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Planned Parenthood, ACLU Sue To Overturn Missouri's 8-Week Abortion Ban

Maia Hayes joined dozens of abortion rights advocates downtown in protesting the potential shuttering of Missouri's last abortion provider. May 30, 2019
File photo I Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Dozens of abortion-rights advocates gathered downtown in May to protest the potential shuttering of Missouri's last abortion provider.

Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union are asking a federal judge to overturn a Missouri law banning most abortions at eight weeks of pregnancy. 

In a lawsuit filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Jefferson City, lawyers for the ACLU and Planned Parenthood Reproductive Health Services, the St. Louis clinic that provides abortion services, asked the court to overturn the law on the grounds that it is unconstitutional.

“Extreme legislators are really pushing to find any way possible to outlaw abortion in the state,” said Colleen McNicholas, chief medical officer of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri.

Among the defendants named in the lawsuit are Republican Gov. Mike Parson, Attorney General Eric Schmitt and Randall Williams, director of the state Department of Health and Senior Services.

The Republican-controlled Legislature passed HB 126 in May. Parson signed it over objections from abortion-rights activists, Democratic lawmakers and Republican megadonor David Humphreys.

Under the law, any provider that performs an abortion at the eight-week mark or later could be charged with a felony and face up to 15 years in prison. There are no exceptions for rape or incest in the law, scheduled to go into effect Aug. 28.

In their lawsuit, Planned Parenthood and the ACLU asked the court to keep Missouri from enforcing the law until the case is decided.

The lawsuit argues that the law violates a women’s constitutional right to an abortion. The landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling Roe v. Wade in 1973 legalized the procedure nationwide. A later court decision allowed states to prohibit abortions after fetuses reach an age they can survive outside the womb, which can be from 24 to 28 weeks.

Planned Parenthood physician, Dr. Colleen McNicholas, stands outside the clinic in St. Louis.
Credit File photo | Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio
Colleen McNicholas is medical director of Planned Parenthood St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri.

Pre-viability abortion bans have been and will continue to be found unconstitutional,” McNicholas said. 

The law also prohibits abortions based on a fetus’ race, gender or potential disability. Those provisions could also mean the law violates the U.S. Constitution, McNicholas said, because they make abortion less accessible. 

Opponents of the law say the eight-week ban essentially prohibits all abortions, since most women don’t know they’re pregnant until after that point. They also argue that the ban disproportionately affects poor people and people of color. 

Missouri’s ban is one of several sweeping anti-abortion laws recently passed by Republican-controlled legislatures. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey in May signed a law criminalizing all abortions except in cases in which the mother’s life is threatened or there is a severe fetal anomaly. The ACLU filed suit against the state shortly after. 

If the Missouri law is struck down, language in the measure would trigger another ban on abortions at 14 weeks. If that is overturned, the state would have an 18-week ban. If that’s struck down, Missouri would prohibit abortions after 20 weeks. If the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, the law would require the state to ban all abortions except for medical emergencies. 

That’s why the lawsuit is taking aim at the entire law, not just a single part of it, McNicholas said.

“The Bans will irreparably harm Plaintiffs and their patients by severely restricting access to pre-viability abortion care, preventing the vast majority of patients from obtaining the constitutionally protected medical care they seek,” the lawsuit claims. As a result, laywers wrote, that would prevent some women from accessing abortion entirely.

The lawsuit comes as Planned Parenthood Reproductive Health Services is trying to keep its license to offer abortions. If the clinic closes, the state will be without an abortion provider.

In May, Reproductive Health Servicessued state health officials, accusing them of unlawfully overstepping their authority and using facility licensing rules to close the clinic.

The clinic’s license was set to expire May 31, but a judge and a state hearing officer have kept it valid pending the resolution of the dispute.

Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft wants to raise the vote threshold needed to amend Missouri's Constitution.
Credit File photo I Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
The Office of Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft has held up a potential ballot initiative that would put the eight-week ban up to a statewide vote in 2020.

St. Louis Circuit Judge Michael Stelzer ruled Planned Parenthood must first take its case to the Administrative Hearing Commission, a nonpartisan state body that handles regulatory disputes. A commissioner has scheduled that hearing for October. 

A potential ballot initiative could result in putting the eight-week ban up to a statewide vote in 2020. But a petition from the ACLU was held up in Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft’s office. Ashcroft said he couldn’t approve the petition because of an “emergency clause” embedded in the law that put it into effect immediately. 

A judge ruled Ashcroft needed to release the petition, but with a month left, it’s unlikely the organization could collect the 100,000 signatures needed to force a referendum, lawyers from the ACLU have said. Demonstrations against Ashcroft are planned for Friday in Jefferson City, Springfield, Kansas City and St. Louis.

“All of these things are happening simultaneously, and now seems to be the right time to move forward with litigation,” McNicholas said. 

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @Petit_Smudge

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Sarah Fentem is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.