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With veto-proof majorities, legislature passes new abortion restrictions

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 13, 2011 - The Missouri House overwhelmingly passed two identical bills to impose further state restrictions on abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

The chamber voted 121-33 on Thursday morning, and 117-30 at night, to send the bills to Gov. Jay Nixon. Both tallies were far more than needed to override a potential veto.

The bills would make it a felony to perform an abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, unless the woman's life is endangered, the woman risks permanent damage to a major bodily function because of the pregnancy, or the fetus is non-viable. Two physicians would have to make those determinations.

A few minutes before the House acted, the state Senate voted 28-5 -- also a veto-proof majority -- to approve the House version after altering it so that it mirrored the Senate version before the House. The Senate had approved its own version weeks ago.

The aim of abortion opponents is to send two duplicate bills to the governor with the same anti-abortion restrictions.

The House bill's sponsor -- Majority Floor Leader Tim Jones, R-Eureka -- said his aim with the second vote was to underscore the "overwhelming, overwhelming majority'' who support the additional restrictions.

Jones told the chamber Thursday night, after the House voted the second time, that he believed Nixon will be moved by both vote tallies and "happily sign this bill."

Sam Lee, head of the anti-abortion lobbying group Campaign Life Missouri, praised the bills as "adding a layer of supervision for late-term abortions."

Pam Fichter, president of Missouri Right to Life, said the restriction effectively "bans abortions after 20 weeks, a time at which more and more children are beginning to survive outside the womb. With advances in medical technology, children born prematurely are viable at increasingly earlier stages of development."

Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, which operates the only abortion clinic in the St. Louis area, said the restrictions do little to help women faced with medical problems late in their pregnancy. "We have a year in which our elected officials were sent to Jefferson City to improve the economy and create jobs,'' said Alison Gee, Planned Parenthood's vice president for public policy. "Instead, once again, they have focusing on interfering with the doctor-patient relationship."

Gee said Planned Parenthood wanted to study the final versions before deciding what actions to take.

Both bills allow one physician to determine viability of a fetus after 20 weeks but require two physicians to determine whether the woman meets the criteria for allowing such an abortion. 

Initially, the House version of the bill would have required those physicians to be from different hospitals. The bill sent to Nixon would not apply to physicians whose "legal or financial affiliation or relationship is a result of being employed by or having staff privileges at the same hospital as the first physician."

Missouri currently, like many other states, bars most abortions after viability, generally determined to be 22-24 weeks of pregnancy. Shifting to 20 weeks could have an impact on how families deal with the results of medical tests aimed at determining any fetal abnormalities; those tests generally are done between 15 and 20 weeks of pregnancy.

The latest figures show that few abortions are conducted in Missouri after 20 weeks; in 2009, such procedures were performed on 77 of the 10,815 abortions performed.

Fichter with Right to Life said that Missouri abortion opponents got motivated to take on the issue after Nebraska passed similar restrictions in 2010.

House debate charged with emotion

House Majority Leader Tim Jones, R-Eureka -- who was the chief sponsor of the House version and handled the Senate version -- capped off an emotional debate  in the morning by saying the restrictions are about "supporting life" in all forms.

"This question is whether or not you support a barbaric practice of ripping a child from a mother's womb in the late term and slaughtering that infant," Jones said. "That's all this bill is about. So if you support life, you can continue to support the overwhelming bipartisan voice."

State Rep. Stanley Cox, R-Sedalia, called Jones' bill "a constitutionally defensible bit of legislation that relates to the primary purpose of government -- the protection of life." He mentioned seeing a sonogram of his first grandchild after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

"That is a child, that is a child, which government must defend," Cox said, referring to the picture. "To defend the weak is the primary role of government."

But some Democrats said the legislation drove a wedge between patients and doctors.

State Rep. Stacey Newman, D-Richmond Heights, recounted a story of how her daughter-in-law went through a difficult pregnancy. She added that the bill amounted to a "political statement."

"She was in a place where she needed to make some immediate decisions," Newman said. "And let me tell you, those decisions belong between a family and a physician and our faith. It does not belong with this body. This bill is not about life, the state has no interest in this."

"These are personal, medical decisions," Newman added. "These are rare, tragic pregnancy decisions. No woman at 20 weeks of pregnancy wants to abort her baby. Let me tell you that. No one wants to do this. These are very tragic, very rare situations where the decision must be made between her family, her doctor and her faith."

Rep. Tishaura Jones, D-St. Louis City, said on the House floor the Missouri House had a "schizophrenic" view of government interference.

"Government has no business telling people what to do with their bodies," said Tishaura Jones, who added on the House floor that she went through an unplanned pregnancy. "It's OK for government to do this, but it's not OK for the government to this. It's OK for this mandate here, but not this mandate here. Well, where does it end?"

The debate was shorter Thursday night, with Tim Jones and Tishaura Jones reprising their views.

State Rep. Paul Curtman, R-Pacific and an abortion opponent, read portions of the U.S. Constitution that he said made clear that "we're all entitled to equal rights and opportunity under the law,'' whether born or in the womb.

Newman said nothing during the evening debate. But she tweeted afterward, "Again today, Majority Floor Leader Jones is adamant that tragic pregnancy decisions belong to the government, not women and their doctors."

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.
Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.