MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota House speaker gets petitions all the time, he said, but never in the numbers he was handed on Feb. 16.

That's when pro-life and civic organizations handed Rep. Steve Sviggum, a Republican, a pile of paper bearing 40,000 signatures of Minnesotans who want to end taxpayer funding of abortions.

Started by Neighbors for Life, the effort's goal is to gather hundreds of thousands of signatures from across the state, said Bob Hindle, the organization's founder.

Sviggum said he would inform both Republican and Democratic legislators about the petitions. “Forty thousand signatures are extremely impressive from the standpoint of people's opinions,” he said. “I think that speaks volumes on how the people of Minnesota feel about their taxes paying for abortions.”

Neighbors for Life's aim is to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot in the fall 2002 legislative election and let the voters decide whether taxes should pay for abortions, said Hindle.

The amendment would need to pass the House and the Senate and then win 51% approval from the voters. A second goal is to increase public awareness about the issue, which many taxpayers believe violates their religious rights.

“People who are opposed to abortion know that it is morally wrong,” said Allen Czech, a resident of Little Falls, Minn., who signed the petition. “It shatters our religious values to have to pay for them. It's a slap in the face to all Christians when the government tells us our moral values don't mean a thing.”

Czech also argued that no one has a right to have all of his or her medical expenses covered.

“We have to go to a certain health clinic, and in many cases can't even choose who our doctor will be or the [health insurance] provider denies coverage,” he observed. “But in the same breath someone can go to Planned Parenthood and get an abortion, and we have to pay for it hands down.”

Another signer, Mark Sibenaller, an insurance agent from Lonsdale, Minn., agreed.

“For politicians to say they are pro-children on one hand and actively finance an abortion industry on the other is wholly dishonest,” he contended. “We have a social safety net and the adoption network in place to take care of these children.”

Pro-Choice on Taxes, Too?

While petitions are not necessary to create a constitutional amendment, Hindle said they can show pro-abortion senators and representatives up for reelection in 2002 that their constituents are against tax-funded abortions. The governor's approval is also unnecessary.

The governor's director of communications, John Wodele, said, “The governor supports Roe v. Wade and respects the fact that the court has decided this issue, and believes these issues should continue to be decided by the courts and not in the legislative arena.”

He added, “I would not offer an opinion on the governor's position on public funding because I don't believe that this is an issue the governor has spoken to previously.”

The ruling that forced taxpayer funding of abortion stems from a 1993 case brought before the Minnesota Supreme Court by the New York Center for Reproductive Law and Policy. In Doe vs. Gomez, lawyers for the center argued that if taxpayer-funded medical assistance was available to qualifying women to pay for prenatal care and childbirth, it should also be available to women who abort their children. Similar suits have been won in other states.

And rightly so, says a key abortion group.

“This is not an issue of subsidizing an industry,” said Tom Weber, chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood of Minnesota and South Dakota. “This is an issue of will we make available tax base resources to women in need of reproductive services, as a matter of equal protection. If this [Doe vs. Gomez] was reversed, we would not have treated the women of Minnesota fairly.”

Don't Forget Democracy

The Minnesota House Judiciary Committee is holding a fact-finding hearing in March because serious questions have been raised about the procedures in the Doe vs. Gomezcase.

Jim Tarsney, an attorney who heads Minnesota Lawyers for Life, a 300-member group of pro-life lawyers, has been studying the case for years.

He argues that, besides the serious ethical and legal allegations raised in the case, the idea of forcing taxpayers to pay for abortions is essentially “taxation without representation.”

“Nobody ever voted to make abortion legal; it was imposed on us by the courts,” said Tarsney. “I think that the pro-life movement has to associate itself much more with the pro-democracy movement.”

The petition drive in Minnesota attracted support from Archbishop Harry Flynn as well as from various groups, including the Human Life Alliance, Pro Life Action Ministries, Knights of Columbus, Minnesota Catholic Bishops Conference, Minnesota Family Council and the Catholic Defense League. The group's next step is to gather support from the evangelical churches, and to conduct a statewide campaign similar to a political campaign, said Hindle.

“We are going to go from town to town and hold town meetings and increase the signatures,” he said. “We need to attach faces to this movement. Humanly, that's always a good thing to do. It's a good thing for the pro-life movement because we don't have any identifiable leaders right now.”

Another goal is to build up pressure in the Legislature and say to the Minnesota citizens, “these guys won't let you decide where your tax money goes,” added Tarsney. “That will appeal to a lot of people, even pro-choice people.”

Barbara Ernster is based in Fridley, Minnesota.