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Mayor Jones expects legal challenge to city using ARPA money for abortion access

Mayor Tishaura Jones speaks in favor of Board of Alderman Board Bill 61
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Mayor Tishaura Jones speaks in favor of a Board of Alderman measure on Monday that would use ARPA dollars to form a Reproductive Equity Fund, some of which would be used to support people seeking an abortion.

St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones expects the city will be taken to court over its proposal to help fund access to abortion.

Eighth Ward Alderwoman Annie Rice’s bill creates a municipal Reproductive Equity Fund and directs $1 million of the city’s remaining American Rescue Plan allocation toward helping people cover the cost of accessing an abortion. The procedure itself would not be funded, but expenses like transportation and child care would be eligible.

The bill will have its first committee hearing on Tuesday, and Jones said she will sign it if it reaches her desk. Because the federal money is a one-time allocation, supporters hope the money will be included in future city budgets.

ARPA permits local governments to use the funds to support the health of communities, and Jones said the coronavirus pandemic has laid bare existing health inequalities that are also at play in access to reproductive health care, including abortion.

“We are working with the city counselor’s office to see if this is an allowable spending of ARPA funds or municipal funds,” Jones said. “But this is a time to act, and people elected a mayor to act on their behalf.”

St. Louis County Councilwoman Lisa Clancy, D-Maplewood, said in a text message that she was working with the county attorney as well as County Executive Sam Page to “evaluate our options” for a similar fund in St. Louis County.

U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, D-St. Louis County, said she has pressured President Joe Biden to drop his objections to ending the filibuster in the U.S. Senate, removing the 60-vote requirement for measures to put the right to an abortion in federal law and to expand the Supreme Court.

Democrats, Bush said, have been too afraid of what might happen “later” to change institutional norms.

“This is later,” she said. “All things must be on the table. We should not have the House, the Senate and the White House, and on our watch, Roe v. Wade falls.”

Prosecutor response

Minutes after Friday’s ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court overturning the constitutional right to an abortion, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt issued an opinion enacting the state’s previously passed complete ban on abortion except for a medical emergency. The law makes it a Class B felony for a medical provider to perform an abortion for other reasons.

The lone clinic in the state providing elective abortions before the ban was Planned Parenthood in St. Louis. Planned Parenthood officials said Friday they would refer clients to their Fairview Heights facility; abortion is still legal in Illinois.

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner said in a statement on Twitter that the decision to overturn Roe was “devastating” and pledged to remain "committed to ensuring the safe delivery of comprehensive reproductive health services in the City of St. Louis.”

St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell said he did not expect any cases being brought to his office against people providing abortions, but he called Missouri's new ban a “terribly misguided and dangerous law.”

“Prosecutors are mandated to protect public safety by seeking accountability for those who endanger our safety and prosperity,” he said in a statement. “In no way does a skilled and qualified medical professional providing a safe abortion to a woman who seeks this medical procedure endanger the safety of anyone.”

Prosecutors in at least seven other states have said they will not enforce abortion bans.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann 

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

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