Can a woman who disagrees that life begins at conception exempt herself from Missouri’s informed consent laws around abortion?
The state Supreme Court is considering that question following oral arguments on Tuesday. But first, they have to consider whether the woman, identified as Mary Doe in court documents, has made a strong enough legal argument to avoid having the case thrown out.
Doe, who is from Greene County, in southwest Missouri, became pregnant in 2015 and made arrangements to have an abortion. Knowing that she would have to wait 72 hours to undergo the procedure, she worked to be able to afford a hotel room in St. Louis. At the time, Planned Parenthood in St. Louis was the only clinic in the state providing abortions.
In addition to the 72-hour waiting period, Missouri’s informed consent law requires a woman to review a pamphlet about fetal development, including language that says life begins at conception. The woman must also be offered the chance to see an ultrasound and hear the baby’s heartbeat.
Doe, a member of the Satanic Temple, brought with her a letter that said reviewing the booklet violated her religious beliefs, and sued when she could not get the abortion on demand. The Temple is a self-described political activist group and religious organization that promotes science and social justice.
“In my heart and soul, this is tissue,” said James McNaughton, Doe’s attorney. “Spare me the book, spare me the ultrasound, spare me the waiting period, I would like to have a medical procedure today. Planned Parenthood, as they were required to do under the law said, ‘sorry, we can’t do that.’”
That refusal, McNaughton said, pushed Doe into a take-it-or-leave-it scenario.
“She either gets her medical procedure, or she proceeds to subject herself to the informed consent laws in a manner that is inconsistent with her religious beliefs,” he said. Those beliefs, outlined in court briefs, include the idea that a non-viable fetus is not a separate human being, and that Doe must make decisions based on science.
Doe was able to get the abortion, McNaughton said — it was the delay that violated her rights.
A lower-court judge threw the case out in December 2016, writing that none of the requirements of the informed consent law forced Doe to perform any act prohibited by her religious beliefs, which is the standard under the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Attorneys for the state encouraged the Supreme Court judges to see that as the correct decision.
“The courts have insisted on a careful and specific and precise articulation of what you are saying is actually restricted by the state to prevent what we essentially have here,” said John Sauer, the state solicitor general. “There’s no allegation that she’s a bad believer because she waited 72 hours before having an abortion. Her allegation is that the state is a bad believer under her particular religious beliefs.”
An appeals court panel is weighing the same issues at the federal level. A U.S. district judge dismissed that case in 2016, saying “Plaintiff Doe is not now pregnant, there is no guarantee that she will become pregnant in the future, and that if she does, she will seek an abortion” and therefore there was no reason to throw out the laws.
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