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Debate over reproductive rights heats up again in Missouri

Abortion opponents stand on a street median as Planned Parenthood supporters march past the organization's Central West End clinic February 11, 2017.
File photo | Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio
Abortion opponents stand on a street median as Planned Parenthood supporters march past the organization's Central West End clinic February 11, 2017.

President Donald Trump’s newest nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court simply adds to the latest round of heightened political tensions in Missouri over reproductive rights and abortion.

And, as expected, it’s already become a key issue in the state’s closely watched U.S. Senate race. Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley is making the Supreme Court confirmation the centerpiece of the Republican U.S. Senate candidate’s first TV ad, which began airing Monday.

Meanwhile, some activists in the Missouri Democratic Party are furious over what they see as an attempt by party leaders to water down the party’s longstanding platform in favor of abortion rights, and warn that the move could hurt U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill’s re-election bid.

The unrest contrasts to the mood among the state’s reproductive-rights supporters just a year ago.

In June 2017, Planned Parenthood and its allies were making plans to expand the number of abortion clinics in Missouri. They were euphoric over a U.S. Supreme Court decision in a Texas case that appeared to strike down some established Missouri restrictions as well.

But since then, actions on the state and local level have put backers of reproductive rights once again on the defensive. They include Alison Dreith, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri, an abortion-rights group.

“It routinely seems like one step forward, two steps back. Every time we have one big victory, then something else comes down that we have to continue this fight,” Dreith said.

She is referring to a number of state and federal actions over the past year, and the prospect of a more conservative Supreme Court as a result of President Donald Trump's new nominee to the court.

Republicans press for more abortion restrictions

Last summer, then-Gov. Eric Greitens called a special legislative session at the behest of abortion opponents concerned about the proposed increase in abortion clinics. Lawmakers approved more than a dozen new restrictions.

Planned Parenthood – which at the time only had an abortion clinic in St. Louis – did reopen its clinic in Columbia and added a new one in Kansas City. But it has put on hold plans to expand to Joplin and Springfield.

Among the reasons is the move by the General Assembly and the Trump administration to cut off money that Planned Parenthood has received for decades for family-planning services, such as birth control. The agency has been barred from using any of that money for abortions, but its critics allege otherwise.

New Missouri Gov. Mike Parson has just signed a bill that bars Planned Parenthood from getting any state Medicaid money that had been used to provide health screenings and family-planning services. That measure affects about 7,000 low-income women around the state.

Parson said in a statement that he was happy to take such action. “We applaud the Missouri General Assembly for defunding Planned Parenthoods ability to perform abortions," the governor said. "Every day that goes by when we save innocent and unborn lives is a victory. I promise to always protect, promote, and defend an unborn child’s right to life.”

Abortion opponent Sam Lee, head of Campaign Life Missouri, is pleased with the outcome. “As of right now, no Planned Parenthood agency in the state is getting reimbursed for Medicaid, and none of them are getting reimbursed for the state family-planning program.”

Trump’s administration is trying to do the same on the federal level, by blocking Planned Parenthood’s access to Title X money that is used for family planning. That would affect about 15,000 low-income Missourians served by Planned Parenthood.

In Missouri, Planned Parenthood serves about a third of the roughly 45,000 low-income Missourians – mainly women – who qualify for Title X services.

Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley, a Republican also running for the U.S. Senate, says he supports Trump’s actions.

“Wherever you fall on the issue of abortion, we ought to be able to agree that federal money, tax money should not be subsidizing abortion,” Hawley said.

Mary Kogut, head of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and southwest Missouri, says that’s always been the case. “Money from family planning never goes to support abortion,” she said. “We’ve never violated our separation policies.”

Kogut added that the St. Louis Planned Parenthood board is committed to serving the low-income patients affected by the funding cuts, even without the government money.

“We don’t know if we will get paid,” she said. “But we plan to continue to serve our patients.”

Hawley – an abortion opponent – says he hopes the new Supreme Court justice will move the high court more to the right. Hawley says the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing most abortions – known as Roe v. Wade – was “wrongly decided.”

He is highlighting his differences with McCaskill over the issue.

She says her views are no secret. “I’m confident that most Missourians know that I have a long record of supporting women’s reproductive health freedoms,” McCaskill said. “That’s not going to change.”

Missouri Democrats tangle over issue

McCaskill is playing down any discord within the state Democratic Party’s ranks over a change in the party platform.

Missouri Democratic Party chairman Stephen Webber says the party’s leadership committee simply wanted to make clear that it was not excluding activists who had a different view of abortion.

The platform amendment that was added June 30 states:

“We respect the conscience of each Missourian and recognize that members of our party have deeply held and sometimes differing positions on issues of personal conscience, such as abortion.

We recognize the diversity of views as a source of strength and we welcome into our ranks all Missourians who may hold different positions on this issue.”

Dreith with Missouri NARAL called the provision “a slap in the face’’ to women who make up a sizable chunk of the Democratic Party’s base. She also pointed to recent polls showing that close to three-quarters of millennial women support abortion rights, and are siding with Democrats as a result.

Dreith asserted that the state Democratic Party has stood firm on its positions in favor of racial equality and union rights, but lacks the same commitment to women’s rights.

Webber said that’s not true, and reaffirmed the party’s belief that women should have control over their bodies. He pointed to other language in the party platform that reaffirmed that point.

Meanwhile, abortion opponents are pleased with their current clout with Missouri lawmakers and many officials, notably Parson and Hawley.

Lee said there’s no question that abortion opponents have the political power to get the state legislation passed that they believe is necessary.

But in other states, the situation is not as clear.

Lee points to a number of states – including Iowa – where courts have ruled that their state constitutions protect access to abortion. As a result, he doesn’t see Trump’s new Supreme Court nominee as settling the issue.

“This debate is not going to end anytime soon,” Lee said. “Roe versus Wade is not going to be overturned overnight. It’s going to go back and forth in the state legislatures and in the courts. This fight will go on for years.”

Follow Jo on Twitter: @jmannies

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