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Missouri abortion rights advocates launch another, more expansive, legalization push

Griffin Vrieswiyk, 28, of Tower Grove, holds up a sign advocating for abortion right
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Hundreds of demonstrators gather to advocate for abortion rights in May 2022 at the Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse in downtown St. Louis.

Updated at 3:30 p.m. on Thursday with more comments from Missourians for Constitutional Freedom proponents:

Another group of Missouri abortion rights advocates will begin gathering signatures for an initiative ballot petition to strike down the state’s ban on most abortions.

Backers of the proposal will have a short time frame to gather the roughly 171,000 signatures needed to put the measure on either the August or November ballot. Abortion rights proponents are facing headwinds from the legislature as well as a more modest initiative petition effort to legalize the procedure.

“This amendment is our chance to end Missouri's cruel abortion ban and its devastating effects,” said Mallory Schwarz of Abortion Action Missouri.

The group Missourians for Constitutional Freedom announced Thursday it will circulate a petition in support of legalizing abortion up to fetal viability. Currently, abortion is banned in Missouri with the exception of medical emergencies.

In the proposal, fetal viability is defined as the point in pregnancy when, "in the good faith judgment of a treating health care professional and based on the particular facts of the case, there is a significant likelihood of the fetus’ sustained survival outside the uterus without the application of extraordinary medical measures.”

The amendment would also bar state government from infringing on someone’s right to “reproductive freedom,” which includes but is not limited to “prenatal care, postpartum care, birth control, abortion care, miscarriage care, and respectful birthing conditions.”

"Politicians in Jefferson City are endangering the lives and well-being of the patients I care for, plain and simple,” said Dr. Iman Alsaden, an adviser to Missourians for Constitutional Freedom and chief medical officer for Planned Parenthood Great Plains. “Missouri's cruel and restrictive ban on abortion is tying the hands of doctors and preventing necessary care. Today, Missourians are taking a critical step to make their own medical decisions and kick politicians out of the exam room."

In addition to Planned Parenthood Great Plains, supporters of Missourians for Constitutional Freedom include Abortion Action Missouri, the ACLU of Missouri and Advocates of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri.

"I have always trusted all patients to make decisions that are best for their unique situations and lives,” Alsaden said. “As a Missourian, I’m proud to join with other providers, advocates and patients to end the harm caused by Missouri’s abortion ban."

If any measure makes it to the ballot, it will have organized opposition. Several groups opposed to abortion rights have pledged to fight any loosening of the current ban.

“Out-of-state extremists pushing Big Abortion’s agenda are intent on using the initiative petition process to reverse all the pro-life work our state has undertaken to protect the dignity of life, safety of women and parental rights,” said Stephanie Bell, a spokeswoman for the group Missouri Stands with Women that’s been formed to oppose any abortion legalization measure.

Voters take to the polls in the early hours of the morning on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022, during the 2022 Midterm Elections at Ladue City Hall in Ladue.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Missourians could vote on the abortion legalization initiative in August or November — if proponents get enough signatures.

Missouri’s abortion rights advocates have been talking about pushing for a ballot initiative legalizing abortion ever since the overturning of Roe v. Wade initiated the state’s “trigger law” that banned the procedure.

But Missourians for Constitutional Freedom went through a series of legal hurdles last year.

One case featured an unusual dispute between two GOP statewide officials, Auditor Scott Fitzpatrick and Attorney General Andrew Bailey, over the estimated cost of the possible initiatives. Once that was resolved, the group sued Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft over how the measure would be described to voters — a legal saga that abortion rights proponents effectively won.

“ I think Missourians have been very clear over the past 18 months since the Dobbs decision came down and a total abortion ban went into place that they do not support this political intrusion in their lives. Missourians do not support this abortion ban,” Schwarz said.

There was internal disagreement about whether any abortion initiative should include a gestational week limit on when someone could have an abortion. Some, including Colleen McNicholas, chief medical officer of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Regional and Southwest Missouri, argued that such limits were arbitrary and not supported by scientific evidence.

Alsaden said in a Thursday morning press conference with reporters that "in these large movements, there have always been areas of disagreement."

"And while there have been disagreements between providers and Missouri, about how to get to our goals, let me assure you that our collective goal is always to ensure that no matter who you are, you can always get the abortion care that you need, without barrier delay in your community," Alsaden said. "And I think that's every abortion providers goal everywhere."

Alsaden said that Planned Parenthood facilities in Kansas are currently seeing many patients from states like Missouri and Texas, which have restrictive abortion laws. She added "most of these patients, if not all, would have their rights restored by a fetal viability standard."

"I think all of us doctors do have the same goal, which is to restore the basic human rights of our patients that have been taken away by the government," Alsaden said.

And there was another curveball last year: GOP political operative Jamie Corley launched a more modest abortion legalization effort that would allow for the procedure up to 12 weeks of pregnancy as well as in the cases of rape, incest and fatal fetal abnormalities and for the health or safety of the mother.

While those initiatives are also engaged in legal challenges over the ballot summary language, Corley’s group started circulating petitions last year.

There’s also been an effort in the Missouri legislature to place a measure before voters raising the threshold to amend the state’s constitution – which, if passed in August, could make a November abortion legalization effort harder to pass. But it’s unclear whether lawmakers will follow through with that plan, especially when a similar proposal was rejected by voters in Ohio.

Abortion rights advocates have been buoyed that other states, such as Kansas and Ohio, have either rejected ballot items restricting abortion or have enshrined abortion protections in their constitution.

And even though backers of the initiative have a short window to collect signatures, they contend backlash against Missouri’s abortion ban is strong enough to help them meet the May deadline. On Thursday afternoon, the Missouri Ethics Commission published data showing Missourians for Constitutional Freedom received more than $644,000 donations of $5,000 or more on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week.

While noting that getting the signatures in a short amount of time won’t be easy, Schwarz said she expects Missourians to be enthusiastic about the launch of the initiative.

“And I am so excited today to be able to announce and bring our state into this fight because they're ready,” she added.

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