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Legislative session once again features debate over abortion and birth control

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 1, 2009 - On Saturday, groups that support abortion rights and legislators on both sides of the issue will hold a "town hall meeting'' in St. Louis to discuss preventative measures like sex education and accessible birth control.

The event will be held from 3 to 4:30 p.m. at St. Mark's Episcopal Church, 4712 Clifton Avenue, in St. Louis.

The scheduled participants include state Reps. Jacob Hummel, Vicki Englund, Bert Atkins and Tishaura Jones, all D-St. Louis, and a representative for state Rep. Cole McNary, R-Chesterfield.

"The goal of the meeting is to help our legislators understand why prevention is so important to reduce unintended pregnancies,'' said Alison Gee, vice president of public policy for Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region. The focus will not be on abortion, she added.

Saturday's town hall also caps a week in which abortion opponents succeeded in winning a state Senate panel's support for a provision that allows pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions for certain contraceptives or to provide over-the-counter access to women of legal age to "morning-after'' pills, also known as Plan B.

Before the session ends May 15, the anti-abortion camp also is pressing to get through the Legislature measures that add more requirements to the state's informed-consent law and create a new crime of "knowingly coercing a woman to seek or obtain an abortion."

(And then there's various efforts to block any state money for any research program deemed to be involved, now or in the future, in certain forms of embryonic stem-cell research allowed under federal law and protected in Missouri under Amendment 2. Many anti-abortion groups oppose any research using human embryos or that involve any sort of cloning. )

The activities by both sides reflect an eternal political truth in Missouri:

The state's roster of legislators may change, and the political party in charge can change. But the battle over abortions never goes away.

During the final weeks of Missouri's legislative sessions, it's virtually a given that there will be at least one floor fight -- and usually more -- over proposals aimed at restricting access to abortion in the state, and in some cases, making it harder to obtain certain birth control medications.

Some of those efforts are fueled by another given: abortion opponents continue to hold a majority in the state House and Senate.

However, abortion opponents have run into some obstacles this session. Most of this year's anti-abortion proposals have won House approval and are now in the Senate, where it's unclear if any will get through.

The chief reason, says anti-abortion activist Sam Lee: This year's Senate leaders have been more reluctant than their recent predecessors to use a parliamentary procedure -- called "moving the previous question" or PQ, for short -- to end filibusters or threatened filibusters on any controversial issue, including abortion.

However, abortion opponents have been heartened by the earmarking of about $2 million in federal stimulus money for state alternative-to-abortion services; that allocation already has been approved by the state House and has just been sent to the Senate.

That allocation is on top of $1.9 million that new Gov. Jay Nixon had inserted for such programs in his proposed budget, said Lee, head of Campaign Life Missouri, an anti-abortion lobbying group.

(Nixon, a Democrat, is a supporter of abortion rights but has been low key on that issue since taking office in January -- a fact noted by both sides.)

Earlier this week, abortion-rights supporters held a "lobby day'' on Tuesday, with about 200 gathering at the state Capitol to buttonhole various legislators. Abortion opponents had conducted similar lobbying efforts earlier in the session.

In recent years, abortion opponents have succeeded in passing new state laws that impose more restrictions on the few remaining abortion clinics in Missouri, bar abortion providers from any sort of involvement in sex education in public schools, and allow schools to drop instruction about contraceptives.

Saturday's town-hall reflects the counter-efforts in recent years by abortion-rights supporters, who have sought to shift the debate to abortion prevention. But Gee acknowledged some obstacles. Prevention bills didn't even get a hearing this session, she said.

As for Lee, he says that abortion opponents may still be adjusting to the fact that they no longer have a sympathetic governor like Nixon's predecessor, Republican Matt Blunt. Nixon may be avoiding any tangles on abortion, but he certainly isn't pressing for abortion restrictions like Blunt. Blunt made a point of emphasizing his anti-abortion views and even held a special session in 2005 that focused on anti-abortion measures. 

All that aside, Gee and Lee agree that this session's legislators have found at least a few hours -- like their predecessors for decades -- to do battle over abortion-related measures.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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