Missouri’s anti-abortion advocates cheer as Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade
Missouri anti-abortion advocates are praising a decision Friday by the U.S. Supreme Court that overturns Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that legalized abortions across the country.
Immediately after the decision was announced, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt issued an opinion that effectively enacted a law originally passed in 2019 that would make most abortions in the state unlawful the moment Roe was overturned. The law allows abortion if the mother’s life is in danger but does not contain exceptions to its ban for rape or incest, and it makes assisting in an abortion a felony.
"With this attorney general opinion, my Office has effectively ended abortion in Missouri, becoming the first state in the country to do so following the Court's ruling," Schmitt said in a statement.
The decision follows a decadeslong campaign by anti-abortion groups that have sought to restrict abortion access.
Abortion rights supporters expressed outrage at the ruling, which they said would put women's health at risk.
"And this is a far-right, extremist Supreme Court is making this decision that affects other people," said U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, D-St. Louis County.
"The decision is a discredit to the Supreme Court and to the history of law and order and precedent in the United States," said Pamela Merritt, executive director of Medical Students for Choice. "I think the decision to overturn Roe ... is an extreme overreach of judicial power, and ultimately, this overreach will backfire. But in the immediate aftermath, this decision helps no one. It will not decrease abortion. It simply will criminalize abortion.”
Michele Landeau, president of the Missouri Abortion Fund, which provides support for women seeking reproductive health services, said that she was devastated but that the organization's efforts will continue.
"That’s why the Abortion Fund exists, because Roe has never been enough for a lot of folks, especially folks of color and folks who don’t have any money," Landeau said. "So we are devastated, but we are ready to continue to help people access care in as many ways as we can."
St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones upbraided the court, saying that seven in 10 Missourians support the right to abortion.
"If you’re a Democratic leader who has somehow managed to stay silent on abortion rights, it’s far past time for you to speak out and join together with us in this fight," Jones said in a statement. "Overturning Roe v. Wade was just the first step in a rightwing plot to take away our freedoms, and more attacks are coming."
'It's finally here'
Anti-abortion activists said the Supreme Court’s decision is an enormous victory. However, they say their work is not over.
“Unborn children can once again be fully protected in the law,” said Samuel Lee, director of Campaign Life Missouri, an anti-abortion rights group. “I’m really grateful for all those lawyers and judges and pro-life advocates who over the decades have worked hard to bring us to this point.”
After weeks of anticipation, Lee let out a sigh of relief when the decision arrived.
“It's finally here,” he said, adding that he realizes his movement has "a lot of work ahead" to help "pregnant mothers in need and protect their unborn children.”
Lucy Gonzalez, regional coordinator for Students for Life in Missouri and Arkansas, learned about the court’s decision from an all-staff email blast.
“I would be lying if I said I didn’t shed a tear,” she said. “I’m just overjoyed. It felt like our work is paying off, the hard work we’re doing to end abortion and change hearts and minds is truly paying off.”
Gonzalez and other Students for Life workers immediately began planning a rally for Saturday in Jefferson City in conjunction with those happening in other state capitals around the country.
“We want to make sure people who are attending the event also have a somber heart,” Gonzalez said. “Just to stand in solidarity with the lives that have already been lost due to abortion and the women who have been hurt and reflect on the fact our work is just beginning in a lot of ways.”
Ahead of Saturday's rally, some 50 activists and lawmakers gathered at the state Supreme Court steps in Jefferson City to praise the ruling and the movement that led to it.
State Rep. Sara Walsh, R-Ashland, said this issue had been her No. 1 priority while serving in the legislature.
“So now let us work to further strengthen Missouri's laws to protect life, defund Planned Parenthood and continue to advocate for stronger protections for these tiny children and their mothers,” Walsh said.
Sarah Hodges of California, Missouri, came with her children to the rally. She said she totally supported the decision by the Supreme Court.
“I'm glad that Missouri has trigger laws that will protect children from the moment of conception on, and give women the help they need,” Hodges said.
As far as whether she supports a nationwide ban on abortion, Hodges said she thinks it should be a state-by-state decision but did say if there was a further ban, it needs to be enacted through a constitutional amendment.
Across the street from the rally, three Columbia College students held counterprotest signs.
In addition to being upset at the decision itself, Karalynn Fisher expressed dissatisfaction with the current response from elected Democrats.
“They could have done more to protect it and to just see them now tweeting, being like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is so awful it happened,’ you could have done something. You were the only people that could have,” Fisher said.
Fisher and Kaitin Garrett said they plan to move away from Missouri after they finish college.
“It's so sad that something as arbitrary as state lines can determine whether or not you have access to a safe, legal abortion," Fisher said. "But if those are the measures that we need to take, I would rather have that option there."
Lives at risk
But those who have long fought to preserve the right to an abortion worry the court’s decision will have far-reaching consequences for women in the state.
"In states like Missouri, we are fighting a compounding crisis made worse because of a defund Planned Parenthood law that is shorthand for blocking patients from access to preventative health care services at the Planned Parenthood health centers or any provider if that is a provider of their choice," said Yamelsie Rodriguez, president and chief executive of Planned Parenthood of St. Louis and Southwest Missouri.
The decision puts women’s lives at risk, especially those of Missouri’s women of color and low-income residents, said Merritt, executive director for Medical Students for Choice.
“For the state of Missouri and in the St. Louis region, where we have infant and maternal mortality rates for Black women and babies that are four times worse than the general population, this is both the worst moment to be withdrawing access to reproductive health care and criminalizing abortion,” Merritt said.
Many abortion rights advocates argue the 2019 law does not prohibit Plan B or birth control medications since they prevent pregnancies. The language in the state law targets procedures that terminate a pregnancy.
But Merritt said Missouri outlawing abortion will have consequences that will further strain health care systems across the country, limiting how people can schedule appointments.
“We're seeing increased delays in people's ability to get an appointment,” Merritt said. “It's not even something that people can fly and get a quicker appointment or take a train. It's really a health system that is stretched.”
Xavier Becerra, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said on Friday in St. Louis that the right of women to access reproductive health care will not disappear.
"There may be a change in how we look at the legal circumstances behind abortion," said Becerra at a roundtable discussion at the Central West End just before the ruling was handed down. "But the right of women to reproductive health care will not stop in America, regardless of what the Supreme Court does."
'I thought it was the perfect spot'
About 50 people gathered outside the Planned Parenthood location in St. Louis soon after the ruling was released.
Autumn Dennis said they got the news from a friend.
"I immediately burst into tears in my car," Dennis said. "My immediate thoughts are I have a uterus, and so I'm terrified about what I can and can't do with my body at this point."
Dennis continued: "I'm also gay, and my current legal right to constitutionally marry someone of the same sex relies on Obergefell v. Hodges, which the logic relied on Roe v. Wade. So now I'm worrying about a lot of different civil rights that I have, and I'm a little bit in shock. I'm sure I will cry even more later when I get home."
Kendyl Underwood, a 20-year-old nursing student at St. Louis University, said she thought Missouri was a good place to be but is now scared to be a college student in the state.
"I thought it was the perfect spot when I showed up, and then I realized I was next to the only Planned Parenthood that provides abortion in the entire state," Underwood said. "And that’s a crazy thought, you know, that I’m lucky enough to be here and a lot of people really aren’t."
Steve Rupp, president of Missouri Right to Life, said outside the Planned Parenthood building that his group was there to celebrate "in a way that we're grateful for the little children who are not going to undergo the violence of abortion. We are grateful for the mothers that will not experience the emotional and the physical and the spiritual consequences of abortion."
'They are confused'
Bush offered advice for where Missouri women should seek reproductive health care.
"For those in Missouri, for people that are thinking right now, what do I do, I just found out I’m pregnant or I’ve been toiling over this decision over the last several days or whatever: Illinois. Go to Illinois," the congresswoman said. "There are two clinics in Illinois where people can go. For those that may have had appointments this weekend at this location here at St. Louis, at this Planned Parenthood, you won’t be able to have that appointment. It’s done."
Erin King, executive director of the Hope Clinic for Women in Granite City, Illinois, said the decision has already led to an influx of phone calls from people asking about abortion access. King said the differing abortion laws in states across the country have caused confusion among people.
“They don't know where to access care. They may be nowhere near us, they just either heard our name or found us on the internet, and are trying to figure out what to do,” King said. “There are many states that will immediately outlaw abortion, and there are states where it will take several months. But that's a really confusing nuance to anyone reading the news right now.”
King said about 65% of people coming to the clinic are from out of state, and more patients are expected. The clinic expects to see a 40% increase in volume by the end of the year.
She said that ensuring the clinic has the capacity to see the increased number of patients outside of Illinois is a top priority and that the clinic is working to add more appointment times and staff for the immediate future. But King said that in the long run, capacity will be a challenge.
“The amount of patients that will need to be cared for in this region, we're talking pretty much the entire Midwest and South, will be really overwhelming for the few existing abortion facilities in Illinois,” King said. “But we have allies and colleagues actively also expanding their care and expanding their appointments, even expanding new building sites, new places for patients to go. So it will really be to be determined how much access there will be in Illinois.”
Dennis said they could consider a move to Illinois.
"I feel slightly lucky in that I live in St. Louis and if I had to move across the river 20 minutes to Illinois, to a state where abortion is free and legal, I conceivably could do so," Dennis said. "But also the fact I would have to uproot my whole life — move apartments, having to file taxes in two states — no one should have to do that in order to have a say over their own body."
A focus on Illinois
Activists opposing abortion rights plan to shift their attention to the Metro East and other locations in Illinois, which has become a destination for people in Missouri and other states who are seeking abortions.
Efforts by Missouri’s Republican-controlled legislature to restrict abortion access already have led many women to travel to Illinois there to seek the procedure.
“I believe that people from Missouri understand that Missouri women will be traveling to Illinois to receive abortions," said Brian Westbrook, founder and director of Coalition Life, a St. Louis-based anti-abortion group that does work in Missouri and Illinois. "And so, with that fact in hand, we know that we need to do a lot of work here to serve women, where they are right here."
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker and other Democratic leaders said they will protect the right to the abortion, and several Midwest organizations are helping women to access care in the state. Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri opened its regional logistics center in Fairview Heights, Illinois, to help arrange travel and lodging for people who are traveling for care. The Chicago-based Midwest Action Coalition also arranges travel plans.
But many abortion rights advocates are worried Illinois won’t have the capacity to treat people arriving from neighboring states. Pritzker has said the state will need more doctors.
King, the director of Hope Clinic for Women in Granite City, Illinois, said that while clinics are preparing for more patients, they hope people understand that abortion is still legal in many states.
“I want patients that might need abortions to hear the message loud and clear, it is still legal, in many parts of the country it is still accessible,” King said. “It is still there. I think the biggest challenge will be trying to undo a bunch of the confusion that is going to ensue in the first days, weeks, months, years after Roe is overturned.”