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Missouri abortion rights backers win after Supreme Court declines to consider ballot wording

Hundreds of demonstrators gather to advocate for abortion rights
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Hundreds of demonstrators gather to advocate for abortion rights on May 3, 2022, at the Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse in downtown St. Louis.

Updated at 10:30 a.m. with Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft's statement:

The Missouri Supreme Court on Monday declined to take up cases regarding the ballot summaries and costs for initiative petitions that would legalize abortion in the state.

The decision from the state’s high court is a victory for abortion rights proponents, who were banking on a favorable ballot summary before deciding on which initiative petition to circulate over the next few months.

Earlier this year, a group called Missourians for Constitutional Freedom filed 11 proposals to repeal the state’s abortion ban — which prohibits the procedure except for medical emergencies. But the group sued after Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft wrote up summaries that it considered unfair.

Ashcroft wrote that initiatives would allow for “dangerous, unregulated, and unrestricted abortions, from conception to live birth” and “nullify long standing Missouri law protecting the right to life.”

A Cole County judge rewrote the summaries, and the Western District Court of Appeals largely upheld those descriptions that were generally more favorable to Missourians for Constitutional Freedom. Among other things, the appeals court said the initiatives would “establish a right to make decisions about reproductive health care, including abortion and contraceptives, with any governmental interference presumed invalid” and “remove Missouri’s ban on abortion.”

Ashcroft appealed the ruling, but the Supreme Court decided not to consider it. The court also denied transfer of a separate case from abortion rights proponents challenging state Auditor Scott Fitzpatrick’s fiscal estimate of the initiatives.

“The courts' repeated rejection of the Secretary of State's arguments verify that his case has no legal bearing but, instead, shows he will sacrifice Missourians' constitutional rights to gain the support and funding of special interest organizations to advance his political career,” said Tom Bastain, a spokesman for the ACLU of Missouri.

In a statement, Ashcroft said “we stand by our language —it fairly and accurately reflects the scope and magnitude of each petition."

“My responsibility as secretary of state is to make sure the people of Missouri have ballot language that they can understand and trust," Ashcroft said. "If these petitions make it to the ballot, the people will decide. I will continue to do everything in my power to make sure Missourians know the truth.”

Monday’s denial of Ashcroft’s appeals effectively ends a lengthy legal battle that chewed up time for Missourians for Constitutional Freedom to gather the roughly 171,000 signatures needed to place one of the initiatives on the ballot.

“The Missouri Supreme Court has upheld the people's democratic right to a fair initiative petition process and their right to make their voices heard to demand access to abortion,” said Mallory Schwarz of Abortion Action Missouri.

The group’s proposals range from allowing abortions up to 24 weeks of pregnancy or up until fetal viability to one initiative that does not specify a gestational limit on having the procedure. Some abortion rights groups, including Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, are pushing for an initiative with as few restrictions as possible.

Whatever proponents decide, they’ll have until May to gather the necessary signatures.

“Ashcroft has intentionally sabotaged this process over the past nine months,” Schwarz said. “And now due to his actions, any campaign is left to evaluate the damage and see what is possible to move forward on this timeline that should have been done six months ago.”

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 is photographed on Sept. 27 in her home in University City. Corley, who identifies as a Republican, is leading the effort on a 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.

Competing campaign begins signature gathering process

The court decisions come as another group, the Missouri Women and Family Research Fund, began gathering signatures for an initiative that would scale back Missouri’s abortion ban.

That group’s measure would legalize abortion up to 12 weeks of pregnancy. It would, among other things, create exceptions in the case of rape, incest, fatal fetal abnormalities and risks to health or safety of the mother. And the measure would protect women and doctors from any criminal or civil liabilities.

The rape, incest and fatal fetal abnormality exceptions would extend until fetal viability. There is no gestational limit for the health and safety exception.

“It’s not pro-life to say parents can’t help their child if she’s raped,” said Jamie Corley, the executive director of the Missouri Women and Family Research Fund. “It’s not pro-life to criminalize and shame women. It’s not pro-life to sit idle while the abortion ban wreaks havoc on Missouri’s maternal health care system.”

Corley is also challenging Ashcroft’s ballot summary of her initiative. But a lawyer representing her in that case, Chuck Hatfield, said there is court precedent allowing groups to gather and retain signatures — even if a court rewrites the ballot summary. Corley is suing over the cost estimate as well.

Some abortion rights groups have assailed Corley’s initiatives as inadequate, with Schwarz adding that the measure is “not good policy, and they won't protect the people who need the most support.”

Some abortion rights opponents have argued that Corley’s initiatives are more expansive than advertised.

Corley has pointed to polling that her group commissioned showing bipartisan support for many components of her group’s initiative.

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