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“Island of Access”: VP Harris Visits MN Abortion Clinic in Historic First Amid Growing Restrictions

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Image Credit: Nicole Neri / Reuters

In what is believed to be the first time a president or vice president has publicly toured an abortion clinic, Vice President Kamala Harris visited a Planned Parenthood location in Saint Paul, Minnesota, on Thursday. The visit was the latest in a nationwide tour by Harris to highlight reproductive rights. In her remarks outside the clinic, she lauded Minnesota’s efforts to protect abortion rights in the face of what she describes as a “very serious health crisis,” with restrictive laws and outright abortion bans in more than a dozen states. Clinics in Minnesota have seen a drastic rise in appointments for reproductive healthcare as one of the last remaining access states in the region, says our guest Megan Peterson, who adds that it is “really important” that the Biden team not take pro-abortion voters “for granted.” Peterson is the executive director of Gender Justice Action, a reproductive rights group working in Minnesota and North Dakota. We also speak to professor Michele Goodwin, who calls the consequences of state-level abortion bans since Dobbs v. Jackson a “trail of horrors” that are “antithetical” to science, health and human rights.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Vice President Kamala Harris visited a Planned Parenthood clinic in Saint Paul, Minnesota, Thursday, believed to be the first time a president or a vice president has publicly toured an abortion clinic. The visit was the latest in a nationwide tour by Harris to highlight reproductive rights. Minnesota has been a haven for women seeking abortion since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, ushering in restrictive laws and outright bans in more than a dozen states. Last year, Minnesota passed legislation that enshrined abortion rights into state law.

In her remarks outside the Planned Parenthood clinic yesterday, Harris referred to the attacks on reproductive health as a “very serious health crisis” and lauded Minnesota’s efforts to protect abortion rights.

VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: Right now in our country we are facing a very serious health crisis. And the crisis is affecting many, many people in our country, most of whom are, frankly, silently suffering after the United States Supreme Court took a constitutional right that had been recognized from the people of America, from the women of America.

In states around our country, extremists have proposed and passed laws that have denied women access to reproductive healthcare. And the stories abound. I have heard stories of and have met with women who had miscarriages in toilets, women who were being denied emergency care because the healthcare providers there, at an emergency room, were afraid that because of the laws in their state, that they could be criminalized, sent to prison for providing healthcare.

So, I’m here at this healthcare clinic to uplift the work that is happening in Minnesota as an example of what true leadership looks like.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by two guests. In Minneapolis, Megan Peterson is with us, executive director of Gender Justice Action, a reproductive rights group working in Minnesota and North Dakota. She’s joining us from Minneapolis. We’re also joined by Michele Goodwin, a professor of constitutional law and global health policy at Georgetown University, founding director of the Center for Biotechnology and Global Health Policy, author of Policing the Womb: Invisible Women and the Criminalization of Motherhood. She’s joining us from Marrakech, Morocco.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Megan, let’s begin with you. You were invited to yesterday’s event, though you weren’t there. It is historic, believed to be the first time a vice president or president publicly toured through an abortion clinic. Talk about its significance and the fact that it’s happening in Minnesota, how important Minnesota is when it comes to abortion rights in this country.

MEGAN PETERSON: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me.

Yeah, it was a historic day and a historic visit and a really important opportunity to highlight the role Minnesota plays, especially in our region. We’re an island of access. We’re surrounded by states that have either banned abortion or severely limited access to abortion. And Minnesota has gone in the opposite direction.

Following the Dobbs decision, a district court judge made a decision in a lawsuit that Gender Justice, our (c)(3) organization, filed, removing all of the restrictions on abortion in the state, enjoining those laws just weeks after the Dobbs decision came down. And then voters delivered the first-ever reproductive freedom trifecta to our state Legislature that following November. And that Legislature and the governor took action swiftly, with a lot of momentum, to both remove those restrictions off the books but really undo, you know, over 50 years’ worth of anti-abortion chipping away at abortion rights from our state laws. And that included removing abortion from the criminal code, you know, defunding anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers, passing a shield law that would protect patients and providers who were providing care in the state to people coming from out of state. And so, we really have been able to kind of reset, reset the table, in a way, on putting abortion back where it belongs, in the context of part of the full spectrum of pregnancy-related care.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about how many — I mean, you don’t have to give us, obviously, an exact number — the fact that so many people are coming in from around the country to get abortions in Minnesota, and the incredible efforts of grassroots groups, like Gender Justice Action, to help people get that kind of access?

MEGAN PETERSON: Yeah, it has been a tremendous effort and, frankly, a big strain on the healthcare system here. We only have, I think, about seven abortion clinics right now, and some of those only provide medication abortion. We have a virtual provider who only provides medication abortion across the state, and then a handful of brick-and-mortar clinics. And their capacity has really been strained by the number of people needing to travel to the state. And, you know, although we acknowledge our role in the region, the reality is that regions really rely on where there are direct flights. So, very often people are flying into Minneapolis, which is a hub airport, and so we’re seeing people from across the country. Clinics are reporting anywhere from 25% increases to, I think, yesterday, the medical director of Planned Parenthood said they’ve seen a 100% increase at their clinic. And so, we are absolutely having to absorb, you know, patients who have nowhere else to go, who are fleeing the repressive laws and restrictions in their own states to get necessary, time-sensitive, critical healthcare.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about your lawsuit, Gender Justice Action, which happened before Roe v. Wade was overturned, though you, well, pretty much predicted it?

MEGAN PETERSON: Yeah. So, in 2019, we filed a lawsuit called Doe v. Minnesota. It challenged altogether, basically, all of the restrictions that had built up over the years, everything from a 24-hour waiting period to parental notification, a mandated biased script that doctors had to read to patients, a restriction on who could provide abortions. We were limited only to physicians, even though advanced practice clinicians, registered nurses, you know, are perfectly capable of providing especially first-trimester abortion. So, we challenged all those laws when we filed the lawsuit in May of 2019.

We also at the same time brought together a broad cross-movement coalition of now over 30 organizations and advocates, who helped to raise public awareness about the laws. We found that most Minnesotans were completely unaware of the number of restrictions on abortion at that time. They really believed that Minnesota was an access state, a healthcare values state and a place where they really couldn’t imagine that there had been this chipping away of rights for so long.

And so, by both bringing the lawsuit and working in coalition to help raise public awareness, we did end up winning that lawsuit, just weeks after the Dobbs decision came down in mid-July of 2022. And that really then, you know, set the stage, I think, for the way that we were able to both engage in the midterm elections and move right into the following session in January of 2023. So, that foundation that we laid, starting in 2019, and really kind of ringing the bell that Roe was on the chopping block — Roe, we absolutely anticipated and expected that it was going to go down. It was only a matter of time. And it was critical to do the work to undo the barriers and the restrictions that had built up over time, in preparation for knowing Minnesota was going to need to serve a broader swath of the country.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring professor Michele Goodwin into this conversation, professor of constitutional law and global health policy at Georgetown University, founding director of the Center for Biotechnology and Global Health Policy. If you can talk about the president and the vice president — it’s interesting that the first female vice president is the one, the highest elected leader in this land, to do this kind of public tour of an abortion clinic — of them elevating the discussion, particularly of abortion, President Biden also focusing on it in the State of the Union address, and go from abortion care to the whole controversy around IVF and the connections you see?

MICHELE GOODWIN: Well, it’s a pleasure to be on with you again, Amy. Thank you for the invitation.

So, what we see now is a response to something that is tragic in the United States. And it’s worth remembering that Roe v. Wade in 1973 was a seven-to-two opinion. Five of those seven justices were Republican-appointed. And I mention that, and the fact that Justice Blackmun, who wrote the opinion in Roe v. Wade, was appointed by Nixon, as just giving a sense of just how dramatic it is that this Supreme Court gutted Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, being a case that affirmed Roe, being affirmed by Justices O’Connor, Justice Kennedy, also Republican appointees. It really gives a sense of just how dramatic it is, what the Supreme Court did in 2022, and also what it looks like in terms of the political backdrop.

So, that the vice president visited a Planned Parenthood and that we have the president of the United States articulating that this is fundamental healthcare is no different than it was 50 years ago, where that was understood in Roe v. Wade, and what we’ve understood since that time. Even the United States Supreme Court in 2016, in a case called Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, acknowledged that a woman is 14 times more likely to die carrying a pregnancy to term than by having an abortion. So, when the vice president went to Minnesota, emphasized this is healthcare, she’s absolutely right. When she spoke to the tragedies unfolding in the United States since the Dobbs decision, she is right. I mean, there are states that have now proposed the death penalty against women and girls that would have an abortion. Those proposals have not come to fruition. But in Louisiana and South Carolina, there are bills that have been proposed for that. Already in Texas, for doctors, they risk 99 years’ incarceration, $100,000 fine, losing their medical license, if they help patients who are near death trying to obtain abortion, because we know in that state, even though there are exceptions, those exceptions are incredibly hard to overcome. So, by visiting Minnesota, it was urgent.

And you mentioned Alabama, the Alabama Supreme Court, which recently ruled that embryos have the same status as children and that those who harm embryos, such as the demise of an embryo, could in fact face wrongful death charges. This is — some would say that this is insane. This is a level of the United States going in a direction that is antithetical to science, antithetical to health, antithetical to human rights.

In this backdrop, we’ve seen a woman in Ohio who was being prosecuted in the wake of having a miscarriage, her toilet busted open, the search for fecal remains to find fetal remains. You know, I could just lay out across the country a trail of horrors, of parents being prosecuted by helping their children who have wanted to have an abortion, a trail of horrors that includes girls going into elementary and middle school now as mothers because they live in states that ban abortion.

And just thinking about Minnesota itself, where it’s really important to understand what’s taking place is not only that there are people who are coming in for this necessary healthcare, this is a backdrop like Jim Crow, a backdrop like American slavery. And I’m not being hyperbolic in saying that. People are literally having — women are having to leave, flee states where they risk death, where they risk bodily harm in order to get healthcare that will save their lives. And I think that’s really important that we emphasize over and over again, because there’s a rhetoric that suggests something other than that.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you, Professor Goodwin, about that federal court, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, decision upholding a Texas law that prevents young people from confidentially accessing birth control from clinics. The court ruled clinics can be required to notify and get consent from parents. Planned Parenthood criticized the ruling, saying it marks a “significant and dangerous departure from decades of precedent that has allowed all young people to confidentially get basic health care like birth control through Title X.” Explain the significance. It came right before this visit of Vice President Harris.

MICHELE GOODWIN: Again, to understand what this means in historical context, Title X was pushed into law by George H.W. Bush. He championed Title X. George H.W. Bush, that being the first of the Bush presidents. His father, Prescott Bush, was the treasurer at Planned Parenthood. So, when we’re talking about decades of a standard of recognizing that this is healthcare — and, in fact, George H.W. Bush, when championing Title X, which has been decimated in Texas and also decimated, we see, by the 5th Circuit — but when George H.W. Bush, decades ago, was confronted about the question about access to reproductive healthcare for the poorest of Americans, he said this is fundamental healthcare, this is public health. Nixon said the same thing.

And so, part of what we’re seeing now is something that is a dramatic — really dramatic step away from what we understood as basic care for human beings in the United States. We are so far from that principle in these days, and a principle of understanding that teenagers, too, deserve healthcare. To give you some example about how strange it is, how chilling it is, we would have the 5th Circuit having no problem with seeing a teenager become pregnant and become a parent at 13 and 14 and 15 years old. And yet, at the same time, protecting their health through what could help prevent a pregnancy, we see obstacles in those ways. And this is something that is completely disconnected to what has been a tradition of understanding healthcare access over the last half-century in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to end by asking Megan Peterson about a connection to what’s going on in Minnesota right now, from Hawaii to Michigan to Minnesota, the issue of the “uncommitted” vote. People might not necessarily make this connection, but the “uncommitted” vote, Democrats voting “uncommitted” in the primaries to show their objection to the Biden administration and President Biden not directly calling for a permanent ceasefire. What do you see as that connection, as executive director of the Gender Justice Action?

MEGAN PETERSON: Yeah, well, I see that the voters in Minnesota, the voters turned out on the primary election day to register. Just under 19%, over 45,000 Democrats in the state, voted “uncommitted” in our presidential primary. And, you know, those are a core part of the Democratic base, and they’re very much many of the very same people who delivered the reproductive freedom trifecta in 2022. And I think that it’s really important that the campaign not take those voters for granted and also not consider that Minnesota voters are very educated and sophisticated and able to make the connections between the importance of bodily autonomy and reproductive justice here at home, as well as recognize the reproductive injustices happening in Gaza with, you know, the death of over 12,000 children, with pregnant women and people facing a shortage of healthcare, experiencing stillbirths and having cesarean sections and deliveries without anesthesia. You know, these are grave injustices and incompatible with the values of reproductive justice, which not only include the ability to decide not to become a parent or to end a pregnancy, but also the ability and the right to parent the children you have and to have children in safe and thriving communities.

And so, you know, I’m hoping and I believe that the administration and the campaign is really paying attention to those votes and to those voters. In 2016, Hillary Clinton only won the state by just over 1.5%. And, you know, we are going to need to work hard. And I am hoping that the campaign will change course and the administration will change course to really recognize that they need to walk the talk both domestically and in their foreign policy.

AMY GOODMAN: Megan Peterson, executive director of Gender Justice Action, speaking to us from Minneapolis, and Michele Goodwin, professor of constitutional law and global health policy at Georgetown University and the founding director of the Center for Biotechnology and Global Health Policy, author of Policing the Womb: Invisible Women and the Criminalization of Motherhood.

Next up, we will speak with the Israeli author Maya Wind. Her new book, Towers of Ivory and Steel: How Israeli Universities Deny Palestinian Freedom. But first, we’ll go to Palestinian professor Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, who was just suspended by Hebrew University. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “ballad of a homeschooled girl” by Olivia Rodrigo, who last month launched the Fund4Good campaign to support reproductive health freedom. This week, Rodrigo collaborated with reproductive rights groups to hand out free emergency contraceptives, abortion access resources and contraceptives at her show in St. Louis, Missouri.

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