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Government, Politics & Issues

40 years later, local divide over Roe vs. Wade remains stark; Girl Scouts a new target

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 22, 2013 - On the 40th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing most abortions, two of Missouri’s leaders in the battle agree on two points:

  • The November elections were a significant setback to the efforts of opponents to outlaw abortion and overturn 1973’s decision, Roe vs. Wade.
  • The fight isn’t over.

“We don’t accept defeat. We’re not going away,” said Pam Fichter, president of Missouri Right to Life, the state’s largest group opposing abortion, certain types of contraception and embryonic stem-cell research.
Fichter called the election results “very disappointing,” particularly the re-election of President Barack Obama and Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, two Democrats who support reproductive rights.

Right to Life had backed Republican U.S. Senate nominee Todd Akin, who Fichter said had been unfairly maligned for his comments about "legitimate rape." Akin lost badly to U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who had highlighted her support of reproductive rights.

But Paula Gianino, president of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, said such victories showed “the American public has spoken loudly and clearly. They’re tired of continued attacks on women’s health care and access to birth control.”

Still, both camps are focusing less on the past and more on the future.

And when it comes to the Missouri General Assembly, anti-abortion groups are in an undisputedly stronger position.

Like-minded Republicans hold veto-proof margins in the state House and Senate, which Fichter hopes will bolster her side’s chances of pressing a new round of legislation this session dealing with reproductive issues.

New anti-abortion targets: webcams and Girl Scouts

The new proposals would include a measure barring abortion facilities from using “web cams” or Skype for communications between physicians and patients before a procedure. Fichter has no evidence of such internet use in Missouri, but she said such a ban would be “proactive.”

Social conservatives also plan to make a renewed effort to win legislative approval of a “conscience clause” to allow medical professionals to decline to provide services for abortions, contraception, sterilization “that is not medically necessary,” or to participate in certain types of stem-cell research.

Similar legislation has been filed for pharmacies to allow them to decline to provide “any drug or device.”

Meanwhile, Gianino said Planned Parenthood and its allies have one primary objective this legislative session: “to help the governor get the Medicaid expansion passed.”

Gianino said the expansion, recommended by the federal Affordable Care Act, would transform the lives of thousands of uninsured Missourians. In addition, the provisions “will help women have access to preventative services” and give young men access to treatment for sexually transmitted diseases.

Gianino contended that opponents of reproductive rights, especially since conservatives' election wins in 2010, have focused on “shaming women” and denying them access to services.

She took note of a series of restrictions that Missouri Right to Life has gotten through the state General Assembly in recent years. “They haven’t used one penny of their resources to expand access to birth control,” she said.

Fichter replied that the focus on contraception was “a red herring” meant to divert the public’s attention from the reality of abortion. She asked, “If it is a human being, when is it OK to kill it?”

Both sides note that the number of women in Missouri obtaining abortions continues to decline, although they disagree on the reasons.

The state's latest figures show that 9,796 women obtained abortions in 2010 -- almost half the number in 1990 (17,947) and well below the state's peak in 1980 of more than 21,000.

Fichter credits abortion opponents' success in enacting more restrictions plus a change of heart among the public.

Gianino credits greater access to contraceptives and over-the-counter availability of "emergency contraception,'' which prevents pregnancy if taken within days after unprotected sex.

Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri operates the only abortion facility in Missouri. Gianino said that its patient numbers have been fairly stable for years because of the closure of other clinics in Missouri and nearby states. About one-fifth of the women served by Planned Parenthood here come from out of state, she said.

Girl Scouts of America under fire

In recent weeks, Missouri Right to Life has generated attention with its public criticism of the Girl Scouts. The state anti-abortion group also has approved a resolution that “urges citizens to consider carefully whether to participate in Girl Scouts or support them in any way.”

The statement says the action was taken “because Girl Scouts USA promotes, both directly and indirectly through other organizations, policies and behaviors clearly contradictory to the goals and purposes of Missouri Right to Life.”

At issue, Fichter said, is that the Girl Scouts of America “is the largest member organization of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts,” which anti-abortion groups contend is a supporter of reproductive rights, including abortion. Some Girl Scout groups also have ties with their local Planned Parenthood offices, she said.

Officials with the Girl Scouts of Eastern Missouri say that's absolutely not the case with their operation. "The Girl Scouts of Eastern Missouri has never partnered with Planned Parenthood and has no plans to,'' said chief communications officer Kathryn Kiefer. "We do not take positions on birth control or abortion."

The regional Girl Scouts chief executive Donna Martin has posted a more detailed statement on the organization's web site, under the headline "The Truth of the Matter," that also emphasizes its lack of ties to Planned Parenthood.

Kiefer said that local Girl Scout officials had asked to meet with Missouri Right to Life's officials several weeks ago before the resolution was passed. Right to Life declined, she said.

Fichter replied that she had no record of such a meeting request. "We would have been happy to meet with them," she said. "We did submit a list of very specific questions which they agreed ahead of time to answer, but instead issued the general statement that is on their website."

Fichter also points to Missouri Right to Life's website, where the group details its concerns about the Girl Scouts,.

Planned Parenthood's Gianino noted that she had once been a Brownie and called any attempt to tie Girl Scouts to the abortion debate “despicable.”

Roe vs. Wade commemorations

Because of Monday’s presidential inauguration, abortion opponents have delayed until Friday the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., to protest the 1973 Supreme Court decision. Some local events have been delayed as well.

Hundreds of Missourians are slated to show up early Thursday on the St. Louis riverfront to board buses for the nation’s capital. Fichter said a record crowd is predicted for the Washington gathering.

While in Washington, Missouri abortion opponents will meet on Friday with like-minded members of the state's congressional delegation.

Last Saturday a special Mass was said at the St. Louis Cathedral. Afterward, people marched in a procession to Planned Parenthood’s nearby complex, which includes the state’s only abortion clinic.

Thursday evening, the region’s Freedom of Choice Council will hold a commemorative event at the Jewish Central Reform Congregation, 5020 Waterman Boulevard.

(UPDATE) For the most part, Missouri's legislators in Washington -- including the seven Republicans who all say they oppose abortion -- said little publicly about Tuesday's anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling.

The exceptions included the two women Republicans -- Vicky Hartzler of Harrisonville and Ann Wagner of Ballwin. Both issued floor statements decrying the court decision and its aftermath.

"Since the 1973 decision, 55 million boys and girls have been aborted, denied the chance to be our siblings, playmates, friends and peers," Hartzler said. "We mourn their loss and we mourn the deep pain and confusion that abortion has inflicted upon women, men, and their families."

Wagner cited the same number of abortions, and added, "Since I was sworn into Congress nearly three weeks ago, I have had the opportunity to sign onto a couple pieces of pro-life legislation. I believe that it is important that we prevent any taxpayer dollars from going to abortions or organizations that perform abortions.

“I believe in the sanctity of life," she continued. "I support the efforts to reduce the number of abortions in this country and will work not only to make abortion illegal but unthinkable."

The most outspoken Democrat in Washington, when it came reproductive rights, was arguably the president. In a statement, Obama said, in part, "On the 40th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, we reaffirm its historic commitment to protect the health and reproductive freedom of women across this country and stand by its guiding principle: that government should not intrude on our most private family matters, and women should be able to make their own choices about their bodies and their health care."

The debate continues.

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