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Backer of limited Missouri abortion legalization measure shelves ballot effort

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 in her home in University City in September. Corley was leading an effort to allow 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.

A longtime GOP political operative who was pushing to create exceptions to the state’s abortion ban has ended her initiative ballot petition campaign.

Jamie Corley, head of the Missouri Women and Families Research Fund, proposed a ballot item that would allow for abortion up to 12 weeks of pregnancy as well as in the case of rape, incest, fatal fetal abnormalities, and health and safety of the mother. Currently, Missouri only allows abortions in the case of medical emergencies.

Corley’s initiative was notable for a few reasons. While most abortion rights activists are Democrats, Corley spent a number of years working for GOP members of Congress. She also positioned the measure as a middle ground proposal that would appeal to the state’s electorate.

But Corley said that the emergence of Missourians for Constitutional Freedom’s proposal that would legalize abortion up to fetal viability put her campaign in a bind. She said she had no intention of trying to split the vote or confuse voters, especially with a competing initiative gaining financial and organizational support.

“We had to make a decision about whether we want to continue pushing this forward in getting to the ballot,” Corley said. “Having two amendments on the ballot would pretty much guarantee both of them fail. And we genuinely don't want to see that — despite some people claiming I'm a Republican plant or an anti-abortion plant. That has never been our intention. So that's why we're pulling the amendment.”

Corley faced strong criticism from some abortion rights groups that contended her initiative would have made marginal changes to the state’s abortion ban, as well as on details of her initiative. For instance, some proponents of Missourians for Constitutional Freedom’s amendment questioned why someone should have to call into a crisis hotline in order to gain access to abortion services. Corley said her group believed that reporting requirements were needed for exceptions to be effective.

Corley’s initiative also received pushback from abortion rights opponents, who have no interest in scaling back the state’s abortion ban that went into effect after the demise of Roe v. Wade.

While Corley’s initiative was able to pay for polling and for an attorney to challenge the initiative’s ballot summary, it was raising significantly less money than Missourians for Constitutional Freedom, which has taken in roughly $3 million in large donations since mid-January.

“Doing something that's in the middle is hard, whether it's abortion, or you know, anything,” Corley said. “That other coalition is going to have the market on large outside funding and Democratic donors. And we were not going to fundraise from major Republican donors.”

Asked about Corley’s decision to end the effort to pass her initiative, Missourians for Constitutional Freedom’s Mallory Schwarz said, “We are proud to work with any Missourian who is ready to fight back and end Missouri’s ban.”

“Jamie’s comment and role has shown what we’ve long known: This is not a partisan issue. Missourians across the state opposed this ban. … It’s hard enough to get one measure on the ballot, and it’s going to take all of us in that one tent,” she added.

Senator Sandy Crawford, R-Buffalo, listens as Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, not pictured speak during a post-session press conference on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024, in Jefferson City. Senate Republican leadership has clashed with members of the Missouri Freedom Caucus holding up business.
Eric Lee
St. Louis Public Radio
State Sen. Sandy Crawford, R-Buffalo, listens as Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, speaks during a press conference on Jan. 25 in Jefferson City.

Trouble ahead for Republicans?

Corley said Missouri Republicans who support keeping the ban in place are providing ammunition for backers of abortion rights.

She pointed to how some Senate Republicans this week were defending keeping no exceptions for rape and incest in place. As the Missouri Independent reported on Wednesday, Sen. Sandy Crawford, R-Buffalo, said that while rape is “mentally taxing” — it does not an abortion.

“This is insane stuff,” Corley said.

While Corley said the lack of exceptions could be used in a messaging campaign to pass Missourians for Constitutional Freedom’s initiative later this year, she added that the group will have to appeal to Republican voters — including people who have moral or philosophical objections to abortion.

“It is an absolute prime state for an abortion amendment to pass. However, they have to get their messaging correct,” Corley said. “This is a conservative audience. It is not Michigan, it is not even Ohio. It is a totally different dynamic to run an abortion campaign in Missouri during a presidential election year.”

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