Supreme Court action likely to toss Missouri's abortion restrictions back into court
Some of Missouri’s restrictive laws governing abortion clinics will likely face a legal challenge as a result of today’s U.S. Supreme Court decision knocking down similar restrictions in Texas.
But abortion-rights supporters and opponents in Missouri agree that it’s “too soon to tell’’ the specific effects of the high court’s 5-3 ruling on the Show-Me state, which long has had some of the nation’s strictest abortion laws.
Both sides also agreed that the court’s decision is a landmark one and likely will elevate the importance of the abortion issue in this year’s presidential and state elections.
Said Mary Kogut, head of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri: “It’s a victory for women and women’s health in that it makes it clear, the court is sending a clear message that politicians and lawmakers can’t pass laws strictly with the intent to block access to safe and legal abortion.”
The high court on Monday, by a 5-3 vote, ruled that a 2013 Texas law placed an undue burden on women seeking to exercise their constitutional right to an abortion under the court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.
Missouri, Texas laws very much alike
Missouri’s statutes are similar to the struck-down Texas laws mandating that abortion providers have admitting privileges at local hospitals and required abortion clinics to physically upgrade their facilities to meet the standards of ambulatory surgical centers. Among other things, the restrictions mandated the size of doorways and parking lots.
Missouri’s law governing admitting privileges has been in place since 2005. The General Assembly passed its ambulatory surgical center mandate – similar to Texas’ now-defunct law – in 2007. But a court fight stalled enforcement until 2010.
Missouri’s ambulatory-center restrictions appear to have been a factor in shutting down several abortion operations in the state over the past decade. The state’s only remaining abortion clinic is in St. Louis and operated by Planned Parenthood.
That clinic does comply with the state’s ambulatory-center restrictions and the mandate on physician-admitting privileges.
Patty Skain, executive director of Missouri Right to Life, made clear she disagreed with the high court's decision. The tossed-out restrictions, she said, had been aimed at protecting women's health. The surgical-center mandates, for example, were aimed at making sure that ambulances could easily get to a clinic entrance if necessary, and that a woman could be wheeled down the clinic's halls.
"It's kind of hard to understand how the Supreme Court could disregard the safety of women and call this kind of law an 'undue burden,'" Skain said.
Planned Parenthood's Kogut contended that opponents' aims were to outlaw safe and legal abortions, not help women. Her group's focus now, she continued, will focus on "how we can help women in Missouri access safe and legal abortions without unnecessary restrictions."
Kogut added that it’s her understanding that the court’s decision does not automatically toss out other state laws – such as Missouri’s – that are similar to those now out in Texas. She said her organization will be considering its options.
Meanwhile, some Missouri abortion opponents are preparing for a renewed battle. Sam Lee, who runs Campaign Life Missouri – an anti-abortion lobbying group – said he wouldn’t be surprised if Planned Parenthood, its allied agencies or supportive physicians consider expanding abortion operations in the state.
“Maybe someone in Springfield or Hannibal or St. Joe or someplace like that," Lee said. "There could be a challenge to Missouri’s current laws and there’s a possibility that more abortion clinics could open.”
Lee emphasized that he opposes such an outcome, but he was laying out – from his vantage point – the worst-case scenario. Lee added that he's calling on fellow abortion opponents, including those in the General Assembly, to continue the fight.
Columbia, Mo., clinic in the spotlight
Both sides expect much of the immediate attention to focus on Columbia, Mo., where the Planned Parenthood clinic – overseen by the regional operation based in Kansas City – had shut down its abortion services a few months ago.
At issue had been the state’s mandate that physicians needed to have referral privileges at a local hospital. The University of Missouri’s medical center had granted the privileges, but withdrew them in the wake of legislative pressure.
That mandate is now likely to be challenged in court, because of this Supreme Court ruling against it.
Lee says the focus also will now be on Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, a Democrat running for governor, who would be charged with defending Missouri’s anti-abortion laws that could be challenged as a result of the Supreme Court decision. Koster’s spokeswoman said his office is still studying the court’s decision.
The court decision also is likely to put more attention on the state’s contest to choose Koster’s successor as attorney general. The two Republican candidates, Josh Hawley and Kurt Schaefer, have been highlighting their opposition to abortion. The two Democrats, Jake Zimmerman and Teresa Hensley, haven’t focused on the subject, but likely may have to do so.
The court ruling
Texas said the law aimed to protect women’s health. Critics said it was intended to shut down abortion clinics by imposing unnecessary, burdensome and costly requirements. Since the law was enacted, the number of clinics providing abortions in Texas, a state with a population of 27 million, has dropped to 19 from a high of 41.
Justice Stephen Breyer, who wrote the majority opinion, said the burdens imposed by the requirements exceeded any benefits they conferred.
“Each places a substantial obstacle in the path of women seeking a previability abortion, each constitutes an undue burden on abortion access … and each violates the Federal Constitution,” he wrote.
Joining Breyer were Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. dissented.
Battle lines remain
Reaction was strong and swift from the abortion-rights and anti-abortion camps.
- Phyllis Schlafly, founder of the conservative Eagle Forum, singled out Justice Anthony Kennedy for sharp criticism. "This decision demonstrates that our pro-life challenges are as great today as when Roe v. Wade was issued. While we have made some gains, particularly among young people, the pro-abortion side remains as determined as ever to impose the scourge of abortion on every region of the United States…”
- Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of ACLU of Missouri, took aim at the Missouri General Assembly. “…Today’s Supreme Court decision means that courts will no longer play along with the legislature’s disingenuous game of pretending to help women by erecting unnecessary barriers to abortion care. It should mark the end of Missouri’s campaign to impose unnecessary and burdensome regulations on abortion providers for the purpose of making abortion care more difficult to obtain.”
- Steve Rupp, president of Missouri Right to Life, said it was “profoundly disappointed in the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning the Texas law that requires protective measures for women seeking abortion. … This decision allows the abortion industry to operate unsafe clinics with little oversight. …”
- Karen Nolkemper, executive director of the Respect Life Apostolate of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, said, “No abortion clinic will ever be safe for unborn children, but these common sense safety requirements struck down by the Supreme Court would have at least protected women from undue harm at the hands of abortion providers. We will continue to speak for those who have no voice and to seek legal protections for innocent lives.”
- NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri was among a number of area abortion-rights groups who were ecstatic. “The Supreme Court has powerfully reaffirmed a woman’s constitutional right to make her own decisions about her health, family, and future, no matter her zip code," NARAL said in a statement. "The justices saw what we already knew: the Texas law and others like it in Missouri aren’t about protecting women—they’re about trying to ban abortion while undermining a woman’s dignity and ability to determine her own future. …”
Dan Margolies, editor of the Heartland Health Monitor team, is based at KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.