A Conversation About Reproductive Freedom

At a March 25 event, Minnesota Women’s Press/Changemakers Alliance Outreach Director Crystal Brown talked with Rep. Esther Agbaje and Rev. Kelli Clement about defending reproductive freedom in Minnesota.

What does the Reproductive Freedom Defense Act prohibit, protect, and support?

Rep. Agbaje: The Reproductive Freedom Defense Act is basically a shield law for Minnesotans. It protects Minnesota patients and Minnesota health care providers from laws in other states that are trying to reach in to criminalize people for receiving reproductive health care, including abortion. If you are a patient and you come to Minnesota for reproductive health care, your records cannot be subpoenaed for crime or civil action.

We know that there are providers who are leaving states like Texas and Missouri. If you decide you want to practice in Minnesota, your license won’t be denied if there is something on your record that says you provided an abortion in a state where abortion is criminalized. Same if you’re a physician’s assistant or nurse. You also can’t be extradited back to another state solely because you provided reproductive health care in Minnesota.

What it is saying is that we are acknowledging that abortion care and reproductive health care are health care issues. As long as you’re a healthcare provider who is doing it in a legal way, following the standard of care, you will be protected.

Some people have said this [provides] loopholes for unscrupulous doctors. We’re not protecting those folks. Malpractice is still malpractice. If you are committing crimes, you are still committing crimes. This is very much focused on the legal standard of care practice for reproductive health care.

Rev. Clement: I am so grateful for your leadership in bringing this bill forward. And the many legislators, including my representative Emma Greenman, who was a co author. [I heard you say] prior to the vote that this is new law, we are in a new area, and who thought we would ever have to write laws like these?

I just heard from a colleague, a clergy person in Texas, that one of their congregants has an ectopic pregnancy. Her doctor has told her they have to wait until she starts bleeding out until they can provide care. Who knew that we would have to write laws like this? But because of the the barbaric practices and laws that are being practiced in other states, in Minnesota we have to do this. It matters.

Rep. Agbaje: It really does. There are a lot of legal intellectual conversations we can have about what it means, about our state and other states [creating these legal protections for patients and professionals], but I think we have to remember that people are dying in states that are now saying abortion is illegal. Sometimes these are people who want their children and unfortunately something goes wrong.

What we are saying in Minnesota is that we see you as a full person and you deserve health care. If this is the type of health care that you need, you can get it and you don’t have to wait until you’re almost dead before doctors can intervene. We’re also a state that will allow doctors to be doctors — they’re not lawyers, and they shouldn’t have to worry about [going to jail] if they treat a patient.

What Can We Do Now?

Rep. Agbaje: The path of this bill is in the Senate. Continue to press on your senators to say, I know you say you’re standing up for reproductive rights, where are we on this bill? Continue talking to your neighbors writing those stories, changing the narrative. I think a lot of people get sort of lost on this idea of protecting the child. And that’s important. But at the same time, the person who is carrying the child is a [full] human being. We need to protect that person as well. There’s some dialogue that can continue to be had of understanding that this is not only about protecting the potentiality of an unborn child, but the full potential of the human that’s in front of you.

As someone who has family members who are very much pro life, I engage with them [by saying], let’s put all the pieces in place so that we can be pro-life. We can support the kids who are born by making sure they’re fed, making sure they have a place to sleep, making sure they have good education, good recreational opportunities. So they’re not having to make difficult decisions.

Let’s be pro life and support housing for families, making sure it’s much more affordable, making sure that they can live in [safe] neighborhoods. Keep guns out of the hands of people who don’t need them, and make sure that people who do have them are abiding by the laws that we have.

We also need to recognize that, for people who can give birth, it is a very personal decision —— the type of decision that you make with your partner, with your family, with your doctor. You get a chance to decide how you want to use your body. It is unfair for us as the state to say, well, once you become pregnant, your body is now under the purview of state control. That doesn’t really square with a lot of other spaces in our culture where [we say], ‘you are your own person, you’re independent, you do things on your own.’ [But when it comes to reproductive health care it is ‘no, you can’t do that.’

Don’t go in defensive or try to make them defensive. Really stop and listen and try to figure out the pieces of what they care about, because it’s probably also something you really care about, too. You’re just approaching it from different perspectives. [Try to] get to a place where you can have a real conversation about it. That’s what I do with my family members. We still are probably a little different on it, but they do understand that there has to be a way for the person who is carrying the child to be able to say what they want to do.

Rev. Clement: I’ve told my story a lot. I am the mom and spouse and daughter and friend and minister and citizen and artist — the human that I am — because I was able to get safe and dignified and compassionate health care in Texas, when I needed it back in the day. I want every person to have that bodily autonomy. Were it not for my decision to terminate two pregnancies, when it was the right decision for me to make, I would not have the daughter that I have now, who will say I’m a pretty good mom. Nobody has to agree with my decision. But I have no shame about it. I’ve worked through that sense of shame and stigma by telling the story. And I am glad and grateful for my abortions. That’s not everyone’s story.

I know a woman who says I’m 51 percent sure I made the right decision. It’s different for each person on the planet. But we own our stories. I think the function of authoritarianism — the system that’s making these laws — says there is only one way for you to be and if you step outside that, your body is wrong, your decisions are wrong.

As a religious leader, I’m not having it. I serve a humanist congregation. We’re interested in good public policy and evidence-based outcomes. We have to really look at who’s telling us those things that engender shame. That’s the narrative we need to counter with love and compassion, but, but I’m not having narratives that say you are shameful in who you are. That’s not what we do.

Rep. Agbaje: A lot of people keep pushing on this idea that [if we pass the Reproductive Freedom Defense Act], then we’re not following the laws of other states. But there have been so many periods of time in our history with big questions the country has struggled with. And there have been many times where we have not followed the laws of other states.

One of the big ones is why we had the Civil War — the Fugitive Slave Act — a number of states weren’t following that. Gay marriage is another one — there were a number of states that were not respecting marriage licenses from states that did respect the fact that people could love who they loved and marry who they wanted. We see it in our voting rights — there’s different voting laws in every state. If you move from Minnesota to somewhere else, you may not have access to same-day registration.

When a court case like Dobbs comes down, it is throwing into question what it means to the right to travel around the country. What we know in Minnesota, and in other states that are passing shield laws like Minnesota, is that we want to protect our residents. We want to protect those who we know are doing what we value, what we think is right, and how we can protect more people. Everything that we’ve written in this bill is about what takes place in Minnesota. We’re not like some of the other states, trying to reach into other people’s lives and tell them what to do. We’re saying here in Minnesota, this is what we’re going to do.

Guttmacher Institute, updated laws in states

The wording of the Reproductive Freedom Justice Act that passed in the House

OurJustice.net, provides logistical and financial support to Minnesotans and others who need help with transportation, lodging, and support for reproductive health care procedures