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Abortion Debate Could Figure In Future Senate Race In Missouri

St. Louis had a large contingent at the March for Life in D.C.
Jim Howard | St. Louis Public Radio | File photo

The Missouri General Assembly may be taking a break from handling major anti-abortion legislation, but that’s not necessarily true in Washington – and that could have an impact on Missouri’s 2018 contest for the U.S. Senate.

The drama in the U.S. House centered on its decision to drop plans to vote Thursday on an abortion ban after 20 weeks, as thousands of abortion opponents participated in the annual March for Life to mark the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing most abortions.

The upshot: The House’s decision to vote on a different measure instead – which largely underscored existing laws barring federal spending on abortions – appeared to grab more attention than the march.

The decision to delay the House vote on the 20-week limit centered on defections by Republican women members of Congress, some of whom challenged the bill’s strict exemption for rape victims. They would be allowed to obtain an abortion after 20 weeks only if the crime had been reported to police.

Among other things, the congressional dispute also highlighted the split among Missouri’s women in Congress, which could have political fallout in 2018.

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., would be up for another term that year. And on Thursday, she made clear to reporters her objections to the 20-week ban, especially the House version.

She then called out the state’s two Republican women in Congress – U.S. Reps. Ann Wagner of Ballwin and Vicky Hartzler of Harrisonville – who generally support the ban.

Wagner and Hartzler are often cited as the top GOP contenders to take on McCaskill, should she seek re-election.

McCaskill lauded the House Republican “moderates’’ whom she praised for blocking the bill. And she questioned the role that Wagner and Hartzler – both staunch abortion opponents – might have played.

Said McCaskill: "I will be interested to find out if the Missouri delegation, the women in the Missouri delegation, were part of the group” pushing for the delay in a House vote.

Wagner replied in a statement that she opposed the delay and supports the 20-week ban. She emphasized, as she has in the past, that she would support additional abortion restrictions.

“While killing an unborn child is unconscionable at any time, it is especially abhorrent at the 20-week mark when the child is able to feel the pain of an abortion,’’ Wagner said. “I believe that life at all stages — from conception to natural death — is truly a gift. I am hopeful that the House will vote on this important legislation soon, as I strongly support a ban on abortions after 20 weeks.”

McCaskill, whose 2012 re-election became engulfed in a national debate over “legitimate rape,’’ noted her objections to the bill’s reporting mandate. “Tell that to a 12-year-old girl who has been impregnated by her father,’’ the senator said, recounting her past as a prosecutor handling sex-crime cases.

Fetal abnormalities often undetected until 20 weeks into pregnancy

McCaskill added that there’s another aspect to the proposed 20-week ban that many backers don’t discuss.

“If you understand the terminations that occur after 20 weeks, many times it’s for fatal defects that have occurred with the fetus, and there’s not the technology available for that to be discovered prior to 20 weeks,” she said.

McCaskill maintained that such tragedies likely make a goodly chunk of post-20-week abortions, which she noted also are rare.  The Guttmacher Institute, which tracks such statistics, says medical records show that only 1.2 percent of all abortions take place after 20 weeks. Almost 90 percent are performed in the first 12 weeks, when non-surgical procedures can be used.

Supporters of the bill, including U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., have cited polls indicating public support for a ban on most abortions after 20 weeks. But abortion-rights advocates have circulated other poll results showing that a solid majority of people oppose the ban when they learn that it would bar abortions for fetal abnormalities that couldn’t be detected earlier.

Missouri has had a 20-week ban on most abortions since 2011, when the General Assembly approved the measure and Gov. Jay Nixon – who generally backs reproductive rights – allowed it to go into effect without his signature.

The bill’s advocates said at the time that their aim also was to prevent any late-term abortion clinic from being located in the state. Missouri’s only abortion clinic is based in St. Louis and doesn’t perform abortions later than 21 weeks after a woman’s last menstrual period. That, in effect, appears to comply with the 20-week ban.

In any case, Wagner lauded the action that the U.S. House did take on Thursday, to approve a bill called the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion and Abortion Insurance Full Disclosure Act.”

The bill passed the House by a vote of 242-179.

“This bill first prevents taxpayer funding for abortion, including taxpayer subsidies to health-care plans under Obamacare,’’ she said. “But it also requires transparency to ensure that consumers are fully informed about which plans on the exchanges contain abortion coverage and surcharges.”

Missouri marchers reaffirm opposition to abortion

The jockeying in the U.S. House didn’t take away from the commitment of the Missourians who participated in Thursday’s annual March for Life.

Elizabeth Goldstein, 13 and an eighth grader at Sacred Heart School in Florissant, considers herself a member of the “pro-life generation” and she’s quick to say she hopes federal lawmakers “make a change, I’m looking for abortion to end.”

Bishop Edward Rice poses with two of the St. Louis students at the march.
Credit Jim Howard | St. Louis Public Radio
Bishop Edward Rice poses with two of the St. Louis students at the march.

Goldstein was one of more than 2,000 young people from the St. Louis Archdiocese of St. Louis who traveled to Washington, D.C., for the annual march against the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision to legalize abortion in the Roe vs. Wade decision.

Sophie Capra, a 15-year-old freshman at Duchesne High School in St. Charles, also made the 14-hour bus trip to be part of the march. For her, participation was a way to show her conviction to speak for future generations. “Some people say that it’s not a life, but yet it is, it literally does have a heartbeat,” she said.

St. Louis Bishop Edward Rice said he was pleased that the U.S. House took some action to show that its majority opposes abortion. “It becomes a rallying cry for the pro-life movement to remind us that we can’t just carry signs and show up here once a year,” he said. “There’s a commitment involved in being pro-life. We need to follow up with our personal resources and the resources of the various churches that are pro-life … so whether you are Lutheran, Catholic, Baptist or whatever you might be, it’s important to back it up with our resources.”

Rice said that even in the discussion of difficult decisions, such as cases of rape, “it does not dismiss the value of the life” in question.

“There’s a bumper sticker that says ‘Life is Good’ and life is good whether it’s rich or poor, whether it’s wanted or unwanted, regardless of circumstances,” he said. “We do not feel that you can start qualifying statements like that, ‘life is good, period.’ ”

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.

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