Tuesday morning, thousands of Missourians — many of them from the St. Louis area — are following a decades-old tradition and boarding buses for an all-night bus ride to Washington.
On Wednesday, the Missouri contingent will join tens of thousands of others from around the country for the annual March for Life in the nation’s capital to protest the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing most abortions.
But despite the trek, most of the action is back in Missouri and in other socially conservative states where reproductive rights have been fought over for decades.
This legislative session is no different.
Pam Fichter, president of Missouri Right to Life — the state’s most visible anti-abortion group — said the aim of numerous proposed new restrictions is to provide “more protection for women and their unborn children.”
Paula Gianino, chief executive of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, said that abortion opponents are engaged in “a relentless attack on women in this state’’ to curb their access to reproductive services.
The ongoing fight comes as the number of abortions in Missouri continues to drop.
A variety of bills have been introduced this session in the General Assembly, where abortion opponents hold a hefty majority in both chambers. Among them are measures to:
- Expand Missouri’s waiting period for an abortion from 24 hours to 72 hours.
- Require that a woman undergo, and view, an ultrasound performed before the 24-hour waiting period.
- Mandate that state and federal laws be interpreted so that alternative-to-abortion agencies and their staff and officers are allowed to “freely assemble and to freely engage in religious practices and speech without governmental interference.”
- Require that both custodial parents be informed before a minor can obtain an abortion. Now, only one parent needs to be notified.
- Allow medical personnel to decline to participate in any "specified medical procedures or research that violate his or her conscience" without fear of prosecution or losing their job.
- Require the Missouri Department of Health to conduct at least four unannounced inspections a year of any abortion clinic.
St. Louis clinic is state's only abortion facility
The Health Department measure, House Bill 1478, is Missouri Right to Life’s top priority for this session, Fichter said.
The bill's target is Missouri’s only current clinic, which is operated in St. Louis by Planned Parenthood of Greater St. Louis and Southwest Missouri.
The clinic performs about 6,000 early and mid-term abortions a year. Gianino emphasizes that’s a fraction of the medical services that Planned Parenthood's regional network of health clinics provide to about 60,000 patients annually.
On Saturday, the clinic was surrounded by abortion opponents as part of an annual silent vigil organized by the St. Louis Archdiocese after the annual Mass at the Cathedral to highlight the Catholic Church's opposition to abortion and contraception.
Fichter said the measure requiring more state inspections is an attempt “to provide more oversight and accountability” for a clinic that she says is poorly operated and maintained.
Planned Parenthood chief executive Paula Gianino said the clinic is well maintained and that the Health Department already has the power to drop in any time for unannounced inspections.
No other surgical facility in the state faces such scrutiny, Gianino said, emphasizing what she sees as the real agenda. Opponents of reproductive rights, she said, are “relentless in trying to take away access to women’s health services.”
Fichter is optimistic about the prospects of this year’s legislative agenda because “last year was one of the best legislative sessions that we’ve ever had.”
Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat who generally backs abortion rights, continued his practice of allowing some abortion restrictions to become law without his signature. In 2013, that’s what happened to HB 400, a bill that requires that the prescribing physician be present when a woman is administered RU-486, a drug that induces an abortion.
Gianino, meanwhile, says reproductive-rights supporters “are gearing up for another very bad year.”
Planned Parenthood opposes longer waiting period
Increasing the state’s waiting period for 72 hours, she said, wouldn’t reduce the number of abortions but “could force a more complicated procedure’’ because a woman’s pregnancy would be further along.
“In every state that has passed longer waiting-period laws,’’ Gianino said, the number of abortions has not declined.
Some Missouri women seeking abortions already have to travel to other states, she said, because of Missouri’s two-year-old law barring most abortions after 20 weeks. The result has meant that women with late-term complications in their pregnancies, such as discovering fetal abnormalities, must go to other states— such as Illinois — to have abortions.
Gianino said the annual battle in Missouri over abortion restrictions runs counter to the public’s sentiment, especially measures that seek to curb women’s access to contraceptives.
Despite that backdrop, Planned Parenthood has its own goals for this legislative session. Chief among them, said Gianino, is pressing for expansion of the state’s Medicaid program, as sought by the federal Affordable Care Act. As called for by the federal law, the expansion would add at least 200,000 Missourians to the state’s rolls.
Gianino said the expansion would provide needed health-care services, including family planning, for tens of thousands of poor Missouri women.
Missouri Right to Life has been an outspoken critic of the Affordable Care Act because of various provisions allowing access to abortion and contraceptive services. That opposition is among the reasons Missouri legislators have opposed the law's health insurance exchanges and any expansion of Medicaid.
Overall, Fichter emphasized that her camp will not rest as long as “abortions are still legal.”