The abortion issue, always a reliable political lightning rod, took a back seat during the 2010 legislative session to a little diversion called the state budget deficit.
A handful of bills dealing with abortion — mainly legislation that would have placed greater restrictions on abortion on demand in Minnesota — were discussed, but none of them gained any traction.
But with an upcoming gubernatorial election, every seat in the state Legislature up for grabs and a conservative political groundswell predicted for the fall, forces on both sides of the debate are girding their loins for a renewed battle over the issue.
“We’re hopeful,” said Scott Fischbach, executive director of the anti-abortion group Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life (MCCL), whose group is solidly behind GOP nominee Tom Emmer and who praised outgoing Gov. Tim Pawlenty as a “champion for life.” “It’s obviously going to be a tight race, but it’s critical for us to have a pro-life governor, as we’ve seen over the last eight years. For us, that will be priority number one.”
Tim Stanley, executive director of the state’s Planned Parenthood Action Fund, said his group is similarly mobilizing behind its endorsed candidate, DFL endorsee Margaret Anderson Kelliher.
“We’re aware that we have a couple of pro-choice candidates in the race whom we consider good friends, but [Kelliher] is a very, very good friend to us, and has been for her entire career,” Stanley said. “We respect her record, we respect her commitment, and we think her administration will prioritize the things we want prioritized — health care, education and keeping women and families safe and healthy.”
Kelliher has two DFL opponents in the Aug. 10 primary who are also pro-choice: Mark Dayton and Matt Entenza.
Another pro-choice group, NARAL Pro-Choice Minnesota, won’t endorse a gubernatorial candidate until after the primary, and executive director Linnea House said they aren’t ruling anyone out — even Emmer.
“We’re a nonpartisan organization, so we are considering everyone,” she said. “I will say that Tom Emmer has been a little bit elusive about his stance on choice, more so than our friends in the Democratic Party, and we have some strong champions in that party. It all depends on the strength of the candidate.”
MCCL praised the numbers in the Minnesota Department of Health’s yearly report on abortion, released this week, which showed that the number of abortions in the state fell last year for the third straight year, hitting their lowest level since 1975.
According to the report, abortion providers reported performing 12,388 abortions in Minnesota last year, compared to 12,948 in 2008.
Fischbach’s group attributes much of the decrease to a state-funded program called Positive Alternatives, which provides about $2.4 million a year for abortion-alternative programs designed to encourage women to carry their pregnancies to term and to help them care for their children after birth.
“The report plays a big part in the analysis of where we need to go and what need to do during the next legislative session,” Fischbach said. “The numbers are as low as they’ve ever been; things are headed in the right direction.”
All three groups — MCCL, Planned Parenthood and NARAL — are also focusing on legislative races.
House and Stanley say that while the common perception that the Minnesota Legislature is reliably pro-choice, given that DFLers control both chambers, that’s somewhat inaccurate.
“I think there’s a little bit of a misnomer that if you have a Democratic majority, you have a pro-choice majority,” House said. “I would consider our state House very mixed on choice.”
House pointed to several extremely close votes — including one in 2009 in which members deadlocked 66-66 on a bill that would have prohibited state-sponsored health programs from paying for abortions — as evidence that the House could tilt either way on the issue.
During this session, House’s group was concerned about the support for an amendment offered by Rep. Steve Gottwalt, R-St. Cloud, which would have prohibited abortions solely for the sake of gender selection.
While the amendment ultimately failed, it proved worrisome to NARAL: “Our perspective on any sort of ban on funding procedures is that it’s not strictly about the abortion procedure — it’s about trying to get something on the books so they can start to chip away at other types of abortion procedures,” House said. “If they can get their foot in the door on one procedure, it opens the floodgates on others.”
So House’s group, and Planned Parenthood, are mobilizing supporters statewide to work to get pro-choice legislators elected — something that Stanley called an “easy sell.”
And while he expects the GOP to pick up a few legislative seats, he expects DFLers to do the same.
“I still think that Minnesota is a very moderate and mainstream state,” Stanley said. “But I believe in the pendulum effect; I don’t predict a landslide by any stretch.
“The types of candidates being endorsed b the GOP are extreme candidates who are out of the mainstream. By the time the election rolls around, Minnesotans will know that and will support candidates who support what mainstream Minnesotans support.”
Added House: “Our work is to focus on protecting the pro-choice candidates we have. I think Democrats may lose some seats, but our emphasis is on protecting the pro-choice advocates.”