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Protesters rally in St. Paul to fight abortion bans as America reverts to 1972

Middle-schoolers Adaela Brown, Alex Rose, Lilly Richman, and Olivia Samaha protested the recent rash of abortion restrictions that, in one case, make punishment for doctors more severe than the penalties for rape.

Middle-schoolers Adaela Brown, Alex Rose, Lilly Richman, and Olivia Samaha protested the recent rash of abortion restrictions that, in one case, make punishment for doctors more severe than the penalties for rape. Hannah Jones

When noon arrived on Tuesday, 14-year-old Lillian Richman and her friends were not in class. They were on the steps of the Capitol in St. Paul, unfurling a sign that read: “If the fetus you save is gay, will you care about its rights?”

It’s 2019, and the time has come for her generation to fight for legal abortion in the United States. In the past year – and most dramatically in the past few weeks -- a rash of states have been enacting restrictions on abortion virtually unseen since the days before Roe v. Wade. Lillian and her friends were joined by a crowd protesting to stop the bans in their tracks.

The demonstrators blanketed the steps while chanting “My body, my choice” and “Vote them out.” Many, but not all, were women.

Some carried babies. Some carried dogs. Some dressed in bright red smocks with white bonnets like the oppressed women in The Handmaid’s Tale. A lot of them were angry.

Lillian described herself – and the majority of her peers – as “enraged.” A pregnant 13 or 14-year-old, she pointed out, could easily be forced into motherhood under these new laws.

“This is our future,” she says. “This is our right.”

Cheers of "our body our choice" and "vote them out" echoed over the Capitol grounds.

Cheers of "our body our choice" and "vote them out" echoed over the Capitol grounds. Hannah Jones

Many of these states (Georgia, Ohio, Kentucky, Missouri, and Mississippi) have opted for so-called “heartbeat” laws, which ban abortions after cardiovascular activity can be detected in the fetus. That usually happens right around the sixth week of pregnancy.

For a lot of women, all that means is your period is a week or two late, and you may not even suspect – let alone know – you’re pregnant. The consequences can be dire. Once Georgia’s ban goes into effect, a woman caught attempting an abortion could get life in prison or the death penalty.

Alabama’s ban – brought to you by 25 older white men in the Alabama Senate -- is perhaps the most severe, making nearly all abortions felonies unless a pregnancy puts the woman’s life at risk. There are no exceptions for cases of rape or incest. Even “strongly pro-life” President Donald Trump, who has been pushing a women’s health agenda based mostly on the rhythm method, has been trying to distance himself from it.

Catherine Torbert and Janel Mierzejewski hold up their protest signs before hurrying to join their friends.

Catherine Torbert and Janel Mierzejewski hold up their protest signs before hurrying to join their friends. Hannah Jones

“We never thought the laws in Georgia and Alabama could happen,” Lillian says. “I think we’re always sort of in disbelief when something bad happens.”

It's hard to blame her. Lillian and her friends are protesting a reality their generation has never faced – a country where a doctor performing an abortion on a rape survivor can get more jail time than the rapist himself. But there were women at the Capitol who were protesting a return to a very real past.

Kathy Hoglund of St. Paul, carrying a sign with a bloody wire hanger and the words, “NEVER AGAIN,” remembers when friends would go out of state to seek abortions and return injured and ill. She was in high school in 1973, when Roe v. Wade originally passed.

“I don’t want to go back to the ‘60s when women were dying,”

Denise Dohrmann of Minneapolis lost her grandmother that way. The woman had been living in North Carolina with six children and not enough money to support another, so attempted an at-home abortion. "She hemorrhaged and died,” Dohrmann says.

When state after state began passing abortion restrictions virtually unheard of since those days, she started crying.

“No woman wakes up in the morning and says, ‘Gee, I think I’m going to have an abortion today,’” she says. No matter what decision a woman makes, it’s going to be a turning point in her life. But in the end, it should be her decision, and it should be a safe one.

Kathy Hoglund and Denise Dohrman remember the time before Roe v. Wade as a deadly era for women.

Kathy Hoglund and Denise Dohrman remember the time before Roe v. Wade as a deadly era for women. Hannah Jones

There’s no telling at this point how these bans will shake out. It will be a while before they go into effect, and many district attorneys across the affected states have said they would refuse to charge women for a ban that they believe violates their constitutional right.

There are also those who feel whatever’s happening in Alabama and Georgia is a far cry from mostly-blue Minnesota. But they feel closer to home this legislative session, when Republican lawmakers in the state House (Tama Theis, R-St. Cloud) and Senate (Jeff Howe, R-Rockville) sponsored legislation that would ban abortion at 20 weeks into the pregnancy. It’s looking like an unlikely outcome for this session, but what about the next?

“I hope this state remains as liberal as it is,” says Fran Hart of Eagan, standing near the rear of the crowd. But she’s feeling worn out and anxious. As has been proven time and time again in the last few years, we never really know what the future may hold.