court ruled Roe v. Wade and two months after voters gave her party complete control of government, she backed a proposal to add abortion access to Minnesota law for the first time in the state’s 165-year history.

The Supreme Court had moved the abortion debate back to the States, and now it’s carrying on.

“This is one of the most impactful laws I will ever pass,” said the three-year DFL MP from Eden Prairie.

The proposal, which is expected to be signed into law by Gov. Tim Walz before the end of the month, represents a massive shift in momentum on an issue that state legislatures have done very little to change for decades. In the post-Roe world, lawmakers across the country now have the power to shape the abortion landscape. And while many states seek to ban or limit access to the procedure, Minnesota’s DFL trifecta is rushing to guarantee abortion rights for decades to come.

The lawmakers supporting the Minnesota proposals are all women. In addition to codifying access to abortion, they are pushing for legislation to repeal longstanding state law abortion regulations, limit state funding of crisis pregnancy centers, and protect health care providers and women who travel to Minnesota for the procedure.

“We’re really lucky just living in Minnesota … because we have these pro-choice majorities and pro-reproductive freedom majorities,” said DFL-Duluth Sen. Jen McEwen, who is carrying the proposal to codify access to abortion in the upper chamber. She sponsored the bill last year, but it went unheard in the GOP-led Senate.

Access to abortion in Minnesota was limited by a 1995 Supreme Court ruling in Doe v. Gomez protected, and in July a Ramsey County judge lifted a handful of abortion restrictions. But Democrats say what happened to Roe has shown how court precedents can be overturned.

Her proposals have been dismissed by anti-abortion advocates, who have come to the Capitol hearings to share personal stories of how abortion has impacted their lives. Sage Behnken, a high school graduate, said in a Senate hearing that her mother was raped in Columbia and became pregnant with her as a result.

“She was faced with a lot of decisions about whether or not to keep the baby and the pressures of having the abortion,” she said. “She felt that her baby should have a chance at a happy life in a loving family.” Behnken was adopted by a family in Minnesota months after her birth, she said.

Lawmakers have also shared personal stories. Sen. Erin Maye Quade, DFL-Apple Valley, spoke about concerns about her own recent pregnancy as she introduced her bill to repeal statutory abortion rules, including requiring parents to report when they receive comfort care in the hospital for a child who doesn’t is expected to survive.

“I’ve been through my five weeks, is it the worst case scenario? Will my child survive in the womb? Will I survive this pregnancy?” she said of her bill during a recent hearing. “There were two thoughts: I might not become a mother. The second was, if I don’t become a mother, I will have to relive the worst day of my life… in a report released by my government.”

Kotyza-Witthuhn has shared her own story of adopting three children before unexpectedly getting pregnant after years of fertility struggles during the COVID-19 pandemic. Opponents often point to adoption as an alternative to abortion.

“I’m a firm believer in adoption and I’m a firm believer in raising your family in the way that was right for you, but that saying whether or not someone needs to become a parent shouldn’t be a political decision. ” She said.

She has supported access to abortion for as long as she can remember and disagreed with some family members growing up in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Kotyza-Witthuhn is even more motivated to move forward with her proposal when she looks at what happened in her home state. where abortions stopped after Roe was crushed under an 1849 law.

“It’s incredible that they broke a law before women even had the right to vote,” she said.

Kotyza-Witthuhn is a founding member of the Capitol’s Reproductive Freedom Caucus, which has debated legislation since the US Supreme Court ruling overthrowing Roe was leaked last April.

Some Republican women in the Legislature have also shared their experiences of pregnancy and loss, including Rep. Marion O’Neill, R-Maple Lake, who said inside the House she lost an 18-month-old daughter 23 years ago.

“I have an incredible heart of compassion for mothers, mothers who have lost children,” she said. “It changes you, it changes you forever.”

But at times the debate became contentious with Republicans, who have tried unsuccessfully to amend the law to provide more guidance on the procedure. Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, criticized Kotyza-Witthuhn for enforcing the abortion measure after previously backing a bill to give young children and families tax credits and early learning scholarships.

“Now she’s done the full 180,” Franson said during the House debate. Koytza-Witthuhn later said no Republicans supported the tax credit law.

In a Senate hearing, a witness urged lawmakers to regret considering the proposal. Koytza-Witthuhn said some correspondence about their bill had been heated, served up with “a side of what they hope is intimidation”. She was also struck by the emotional testimonies of both supporters and opponents on the committee.

“It can be difficult to listen to what has happened to people,” she said. “You’re quite brave to step up to tell a story that could be challenging.”

She doesn’t think this conversation would happen without a shift in recent years that has brought more women into office, including young mothers. Her office across the street from the Capitol is sparsely decorated save for magnets for her children to play with. She keeps toys next to her legislative files.

More women than ever are serving in the legislature – 76 in total – and Koytza-Witthuhn noted that top DFL executives in both the House and Senate are women.

“The more people we can have around the table that really reflect the people of Minnesota, the better the state gets,” she said. “It’s not just about me.”

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