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Incremental or expansive? That’s the big question for Missouri’s abortion legalization efforts

The Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region & Southwest Missouri clinic on Wednesday, April 19, 2023, in the Central West End.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
The Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri clinic in the Central West End no longer offers abortion services. The facility was the last abortion provider in Missouri before the fall of Roe v. Wade.

Don Logue wants to vote next year to legalize abortion.

The Ballwin resident said he was dismayed that Missouri prohibited most abortions after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade. He’s pleased that abortion rights groups are coming up with initiative petitions to roll back that law.

“A woman should be in charge of her own reproductive decisions,” he said.

Two groups that have submitted potential ballot items to Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft’s office are taking starkly different approaches to roll back Missouri’s abortion ban.

A group called Missourians for Constitutional Freedom, a group that supports abortion rights, has submitted nearly a dozen abortion-related petitions as well. Four allow abortions up to 24 weeks of pregnancy, and four bar the procedure after "fetal viability" except where the pregnancy endangers the patient.

In addition to viability limits, some petitions specify the type of parental consent the legislature may require and stress that the amendment does not require funding for abortion services.

“We believe that all of them create a level of access to abortion that our state hasn't experienced in decades, if ever,” said Mallory Schwarz, executive director of Abortion Action Missouri.

'St. Louis on the Air': Dr. McNicholas says abortion legalization efforts don't go far enough

One of the petitions doesn't have a viability limit — or mention of parental consent or funding.

"There's probably not another human in this state who has talked to more people about abortion than I have. And probably not another human in the state who is taking care of abortion patients as frequently as I have," said Colleen McNicholas, the chief medical officer of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri." And those are patients who exist in in rural areas, and in urban areas — across every zip code and across every faith spectrum. And people understand that this is a personal and private decision, the decision they might make for themselves is different than a decision that somebody else might make.

"But I think we have seen since the Dobbs decision, that folks are just tired of this being used as a game," she added.

Six plans from the Missouri Women and Family Research Fund make more modest changes. They would place exceptions into the Missouri Constitution that would allow abortion in the case of fatal fetal abnormalities, health or safety of the mother, incest or rape if someone calls into a crisis hotline. They also bar punishment for women or medical providers who receive or perform abortions. And some iterations would allow abortions up to 12 weeks of pregnancy.

“These initiatives have to pass with the majority of voters in Missouri,” said Jamie Corley of the Missouri Women and Family Research Fund. “That is the only way that we are going to expand abortion rights in our state.”

While both groups are optimistic that they can get the necessary signatures for a 2024 vote, Republicans who oppose abortion have instigated time-consuming litigation that could run out the clock for abortion rights proponents.

Jamie Corley is photographed on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023, in the kitchen of her home in University City, Mo. Corley, who identifies as a Republican, is leading the effort on a number of ballot initiatives that would allow for abortions up to 12 weeks of pregnancy and in cases of rape, incest, fatal fetal abnormalities or risks to health or safety of a mother. She primarily works from her kitchen table, pointing out that women have been “starting revolutions from the kitchen table for centuries.”
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
Jamie Corley of University City, who identifies as a Republican, is leading the effort on a number of ballot initiatives that would allow for abortions up to 12 weeks of pregnancy and in cases of rape, incest, fatal fetal abnormalities or risks to health or safety of a mother. She primarily works from her kitchen table, pointing out that women have been “starting revolutions from the kitchen table for centuries.”
'St. Louis on the Air': Jamie Corley discusses petitions that would chip away at the state’s ban

Differences on exceptions

Back in 2019, Missouri lawmakers passed a bill that included language banning most abortions if Roe v. Wade fell. There are no exceptions for rape or incest — only medical emergencies.

Corley has contended that the current law is far too extreme, even for Missouri Republicans. The St. Louis resident still considers herself a member of the GOP and previously worked for Republican members of Congress in Washington, D.C.

“I’m obviously a Republican, but this is not a Republican or Democrat initiative. People, whether they say they’re pro-life, whether they say they’re pro-choice, can get behind what we’re doing,” Corley said.

Among other things, Corley has pointed to how national Republican political figures like U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley and former President Donald Trump have come out in favor of allowing abortion in the case of rape or incest. Hawley has said that he supports federal legislation that would keep abortion available up to 15 weeks of pregnancy.

“You see all these proposals coming out of national Republicans that are really taking some pretty significant steps in the direction of Democrats on the issue,” said Gregg Keller, a Missouri-based political consultant. “But Democrats won't have any of it because they need to have all of it or nothing.”

Christine Matthews is with Virginia-based Bellwether Research and Consulting. She’s spoken with Corley about polling work but has not been paid yet by her organization.

Matthews recently polled voters in states with strict abortion bans — including Missouri. And while she stressed that the Missouri sample size wasn’t huge, Matthews added there was strong support for adding exceptions for rape and incest — and some comfort level with allowing for abortions during the first six to 12 weeks of pregnancy.

“I think we have a good sense of direction in Missouri, that voters think that the current law in place is too strict and too restrictive,” Matthews said.

Missouri State Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, announces his bid for governor on Friday, Sept. 8, 2023, at the St. Charles County Regional Airport in Portage Des Sioux, Mo. The Air Force veteran and two-term state senator joins the Republican primary alongside Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft and Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe. A member of the legislature’s conservative caucus, Eigel has been critical of Senate GOP leadership on various issues.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri state Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, has spoken out against having exceptions to the state's abortion ban.

But proponents of the abortion ban have not embraced Corley’s initiatives. State Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, and other GOP lawmakers have shown no interest in placing exceptions in the state’s abortion ban.

“It’s possible that in spite of two decades of electoral experience of sending all these pro-life Republicans like myself to Jefferson City that the people of this state may have a change of heart,” Eigel said. “I would find that to be very unlikely — even in 2024 and beyond.”

Sam Lee, director of Campaign Life Missouri, a group that has pushed for abortion restrictions, said the fact that Corley’s initiatives allow for abortions in the case of health and safety of the mother amounts to a loophole.

“The mere assertion that there's some sort of health or risk would allow her to have an abortion at any time,” Lee said. “I get why they're written this way to try to appeal to those voters who might not look at the fine print and might not understand the legalities of all this and think that this is a reasonable proposal.”

Corley has strenuously pushed back against Lee’s comments, calling it an “absurd” argument. She added that the current abortion ban allowing for medical emergencies doesn’t have a gestational week limit either.

“My response to that is: Did every Republican in the House and the Senate except one vote for a bill that allows late-term abortion?” she said. “I don't think any Republican would frame the current law like that.”

Dr. Colleen P. McNicholas, Chief Medical Officer for Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, on Friday, June 23, 2023, at the Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region & Southwest Missouri’s clinic in the Central West End.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Dr. Colleen P. McNicholas, chief medical officer for Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, said efforts to allow abortion should aim to restore "equitable and just scientifically based access for all of Missourians.”

Not enough for rights supporters

Proponents of abortion rights also have been hostile to Corley’s proposals, contending they’re far too modest compared to other possible ballot initiatives.

Schwarz, of Abortion Action Missouri, said Corley’s initiatives “don't actually create access, while allowing people, namely Republicans, to suggest support for survivors.” She also questioned why someone would have to call into a crisis hotline in order to get access to abortion services.

“You have a policy that does not provide anything for survivors, but allows politicians or people who say they're somewhere in the middle to campaign and to gain political points on the backs of survivors,” Schwarz said. “Meanwhile, we know that the only way to support survivors and victims to support their autonomy and their decision-making around pregnancy is to ensure meaningful access to abortion for everyone.”

Corley said she has found Schwarz’s comments “disappointing,” adding that victims of rape and incest “don't have access to make a determination about their pregnancy outcome.” She’s also said that her organization believes exceptions require a reporting element to be effective.

“The government has decided they have to carry a pregnancy to term,” Corley said. “So giving them access to make their own decision about a pregnancy that they had no say in ... we find that compassionate. And we find those exceptions very meaningful.”

Hundreds of demonstrators pack into a parking lot at Planned Parenthood of St. Louis and Southwest Missouri on Friday, June 24, 2022, during a demonstration at the St. Louis clinic following the Supreme Court’s reversal of a case that guaranteed the constitutional right to an abortion.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Some proponents of abortion rights have said they expect people to sign petitions legalizing abortion once initiative petitions are circulated around the state.

McNichols added that “the goal should be to bring back equitable and just scientifically based access for all of Missourians.”

“Exceptions just don't work,” McNicholas said. “Yes, most folks are accessing abortion early in pregnancy. But there are a whole host of reasons why folks might need abortion access after 12 weeks of pregnancy. And what we know ... is that the government should not be the one who's making a decision about when somebody should be able to continue or not a pregnancy and whether to expand their family or not.”

McNicholas said that any abortion initiative in Missouri should not have a specific week limit on when someone can terminate a pregnancy. She added “anytime we impose artificial and made-up restrictions, whether it be gestational age or otherwise, we are really doing a disservice” to patients and physicians.

“We're sitting here in the state of Missouri, where if you violate an abortion law, it is a criminal penalty,” she said. “Your ability to provide and practice medicine will be taken away. And the truth is that abortion later in pregnancy, and really any decision about pregnancy, is almost never black and white, it really exists in a pool of gray.”

No decision has been made yet about which of the 11 initiative petitions to circulate for signatures. Schwarz said “if it was Mallory's decision, I would pick the most expansive policy possible."

“I recognize it's not my personal decision,” Schwarz said. “And we look at a lot of factors that weigh in on what should move forward. And those factors are those that impact any ballot campaign: Is the funding there? What does research tell us? What is the coalition partnership saying? And so I think all these factors matter.”

Sen. Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester, addresses the Education and Workforce Development Committee regarding his bill to, in part, ban the teaching of “critical race theory” in schools on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023, at the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Sen. Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester, said he supported "gumming up" the process to prevent an abortion-related ballot item from getting in front of voters in 2024.

Halted process

While both Missouri’s Republicans and Democrats are bracing for some abortion initiative to come before voters, it’s not a guarantee that will actually happen.

Some abortion rights proponents have raised alarm that litigation over the estimated cost of the initiatives and ballot summariescould run out the clock to collect signatures before next May. Abortion rights opponents, though, have a different reaction.

“I fully support gumming up the process,” said state Sen. Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester, who handled the bill that ultimately banned most abortions in Missouri. “Because I do not want any measure going to the vote of the people specifically when it comes to abortion. Because that life has an interest in being protected in this state.”

Keller said this time-consuming legal action poses a real concern for abortion rights proponents. He also said signature-gathering firms have been having major logistical issues in recent years, particularly because they’re having trouble hiring people who can do that job.

“These signature-gathering firms are having a ton of problems. And we're seeing this across the board, all kinds of issues across the political spectrum,” Keller said. “It is a very difficult time to be gathering signatures right now. So I'm a little bit dubious about these making on the ballot in the first place, to be honest.”

Voters take to the polls on Tuesday, March 7, 2023, at Mann Elementary School in Tower Grove South.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
If supporters get enough signatures, an abortion initiative will likely be on the ballot sometime in 2024.

Corley said her group is prepared to surmount any legal hurdles that other abortion initiatives encountered. And both Schwarz and McNicholas said that supporters of abortion rights will be ready to provide one of the roughly 171,000 signatures needed when the time comes.

“We are in coalition with groups across the state that are dedicated to lifting up the voice of the people to use these tools of our democracy,” Schwarz said. “ I think that the other side — the anti-abortion side and the politicians, will continue their transparent attacks on this effort. And it doesn't seem like the will and excitement of Missourians has been diminished one bit.”

McNicholas added that “abortion advocates are fierce and adapt to almost any situation that's thrown at them.”

“They know that when this vote is brought to the people, when we use direct democracy to bring back abortion access — that they will lose,” she said. “And so I'm not surprised that they continue to employ these stall tactics, in hopes that that means that we'll run out of time.”

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.