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Both sides mark 43rd anniversary of Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion

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

Despite the huge snowstorm threat in Washington, D.C., at least 2,000 Missouri opponents of abortion are expected to head to the nation’s capital to participate in Friday’s annual March for Life.

“Our buses are on their way,’’ said Maggie Bick, one of the coordinators for Missouri Right to Life’s annual bus caravan. A brief prayer service for the St. Louis area travelers was held Thursday morning at the Old Cathedral by St. Louis’ riverfront.

The Missouri anti-abortion bus caravan has traveled to Washington annually since 1977 – in some ways, it is a symbol of the state’s long-standing status in the forefront of the national controversy over abortion and reproductive rights.

Explained Bick: “What propels us is that abortion is wrong, and even though it is law, based on the Supreme Court decision, we still feel that it is bad law and that we need to peacefully protest.”

The St. Louis Archdiocese did cancel its bus caravan for teenagers, citing the weather concerns. Instead, Catholic leaders are organizing a local teen march for Saturday that would begin at the Cathedral Basilica and travel to the Planned Parenthood abortion clinic several blocks away.

Legislative battle continues

Although Missouri already has among the nation’s strictest provisions when it comes to abortion, both sides are gearing up once again for heated fights in the state Capitol this session over new proposals to heighten oversight.

A top priority for abortion opponents is a bill by state Sen. Bob Onder, R-St. Charles, to require annual, on-site inspections of abortion clinics. Such a requirement would not apply to other types of health centers in Missouri.

Onder has maintained that the aim is to protect women’s health. Abortion-rights supporters don’t buy that argument.

Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri operates the state’s only abortion clinic, situated in St. Louis. Angie Postal, the agency’s director of public policy, said Missouri lawmakers continue to “place unreasonable and unnecessary restrictions … on women’s reproductive health.”

“This year, as every year, Planned Parenthood is extremely proud of the abortion care we provide to women in Missouri,” Postal said. “I think a lot of us right now are reflecting on how far we’ve come and how much we do have to lose without accessible abortion.”

Number of abortions dropping at St. Louis clinic

In 2015, Planned Parenthood’s St. Louis clinic performed 5,235 abortions – down from 5,559 in 2014. The decline is entirely among surgical abortions, generally conducted in the second trimester of a pregnancy. The clinic has seen a slight uptick in non-surgical abortions, which are performed earlier.

Non-surgical abortions made up about one-third of those performed at the clinic in 2015.

Nationally and in Missouri, Planned Parenthood has been under fire since last summer’s release of videos by an anti-abortion group, which allege that the agency in some states is illegally selling fetal remains from abortions. Planned Parenthood has denied the allegations, and Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster says his office’s investigation found no evidence of wrongdoing by Planned Parenthood in Missouri.

A state legislative committee is continuing to look into the matter. Susan Klein, legislative liaison with Missouri Right to Life, said her group supports measures requiring closer monitoring of what happens to the fetal material after abortion.

Missouri already has laws barring the materials’ sale or donation, but Klein said those laws need to be strengthened. She said Washington University in St. Louis is among the institutions in the state that conduct embryonic stem-cell research.

Overall, both sides are monitoring more than a dozen bills that deal with abortion or reproductive issues. Klein is optimistic that some may end up on the desk of Gov. Jay Nixon, who generally supports abortion rights but has allowed some restrictions to become law during his tenure. Other measures, including one mandating a 72-hour waiting period before an abortion, were put in place in Missouri over his objections.

Klein noted that 2016 is also an election year. “I think it’s a good year for people and the general public to hear about pro-life issues and I think a lot of them are changing their mind. I do know we are growing because of what people have seen in these videos.”

Meanwhile, the St. Louis Freedom of Choice Council plans to hold an event Saturday afternoon in support of abortion rights at the First Unitarian Church of St. Louis.

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