The abortion debate can stir up deeply personal and strongly held emotions.
That division, and the emotions on each side of the divide, was on full display during Thursday debate on a bill aimed at protecting a person’s access to care at reproductive health clinics.
HF3749 would make gross misdemeanors of several actions taken against a “reproductive health services client, provider, or assistant,” including force, threat of force, nonviolent physical obstruction, intentional injury, intimidation, or interference.
Rep. Heather Edelson (DFL-Edina), the bill sponsor, said anti-abortion protests in front of reproductive health clinics can become dangerous which is why there need to be specific protections in the law.
“Women should never have to choose between their safety and their health care,” Edelson said.
The House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Division approved the bill on an 8-7 party-line, roll-call vote and referred it to the House Floor. There is no Senate companion.
Using a telephone to intentionally disrupt the normal functioning of a reproductive health services facility and blocking a motor vehicle from entering, exiting, or parking at a reproductive health services facility would be a gross misdemeanor. Intentionally damaging property of a person seeking to enter a reproductive health services facility would be a misdemeanor.
Under Minnesota law, penalties for gross misdemeanors are one year in jail and/or up to $3,000 fine, and penalties for misdemeanors are 90 days in jail and/or up to $1,000 fine.
Dr. Jessika Ralph, an OB-GYN at the University of Minnesota, said she often fears for her safety as she arrives and leaves her clinic, which provides abortions.
“I, myself, have been threatened by protesters, and my car has been stopped from leaving the parking lot,” she said.
Ralph described how each day she watches for followers as she leaves work, takes a different route each day, and doesn’t wear scrubs outside for fear of escalation.
Opponents say free speech at risk
Testifiers against the bill said their tactics are not intimidating and threatening, only informative and thus protected by the First Amendment.
“We are out there peacefully,” said Ann Redding, who calls herself a sidewalk counselor and protector of the unborn.
Redding said she never physically blocks anyone from entering a clinic, and that she has been threatened and abused for simply offering pregnant women support and other options to abortion.
Several division Republicans described the proposed penalties as “overreach” and said it would infringe upon the free speech rights of protesters.
“I see this as a ban on certain kinds of speech,” said Rep. Peggy Scott (R-Andover).
Edelson disagreed, saying her bill balances free speech rights with the right of women to access clinics without being subjected to speech that is unlawfully intimidating, threatening and leads to a fear for personal safety.