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Missouri House Sends Abortion 72-Hour Waiting Period To Governor

Marshall Griffin/St. Louis Public Radio

(Updated 11:40 a.m Thursday, May 15)

After more than an hour of emotional – and often loud – debate, the Missouri House voted to send to the governor a bill that would triple Missouri’s waiting period for abortions to 72 hours from 24 hours.

If approved by Gov. Jay Nixon, the measure would make Missouri only the third state in the nation to mandate a 72-hour wait – and possibly set the stage for a legal challenge.

The House’s 111-39 vote late Wednesday was veto-proof. It follows the state Senate’s vote earlier this week of 22-9 – one vote short of veto-proof – in favor of the longer waiting period.

But Nixon on Thursday telegraphed some serious misgivings. "House Bill 1307 will get the same comprehensive review given to all bills that reach my desk," he said in a statement. "However, it is clear that by failing to include an exception for rape and incest, this extreme proposal would separate Missouri from all but one other state in the nation.  I have profound concerns about its impact on women and especially the victims of these heinous crimes.”

Missouri’s longer wait does not include an exception for rape or incest, which is in line with the 72-hour wait in South Dakota, in place just over a year. Utah’s 72-hour waiting period does have such exceptions, along with an exemption if the pregnant woman is under the age of 15.

Some legal experts predict Missouri’s waiting period could spark a national court fight, noting that the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1980s did outlaw a 48-hour waiting period sought in Tennessee. For various reasons, the courts have not ruled on the Utah and South Dakota waiting periods.

Missouri has been among 26 states with 24-hour waiting periods that have been upheld by the courts.

National attention directed at Missouri lawmakers

The House debate reflected the national stakes, with backers of the longer waiting period acknowledging that their preference would be to make abortion illegal. State Rep. Mike Moon, R-Ash Grove, asserted that “the waiting period should be nine months," the usual length of a pregnancy.  

Meanwhile, abortion-rights supporters predicted that even longer waiting periods will be proposed if the 72-hour rule becomes law. State Rep. Genise Montecillo, D-St. Louis, declared, “You’re going to be back for 96 (hours) next year.”

The debate got particularly testy when state Rep. Keith Frederick, R-Rolla, cited a study that asserted waiting periods reduced suicides among women. State Rep. Gina Mitten, D- St. Louis, challenged the validity of the study, saying that the real aim of  waiting periods was to “shame the woman.”

The House's heated rhetoric contrasted with the deal cut in the state Senate that quietly ended a filibusterthat abortion-rights backers inside and outside the Capitol had hoped would block the bill.

On the landmark’s steps during Wednesday’s legislative back-and-forth, a small group of abortion-rights supporters continued to engage in a symbolic filibuster that began Monday. Their protest was to continue until mid-day Thursday -- marking exactly 72 hours.

The 72-hour bill's chief sponsor -- state Rep. Kevin Elmer, R-Nixa -- told legislators that some of the debate's focus had been been misplaced. "The objectors have stood here talking about the rights of the mother,'' he said. "I stand here for the rights of the unborn."

Later Wednesday, the Missouri House once again highlighted its anti-abortion leanings by approving another bill -- which also has passed the Senate -- that requires state health officials to conduct at least one inspection a year of the state's only abortion clinic, which is operated in St. Louis by Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.