With a vote by the Senate Judiciary Committee for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett slated for Oct. 22, the anxieties of some — and hopes of others — have been reignited: That Roe v. Wade may be overturned.
On Tuesday, Sen. Amy Klobuchar pressed Barrett about her thoughts on Roe, the half century old Supreme Court decision that granted abortion rights. Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, asked whether Barrett thought Roe was a “super precedent,” meaning so enshrined in law — like Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Ks. — that it could not be overturned. Barrett said no, but added, “That doesn’t mean it should be overruled.”
If confirmed, Barrett would further cement the Supreme Court’s conservative majority, with six conservative justices appointed by Republican presidents, and three liberals appointed by Democrats.
Anti-abortion activists believe the Barrett nomination will be a decisive turn in their decadeslong battle against abortion, with ramifications that could be felt almost immediately in the upper Midwest.
“We think [Barrett] would be a good Justice,” said Paul Stark, spokesman for Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life. “We hope that moving forward, the Supreme Court will allow for more protections for the right to life.”
Abortion rights advocates here say this is a moment they feared — but have been actively preparing for, turning Minnesota into a haven for abortion rights and reproductive health care, even as neighboring states look to restrict access.
Abortion in Minnesota — as it stands
If Roe v. Wade were overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, the right to an abortion would still be protected in the state of Minnesota.
That’s thanks to a 1995 Minnesota Supreme Court case, Doe v. Gomez, which said abortion rights are protected by the state’s constitution.
Still, abortion rights advocates are pressing ahead, suing the state to remove restrictions in Minnesota law, including the requirement that patients under 18 notify both parents, a 24-hour waiting period and the burial or cremation of fetal remains.
Minnesota has long been seen as a progressive outlier compared to its more conservative neighbors, and the same applies to abortion access.
North Dakota and South Dakota both have “trigger laws” — meaning they would automatically make abortion illegal, except in rare circumstances — if Roe v. Wade were overturned. Wisconsin has a pre-Roe abortion law on the books that could be enforced should Roe be overturned.
Robin Marty, a Minneapolis resident and author of Handbook for a Post-Roe America, said the 2010 election, which saw Wisconsin and Iowa shift markedly right, was a tipping point for abortion access in broad swaths of the country. Republicans not only emerged victorious but then redrew legislative maps to lock in their gains. The erosion of abortion rights followed.
“Abortion is probably the least accessible that it’s been since [Roe v. Wade] was first decided. At this point, I believe we’re down to around 700 clinics in the United States,” Marty said. “Especially the Midwest and especially in the South, you’ll find that most of your states have very few abortion clinics left.”
Minnesota’s neighboring states already have their own broad restrictions in place. In Wisconsin and the Dakotas, for example, telehealth appointments for medication abortions are prohibited. In Iowa, patients must have an ultrasound before undergoing the procedure; in Wisconsin, physicians must show and describe the ultrasound image of a patient’s fetus before an abortion takes place. In North Dakota, like Minnesota, patients must meet with a counselor 24 hours before obtaining an abortion; in South Dakota, that wait time is 72 hours.
The pandemic has worsened access. In South Dakota, for example, the Planned Parenthood in Sioux Falls has not performed abortions since March, because no physicians in the state provide the procedure. Planned Parenthood would regularly fly physicians in from Minnesota, but COVID-19 has inhibited such travel.
Despite Minnesota’s barriers to access — especially outside the Twin Cities — the North Star State would likely become an “abortion access oasis state” in the Upper Midwest, Marty said.
The need to travel here would jack up the costs for women in other states.
“In some places, I may not be able to get an abortion without an airline ticket, an Amtrak ticket or without getting into a car and driving multiple hours one-way,” Marty said. Given the cost of the procedure and travel, an abortion could cost $1,000 or more, which is a huge sum for low income women.
Sen. Tina Smith, a former Planned Parenthood executive, said overturning Roe would place an undue burden on women, especially low income and rural women in other states. “I want to make sure that people understand the seriousness of what is at stake here, that this is a Supreme Court nomination that has potential to have a direct impact on the Upper Midwest. What would happen, I fear, is there will be women who just won’t have those choices anymore.”
Leaning into contingency plans
Sarah Stoesz, the president and CEO of Planned Parenthood North Central States, recalled working on a task force when George W. Bush was president that sought to plan for a post-Roe future. Potential strategies for Planned Parenthood include connecting patients with nonprofits that provide financial help for women who want abortions, and working more closely with independent providers.
“Planned Parenthood would shift only to the extent that we would want to ensure that we had adequate capacity to welcome people from other states. I believe that we have that now, but only time will tell — it depends on how many states go dark,” she said.
Emily Mohrbacher, the Twin Cities and Greater Minnesota coordinator for the Midwest Access Coalition, which helps low income people cross state lines for abortion access, said that Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination hasn’t necessarily brought a new or heightened sense of urgency. Shifting legislation is something the organization has learned to plan for, she said.
“We’re prepared to support many more people as Roe …is potentially dismantled bit by bit,” Mohrbacher said in an email to the Reformer. She said she expects operating costs will rise as they help more people, and they expect communities of color to be disproportionately affected.
Though he couldn’t speak to the exact details of future legislation, Stark said he thought MCCL would likely advocate for restricting abortion access across state lines. He pointed to instances in which minors may try to cross state lines to avoid parental notification laws as an example for where it’s already been a point of concern.
When asked about Minnesota potentially becoming a haven for abortion, he said, “We don’t want that to ever be the case.”
Even as Minnesota abortion rights advocates prepare to help women from surrounding states, the accessibility of abortion in Minnesota proper remains a charged debate.
“We have very few clinics. We have very few providers,” said Erin Maye Quade, campaign manager for UnRestrict Minnesota, which advocates for abortion rights. “Accessibility depends on where you live, what kind of health insurance you have, and how much money you have.”
Maye Quade said UnRestrict Minnesota has found that Minneostans are generally uninformed about the status of abortion access statewide.
When Minnesotans were asked how many clinics provide abortions in the state, the average answer was 41, according to a 2019 survey.
The real number of abortion clinics in Minnesota? Five.
Of those five, four are located in the Twin Cities metro area; one is in Duluth.
Maye Quade said the fight for accessible abortion will not end even if Roe does. “We shouldn’t pretend to be confused about what is happening right now. There has been a decades long anti-abortion movement aimed at making abortion either illegal or inaccessible,” Maye Quade said. “This is not a new fight.”