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Missouri’s divide over abortion rights (and the governor) apparent as 2nd special session begins

Republican Sen. Bob Onder, of Lake St. Louis.
File photo | Tim Bommel | Missouri House Communications
Republican Sen. Bob Onder, of Lake St. Louis.

Updated at 7:45 p.m. with changes to Onder's bill — Missouri’s GOP legislative majority is virtually unanimous in its opposition to abortion, but the divisions within their ranks were laid bare by a number of competing abortion regulation bills filed in the second special session of the year.The raft of bills was upstaged on Monday, the first day, due to several hours of unexpected Senate debate with Republicans taking aim at Gov. Eric Greitens, who called them back to the Capitol, and a Facebook video posted by Ash Grove Republican Rep. Mike Moon that showed the staunch abortion opponent killing a chicken as a means of stumping for his bill — and criticizing Greitens. And on Tuesday, a group of Republican and Democratic senators called for a committee to investigate the governor, while some provisions Greitens specifically wanted were stripped out of a bill.

All of that, however, is a distraction from the likely consensus in both chambers when it comes to Greitens’ chief aims for the two-week session, which is meant to install new abortion clinic regulations and overturn a St. Louis provision that bars employers and landlords from discriminating against women who have had abortions or use birth control.

Senate legislation has edge

Sen. Bob Onder, a Republican from Lake St. Louis who led the push for the abortion-related special session, is spearheading the measure deemed most likely to pass. It’s a broad-ranging bill that calls for annual unannounced inspections of abortion clinics and repeals the recent change to St. Louis’ anti-discrimination measure and bars other communities from passing similar provisions.

Onder’s bill also would give Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley, an abortion opponent, jurisdiction throughout the state to enforce abortion restrictions and monitor clinics; Kentucky has a similar provision. Ingrid Duran, who's the state legislative director for the National Right to Life organization, said the provision is in "our model legislation" and is aimed at making sure that state restrictions are enforced on the local level.

Onder's bill is in part a response to a federal judge’s ruling in April that tossed out some long-standing Missouri restrictions on clinics, such as requirements that they meet surgical standards, and came after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down similar laws in Texas. Tennessee is among the states in similar circumstances.

One thing that had been in the bill was requiring clinics to have plans in place to deal with complications, something that Greitens wanted. But that was among a couple of provisions stripped from the bill, which dropped from 39 pages to just seven, during a committee hearing Tuesday night.

The Senate also may consider two other anti-abortion bills, one sponsored by GOP Sen. Andrew Koenig of Manchester, that are narrower in scope, although they mirror some of Onder’s provisions.

House eyes stronger abortion restrictions

Fourteen bills were filed in the House, most by GOP abortion opponents. One of those measures would, in effect, ban abortions 20 weeks after fertilization — close to two weeks shorter than the state’s current limit.

The sponsor of that bill, Republican Rep. Donna Lichtenegger of Cape Girardeau, says it will keep fetuses from feeling pain, though medical evidence is inconclusive on that 20-week assertion. Opponents believe such a measure is meant to block abortions prompted by medical tests for things like Down syndrome, for which results often are not known by 20 weeks.

Another bill would require that a custodial parent who gives approval for an abortion for a teen under age 18 must also notify the other custodial parent, except in certain circumstances. 

On the abortion rights side, three St. Louis-area Democratic representatives — Deb Lavender of Kirkwood, Cora Faith Walker of St. Louis and Stacey Newman of Richmond Heights — filed measures aimed at bolstering reproductive choices. Walker is proposing state tax credits for most forms of contraception, while Newman’s bill calls for accurate sex education. Lavender’s bill targets the state’s growing funding of pregnancy resource centers, which have been set up by abortion opponents.

But the House bills from either party aren’t expected to get much traction because the special session is beginning in the Senate, where the Democratic minority succeeded during the regular session in helping to kill abortion-related bills. Republicans believe that any anti-abortion measure that gets through the Senate will sail through the House; both chambers have GOP supermajorities.

‘Dark money’ horse re-emerges

Still, it was the governor, not the Democrats, who was the prime target of Monday’s hours-long Senate debate, with politicians in both parties accusing the governor of using the special session for political gain after ignoring any abortion legislation during the regular session that ended May 12.

Kansas City Democratic Sen. Jason Holsman went so far as to file a proposed constitutional amendment to turn the General Assembly into a full-time, year-round legislative body. And state Sen. Rob Schaaf, a Republican from St. Joseph who has tangled with the governor on several fronts, filed three bills dealing with campaign-finance issues. None of those have much of a chance of passage during this special session.

And on Tuesday, six senators— Holsman, Schaaf, Republicans Ryan Silvey of Kansas City, Bob Dixon of Springfield, Doug Libla of Poplar Bluff, and Democrat Scott Sifton of Affton — said they want to create a Senate committee that would investigate whether Greitens' office is coordinating with the 501(c)(4) nonprofit A New Missouri, which is run by Greitens' campaign staffers. The nonprofit, which pushes for legislation that Greitens backs, paid for rallies ahead of both special sessions.

Their news release said an investigation is necessary in light of Greitens' admission in May to an ethics violation during his gubernatorial campaign.

“You can’t ignore possible unethical behavior by the Governor or his campaign, just because you share the same party label," Silvey said in the release. "Missourians deserve to know what happened and it’s the duty of the Senate to find out.”

Sifton said that the Senate must "use every resource available ... to uncover the truth" because "the Governor's secrecy leaves us no other choice."

Greitens' spokesman, Parker Briden, said in an email that the lawmakers are upset about the governor "shaking up Jefferson City" and calling another special session, adding: "Temper tantrums from career politicians don't bother us." 

Of note

Based on the Associated Press’ calculations, a one-week special session costs Missouri taxpayers close to $70,000. So this one, which is expected to last two weeks, will be closer to $140,000. Greitens has said he may call more special sessions this summer, saying after a rally for the abortion legislation on Friday that he’s focused less on cost and more on passing legislation that he believes is best for Missouri.

Speaking of rallies, advocates on either side of the abortion issue plan to hold dueling gatherings Wednesday in the rotunda of the state Capitol. Greitens plans to join the abortion opponents.

Marshall Griffin in Jefferson City contributed to this report.

Follow Jo on Twitter: @jmannies

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