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With GOP legislative majority and Democratic governor, abortion bills this session may be in limbo

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 1, 2009 - Both opponents and foes of abortion rights in Missouri are pressing forward with their agendas in the midst of a guard change in the governor's mansion.

But election of Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, and solid Republican majorities in the Legislature have left both sides of the debate unsure about whether any more abortion restrictions will be enacted over the next few years.

Susan Klein, the legislative liaison for Missouri Right to Life, described her group's 2009 legislative agenda. Among its priorities is resurrecting a measure that failed in the last legislative session. Last year's bill would have required women to view an ultrasound before undergoing an abortion and to be told that the unborn feel pain at certain points of a pregnancy. It also would have criminalized the act of "coercing" an abortion.

In December, Rep. Cynthia Davis, R-O'Fallon, pre-filed a similar bill in the Missouri House.

"So that is all-encompassing," Klein said. "It really expands our informed consent law that was passed back in 2003."

Klein also said that she hoped the legislature would pass a resolution opposing the federal Freedom of Choice Act. Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Lee's Summit, who is often at the forefront of issues regarding abortion restrictions, introduced the resolution in the Senate last Thursday.

Proponents of abortion rights are also following through with their agenda as well. Michelle Trupiano, lobbyist for Missouri's branch of Planned Parenthood, said her group will push for emergency contraception to be available in emergency rooms at hospitals. "It is about making sure that sexual assualt survivors get emergency contraceptions in the ER," said Trupiano.

Sen. Robin Wright-Jones, D-St Louis, filed a bill dealing with that issue.

Trupiano also want to make it possible for groups like Planned Parenthood to teach or be involved in sex education programs in schools, from which they are currently excluded. She also wants to remove the option for schools to teach abstience-only sex education, a measure that was signed into law in 2007.

Trupiano said the atmosphere has improved since November when Nixon, who supports abortion rights, was elected governor. "We do feel a little bit more confident," Trupiano said.

With Nixon in office, Bartle said that the landscape is tougher now for abortion foes. "These are not great times for the cause in legislatures," he said. "However, this is a wonderful time for us to redouble the effort in communicating with citizens in our state who are in favor of placing common sense restrictions on abortion or making abortion illegal."

One reason for optimism is that abortion opponents form a potential majority in the legislature, one that could overturn Nixon's veto. Two-thirds of each chamber must vote to override a governor's veto.

Republicans control both chambers of the General Assembly by solid margins, but some Senate Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Victor Callahan, D-Independence, oppose abortion.

While the GOP does not have enough members to overturn a veto in the House, House Minority Leader Paul LeVota, D-Independence, estimated that a few dozen members of the House Democratic Caucus oppose abortion as well.

"Our numbers in the legislature are strong," said Klein. "And we do look forward to passing at least one -- if not more -- pieces of pro-life legislation (a year). So we would hope that Gov. Nixon would look at it from a perspective of protecting women and their babies in the state of Missouri."

But Republican leaders in the General Assembly aren't ready to say whether there is rock-solid support to overturn a veto.

House Speaker Ron Richard, R-Joplin, said he was not sure if enough anti-abortion Democrats would vote to overturn a veto by Nixon. Yet, he said that won't stop his caucus from seeking to send legislation restricting abortion to Nixon's desk. He did not elaborate when asked about specific policy initiatives he wants to see enacted.

"I think it'd be a close vote," Richard said when asked whether enough Democrats would cross over to overturn Nixon's veto. "We may try."

In the Senate, Democrats supportive of abortion rights would likely filibuster any bill restricting abortion. Sen. Jeff Smith, D-St. Louis, said the legislative process would slow down if abortion restrictions came down the legislative pike. He said he would join lawmakers such as Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City, Sen. Joan Bray, D-University City, and Sen. Rita Days, D-St. Louis County, in a filibuster.

In a time when economic issues loom large, Smith said it isn't appropriate to spend the legislature's time debating divisive social issues.

"Given the number of Missourians who lack health insurance and are out of work right now, I don't think they're going to have a lot of patience with a state Senate that spends hour after hour after hour when we know time is scarce," Smith said.

Smith also said he hoped that Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, and Senate Majority Leader Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, were "pragmatic" and "moderate" enough to avoid fights over social issues when economic problems are dominant.

For his part, Engler said he was planning to bring up bills that restrict abortion this session, adding it would be up to Nixon to wield the veto pen or not. A focus on the economy would not be a factor in deciding whether abortion restrictions get heard, he added.

"If it was completely eliminating abortion, that may be different," Engler said. "But putting reasonable restrictions on it will always be in this body a reasonable legislative piece.... It will be a priority as long as we have the makeup of the Senate and have the vast majority being pro-life legislators."

Both of Nixon's Democratic predecessors in the governor's office -- Gov. Mel Carnahan and Gov. Bob Holden -- opted to veto legislation restricting abortion. Carnahan vetoed a bill banning so-called "late-term" abortions and Holden vetoed a bill mandating a 24-hour waiting period on the procedure. The legislature overturned both vetoes.

Whether Nixon will follow the lead of those two is not clear. Nixon did not devote any space in his annual State of the State Address to the issue. That's a change from previous years, as Gov. Matt Blunt -- an abortion rights opponent -- often talked about the issue in his State of the State addresses.

Nixon spokesman Jack Cardetti said he couldn't speculate on whether Nixon would veto legislation restricting abortion. "The governor will look at legislation and act on it accordingly," Cardetti said. Declining to comment on Nixon's position on the "coerced" abortions pre-filed bill, another spokesman, Scott Holste, added that there are "hundreds" of bills out there, and the governor has not had a chance to review them all. 

George Connor, a political science professor at Missouri State University, said Nixon might not automatically oppose abortion restrictions coming out of the legislature. That's because most of the bills are incremental restrictions, as opposed to a wholesale ban on the procedure.

"I think depending on the level of restriction, even Nixon might have some reluctance to veto," Connor said.

Jason Rosenbaum, a fomer state government reporter for the Columbia Daily Tribune, contributes to Missouri Lawyers Weekly and KBIA radio in Columbia.

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

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