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Ray LoPresto of the Cannon Falls area talks with Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Wabasha, during an anti-abortion rally Thursday on the Minnesota Capitol's south steps. The rally, held on the 36th anniversary of the Roe vs. Wade decision, was sponsored by Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life. Republicans Norm Coleman and Gov. Tim Pawlenty told the crowd to keep up their fight against abortion. Staff photo by Scott Wente

Abortion debate comes to Capitol on anniversary

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ST. PAUL -- Thousands of abortion opponents from across the state sang "Amazing Grace" and rallied around encouraging words from Gov. Tim Pawlenty on Thursday, the 36th anniversary of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision.

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But even as Minnesota Citizens Concerned For Life celebrated one of the best turnouts in recent years -- organizers said 4,000 to 5,000 people showed up -- leaders acknowledged that their struggle is more difficult this year.

For one, the country just inaugurated a president who supports abortion rights.

And chances for furthering the anti-abortion cause in Minnesota won't be much better. Both the House and the Senate are controlled by Democrats, most of whom support abortion rights, and DFL legislative leaders are expected to shoot down any attempts to bring up bills that would further restrict abortions in the state.

Still, MCCL executive director Scott Fischbach said the group will push for several pieces of legislation to be brought up in some form on the House floor, where he said the number of abortion rights supporters and abortion opponents is fairly even. One new bill that's expected this year would require providers to ask a woman getting an abortion whether she's been coerced.

"We can be heard. We won't get hearings, we know that, but we'll always be looking for ways to bring attention to the issues," Fischbach said.

In addition, MCCL will again push for bans on certain types of abortions. But MCCL spokesman Bill Poehler said the group's top priority will be preserving state grant money for a program that supports pregnant women who choose alternatives to abortion.

The strategy will likely be similar on the other side of the debate, where abortion rights groups hope to preserve funding for family planning and women's health care.

Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota also plans to again push legislation requiring that comprehensive sex education be taught in Minnesota schools, said Tim Stanley, senior director of legislative affairs. Similar proposals have failed in the past.

Stanley isn't sure how far the sex education bill will get, but he said he's confident his group won't have to play much defense to fight off bills that would restrict access to abortions -- thanks in part to continued backing from legislative leaders.

"We have the ability to basically control the agenda," Stanley said.

The Legislature's makeup also gives hope to groups looking for support on a separate social issue -- same-sex marriage. After years of fighting against proposals to ban same-sex marriage, supporters of allowing gay couples to marry can now rally around a bill that would make it legal in Minnesota.

Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, introduced the bill last week. Last year, similar legislation was introduced only symbolically at the end of the session with no chance of getting a committee hearing.

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