Since abortion was legalized in 1973, millions of people, myself among them, have never experienced an America in which abortion is illegal. Attempts to subvert and overturn Roe v. Wade have been relentless from the start, but they have perhaps never been more genuinely threatening than they are now. As a 20-year-old woman, I have to seriously grapple with the possibility that in the future I may be living in a country where I do not have the right to make crucial decisions about my own body.
So what would a United States without Roe v. Wade look like? History paints a bleak picture. The abolishment of Roe v. Wade would not immediately eliminate the possibility of receiving a legal abortion in this country; many states, including Minnesota, have their own precedents and laws that would prevent that. Unfortunately, just as many states do not. The cost of traveling to a place where a safe, legal abortion is available — which is already excessive for those who live in rural areas or states that are hostile to clinics — would be prohibitive for many, turning abortion into a privilege accessible only to the well-located or wealthy.
Research shows that the legal status of abortion has no effect on the numbers seeking care. So, if people who need an abortion are prevented by cost from getting one safely, they will try other ways — as they have in the past, which is what led to the legalization in the first place.
In this package of articles, we offer information — historical and contemporary — designed to help us have smarter conversations together in the coming months about what, really, the state of abortion rights in Minnesota is today, and how we got here.
Induced abortions for Minnesotans have dropped since 1980, likely because of greater access to birth control and education about how to prevent pregnancy. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, in 1980 there were 10.3 abortions per 1,000 female residents aged 15-44. In 2018, that number was 8.3 per 1,000. Since 2010, however, more non-residents — likely due to increased restrictions in their home states — have come to Minnesota seeking abortion care, with the total number rising from 935 in 2010 to 1,014 in 2018.
Since antiquity, people have used options ranging from herbal potions to eating crushed ants in order to end pregnancy. Few methods, however, have been as dangerous to public health as underground and self- administered attempts to abort, which have ranged from dangerous oils to coat hangers. These desperate attempts filled hospital emergency rooms and wards with patients dying of infections and half-completed attempts to induce a miscarriage.
Prior to 1960, terminating a pregnancy was largely an underground, unsafe procedure. Some states in the 1960s slowly began to legalize abortion, and the birth control pill became available. A group of nearly 2,000 clergy of many faiths worked together to improve public policy, challenge Catholic anti-abortion activists, and help patients find access to safe abortions.
In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court determined in a 7-2 decision that it is legal to have an abortion under the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. The case was filed by Norma McCorvey, known in court documents as Jane Roe, who contested Dallas County district attorney Henry Wade over a law that prohibited abortion except to save the mother’s life. The Supreme Court decision nullified the Texas prohibition, as well as laws in most states, by indicating that the right to an abortion fell within the right to privacy.
Eventually drug options that induce miscarriage became available.
Minnesota has a reputation as a state where abortion is fairly accessible compared to our immediate neighbors. Wisconsin has four abortion clinics, South Dakota has one (with a 72-hour waiting period after scripted counseling), North Dakota has one. Iowa has 12 operating clinics, but early in 2019, narrowly escaped the enacting of a “fetal heartbeat” law. All four neighboring states ban abortion after 20 weeks.
However, Minnesota’s legislation isn’t nearly as progressive as most people imagine it to be. Currently the state has four clinics that provide surgical abortion services: three in the Twin Cities, and one in Duluth. That means patients in non-metro areas who seek a surgical procedure to abort are forced to make long journeys. Mifepristone (aka RU 486) is a drug that will induce abortion, and was used by 3,594 Minnesotans in 2018, but is not widely available to patients. A clinic in Rochester offers this non-surgical option.
Since 1974: It is a felony for a provider that is not a licensed physician to perform an abortion. Certified nurse-midwives, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants are allowed to perform the procedure in states such as Vermont, West Virginia, and Montana.
Since 1981: Both parents of a minor must be notified before the minor has an abortion. If a minor cannot locate a parent or wishes not to inform them for reasons of abuse, they must go through the court system.
Since 1987: Fetal tissue from an abortion or miscarriage must be cremated or buried. This policy is in not in line with standard protocol, and increases the cost.
Since 1998: Providers must collect detailed information about patients, which is above and beyond standard medical reporting procedures. This information includes the age of the patient, the reasons for the abortion, and the method of payment for the procedure. The Minnesota Department of Health produces a public report using this information.
Since 2003: Clinics must require a 24-hour waiting period after a state-directed counseling session. This law requires providers to give patients information designed to discourage them from going through with the procedure. Two of the bill’s authors are still serving in the Minnesota state legislature: Senator Warren Limmer (34th district, represents Maple Grove/ Rogers/Dayton) and Representative Gene Pelowski Jr. (28A district, represents Winona County).
Siena Iwasaki Milbauer is a community engagement reporter with Minnesota Women’s Press and a former canvasser for NARAL Pro-choice MN.