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St. Louis proposes using COVID relief funds to support abortion access, reproductive health

The Planned Parenthood center in St. Louis remains open as shown on Wednesday, July 1, 2020.
Bill Greenblatt
A measure that will be introduced at the St. Louis Board of Aldermen on Friday would direct $1.5 million in federal coronavirus relief funding to reproductive health care, including access to abortion.

A group of elected officials in St. Louis wants to use some of the city’s remaining money from the American Rescue Plan to boost access to reproductive health care, including abortions.

The measure set to be introduced Friday by 8th Ward Alderwoman Annie Rice and others sets up a Reproductive Equity Fund and uses $1.75 million in federal coronavirus relief funds as seed money. Because ARPA is a one-time infusion that must be allocated by 2024, supporters hope the fund will become part of the city’s regular budget in the future.

ARPA permits local governments to use the funds to support the health of communities, and that’s exactly what the reproductive equity fund would do, said Mallory Schwarz, the executive director of Pro Choice Missouri.

“There is a clear and direct tie between the compounded inequality, and the compounded barriers that people are facing to get reproductive health care, and the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said.

The bill directs $500,000 toward support for reproductive health care, including doulas and lactation consultants. Another $250,000 would be used to help administer the grants and evaluate whether the programs receiving the grants are working.

The most controversial part is a $1 million allocation to “provide access to abortion through logistical support including but not limited to the funding of childcare, transportation, and other logistical support needs.” A prohibition on using federal dollars to directly fund abortion procedures themselves remains in place.

Despite the block on direct funding for abortion procedures, Brian Westbrook, the executive director of Coalition Life, said money could still go to abortion providers such as Planned Parenthood, as they also offer other reproductive health care.

“The way the bill says about doulas and lactation consultants, there's a word before it that says, such as,” he said. “Really, it doesn’t limit the funds to be used for doulas or lactation. It could easily be used for abortion providers.”

St. Louis Archbishop Mitchell T. Rozanski said the Catholic Church “naturally, opposes any government funding that contributes to the destruction of life and rather seeks to support and affirm pregnant women faced with difficulties so they and their children may thrive.”

The Board of Aldermen in December approved a resolution naming St. Louis a “sexual and reproductive health care safe zone” and naming the rights to reproductive freedom as fundamental to the board’s policies. Fifteen members were co-sponsors, just enough to pass the reproductive equity fund if everyone remained on board. 

Alderwoman Christine Ingrassia of the 6th Ward said she believed the votes would hold.

“We are in an unprecedented time in the country in terms of what we think we are about to receive in terms of Roe being stuck down, and people need to be able to access these services,” she said.

In addition to the funding for reproductive health, Rice’s bill includes $1.3 million for coronavirus testing and vaccine distribution. There is language that allows parts of the bill to stand even if others are struck down.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.