This Lawsuit Could ‘Dismantle’ Anti-Choice Laws in Minnesota

Reproductive rights advocates want to undo Minnesota laws like a mandate to bury or cremate fetal remains, and a requirement that abortions be performed by a physician.

[Photo: A young person sits on a doctor's table as they wait for the doctor to arrive.]
Minnesota has four abortion clinics, leaving 59 percent of its residents in counties without a clinic. Some in Minnesota have to drive four hours to reach a clinic that provides abortion care. Shutterstock

Abortion rights advocates are taking on Minnesota’s anti-choice laws in the courts, hoping to eliminate restrictions in a state that has become a sanctuary for out-of-state patients seeking abortion.

Gender Justice and the Lawyering Project filed a lawsuit in May to overturn restrictions on abortion and are awaiting a response from the state by the end of the month. The anti-choice laws include a 24-hour forced waiting period, a two-parent notification requirement for minors, a mandate to bury or cremate fetal remains, and a requirement that all abortions be performed by a physician.

One of the plaintiffs, the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, is challenging the fetal remains requirement, which has been used by abortion rights opponents to shame people seeking abortion care. “The religious views of a few should not create the laws for all of us, especially considering that two-thirds of Minnesota voters support rights and access to abortion care,” Erin Maye Quade, advocacy director for Gender Justice, told Rewire.News.

“A lot of people frame these as recent attacks to make abortion illegal. I think it’s important to point out that these are not recent attacks. This has been going on for decades” across the nation and in Minnesota, she said. Many Minnesotans assume state laws support abortion access, “but that’s just not the case.”

Ninety-six percent of residents do not know about the state’s abortion laws, according to a May poll conducted by PerryUndem on behalf of Gender Justice.

In the 1995 case Doe v. Gomez, the Minnesota Supreme Court guaranteed the constitutional right to decide whether to continue a pregnancy or to seek abortion care without government interference. Since then, lawmakers have filed nearly 400 anti-choice bills in the state. In 2003, an informed consent requirement passed as an amendment to a bill about circuses. In 2008, legislators tried to pass a law to appropriate $200 million for domestic violence programs, but none of the money could go to groups that refer women to abortion care providers, Maye Quade said. In 2018, Republican lawmakers tried to ban abortion outright. While most of these bills died, some have quietly passed and serve to intimidate abortion providers, restrict patients’ access, and increase health-care costs. Gender Justice’s “UnRestrict Minnesotacampaign aims to overturn these restrictions and educate the public.

Minnesota has four abortion clinics, leaving 59 percent of its residents in counties without a clinic. Some in Minnesota have to drive four hours to reach a clinic that provides abortion care. Meanwhile, the state has 98 anti-choice pregnancy centers that deal in misinformation to try to dissuade pregnant people from seeking abortions.

Abortions in Minnesota have reached near-record lows, even as Minnesota sees an influx of abortion patients coming from surrounding states, according to data released this week by the states health department. Dr. Sarah Traxler, chief medical officer for Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota, described Minnesota as a haven statefor patients in the region seeking abortion, the Star Tribune reports.

If a patient lives near or manages to reach one of the state’s few clinics, current law forces the patient to make “an extra, medically unnecessary appointment,” and mandates doctors provide “medically irrelevant and biased information,” according to UnRestrict Minnesota. The law makes it a felony for non-physicians like nurse practitioners and nurse midwives to perform abortions. A similar restriction was recently eliminated by Maine Democrats. 

These laws deny people the health care they seek and deserve, discriminate against women and religious minorities, and “impose burdensome and unnecessary restrictions on healthcare providers,” the lawsuit states. 

The goal of the plaintiffs—two unnamed health-care professionals and the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis—is to create “a system of just laws that upholds the rights and dignity of all Minnesotans and ensures that everyone has access to high-quality sexual and reproductive healthcare.”

While Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison (D) is pro-choice, he has vowed to defend the restrictions, the Star Tribune reported.

Juanluis “Pepis” Rodriguez, litigation counsel at the Lawyering Project, told Rewire.News that lawsuits like the one in Minnesota are important given the Republican assault on reproductive rights in state capitols this year. 

Undoing the state’s anti-choice laws could cement Minnesota as a leader and a safe haven for abortion care as lawmakers in nearby states erode access. “Overwhelmingly these laws are not in tune with what Minnesotans feel,” Rodriguez said. “But even before we started seeing these attacks nationwide that are directly challenging Roe, we weren’t seeing a picture of access of what it should be and what it could be.”

People in Minnesota are often surprised to see these anti-choice laws on the books, Rodriguez said. “So it’s important to remember that even where it’s considered good or not as bad or one of the better states, it can still be a picture of access that is bleak,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez said it’s important for organizations like the Lawyering Project to support activists on the ground and to continue to fight for access. The organization filed two “comprehensive repeal” lawsuits in Texas and Indiana last year that challenge five categories of abortion restrictions, including targeted regulation of abortion provider (TRAP) laws; restrictions on medication abortion and telemedicine abortion; and mandatory counseling requirements, as Rewire.News reported.

“While it’s certainly true that we are seeing aggressive challenges and it’s important to fight back, I think there’s a lot of different work that a lot of us can be doing; litigation is certainly one aspect but even there, we try to do some proactive litigation that challenges laws in places like Minnesota,” Rodriguez said. “It’s a sort of two-pronged approach that’s required; it’s not simply reacting to the new challenges to access but also kind of dismantling the existing system.”