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Missouri abortion opponents confident that lawmakers will take more action to help their cause

Missouri Capitol
File photo | Marshall Griffin | St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri Capitol

(Updated with Wednesday's Senate hearing) Heartened by the November election, Missouri’s abortion opponents are considering a raft of bills – some old, some new – to expand the state’s restrictions on abortion-related matters and their enforcement.

The measures could heighten Missouri’s longstanding status as a key battleground when it comes to abortion rights.  A state Senate committee examined four of them Wednesday.

One of the newest proposals would give new Attorney General Josh Hawley the authority to enforce the state’s abortion laws in communities or counties.  The bill, SB196, is sponsored by new state Sen. Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester.

Sam Lee, head of the anti-abortion group Campaign Life Missouri, said the bill would authorize Hawley’s office to take action in communities or counties on abortion-related matters when the local prosecutor declines to do so.

“Let’s be honest about it: There may be some prosecutor or circuit attorney who may be reluctant for political reasons to go after an abortion clinic,’’ Lee said.

Since Missouri currently has only one abortion clinic, in St. Louis, critics suspect the implication is to allow Hawley to take action in the St. Louis area against Planned Parenthood, which operates the clinic and is a major and frequent target of abortion opponents.

Alison Dreith, executive director of the reproductive rights group NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri, calls Hawley “probably the scariest person when it comes to a woman’s access to abortion.”

State may lead nation in abortion-related bills

By Dreith’s count, more anti-abortion bills have been filed this session in the Missouri General Assembly than in any other state. At the same time, she notes “an increase in violence and agitation with the protesters outside the Planned Parenthood clinic.”

Dreith’s group oversees the escort program, in which volunteers accompany patients from their vehicles to the clinic at 4251 Forest Park Ave.  “In 2016, two escorts were assaulted by protesters,’’ Dreith said.

A veteran anti-abortion activist, John Ryan, also recently was arrested after he claimed to have planted a bomb inside the abortion clinic. Nothing was found.

Missouri has seen such incidents before as the state’s battle over abortion – a microcosm of the national debate -- has played out in court rooms and in the state Capitol for decades.

At least five Senate bills are expected to get serious consideration. Aside from the Hawley measure, others would impose more restrictions on the disposal of fetal remains after an abortion, ban abortion when fetuses are determined to have Down Syndrome or for gender selection, and protect the state money now going to “pregnancy resource centers’’ that offer alternatives to abortion.

At Wednesday's Senate hearing,  Sarah Baker with the Missouri chapter of American Civil Liberties Union testified against the bill that would target abortion for gender selection or when there are disabilities such as Down's Syndrome.

“The best way, as some of my colleagues have said, to prevent any sort of selective abortion, is to educate and provide resources for children who do have disabilities later on in life,” Baker said.  “In terms of sex selective abortion, the best way to decrease those is to decrease stereotypes and try to educate our communities on the equality between men and women.”

But Ryan Gallagher of St. Louis,  the father of a Down Syndrome child, testified that the bill would prevent discrimination against the unborn.

“Knowing more about your child, that they will have some additional challenges ahead, shouldn’t give a parent the right to determine that that life isn’t worthy or good enough to be lived, based on a preference,” Gallagher said. “Shouldn’t we be expected to love our children for who they are before birth, and then as they grow into the unique person they were born to be…it’s unsettling to know that expectant parents currently have the ability to cherry pick the type of child they bring into the world.”

The Missouri House has several similar bills, along with at least one measure that would grant “personhood’’ status to all human embryos after conception.  If passed, such a bill would bar certain types of contraception, such as IUDs.

Overall, Lee says that abortion opponents are energized by the election of Hawley, new Gov. Eric Greitens and President-elect Donald Trump.

Greitens had a somewhat testy relationship with abortion opponents in the gubernatorial primary last summer. He declined to fill out Missouri Right to Life’s issues questionnaire, which generally is a must for Republicans.  During his campaign, Greitens cited his opposition to abortion but provided few details.

Lee said, “I have no doubt (Greitens) is prolife. What that translates to, I don’t know.”

State aid for alternatives to abortion a possible flashpoint

For several years, even with Democrat Jay Nixon (an abortion rights supporter) as governor, abortion opponents have succeeded to getting some state money to help support the dozens of pregnancy resource centers around the state.

Those centers got a big financial boost last year when the General Assembly approved a bill earmarking 2 percent of the state’s allocation of money – about $4.3 million -- from the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.

But state Rep. Deb Lavender, D-Kirkwood, has introduced a bill this session to block the aid, saying that “federal food assistance money should help feed hungry kids, not fund an ideological agenda.”

Given the huge GOP majority in the General Assembly, it’s unlikely that the bill will get anywhere.

The diverted TANF money was in addition to $2 million in state funds earmarked for the alternative-to-abortion centers, as well as state tax credits to the centers’ donors.

Nixon cut the $2 million this year, as part of his trims to balance the state’s budget.  Lee is hoping that the General Assembly acts to restore the $2 million in the next budget.

Overall, both sides acknowledge that Missouri’s abortion opponents have the upper hand as a result of the Nov. 8 election.

“We’re energized, we’re hopeful,’’ Lee said. “But we’re realistic as well.”

For one thing, despite a Senate hearing today on four anti-abortion bills, abortion opponents suspect it could be months before any of their measures make it to the Senate or House floors.

Lee says that’s because Republican leaders have made it clear that, for now, economic issues are their top priority.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.
Marshal was a political reporter for St. Louis Public Radio until 2018.