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On the Trail, an occasional column by St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jason Rosenbaum, takes an analytical look at politics and policy across Missouri.

On the trail Texas fracas familiar for veterans of Missouri's abortion battles

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 1, 2013: Last week’s spectacle in the Texas Senate got national attention, but some Missouri politicos may have experienced déjà vu while watching a livestream of Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis’ filibuster against an abortion bill.

That includes Senate Minority Leader Jolie Justus, a Kansas City Democrat who followed what she dubbed a "fascinating" situation.

“I hardly ever watch the evening news,” said Justus in a telephone interview. “But I happened to flip it on, and they were referring to (the Texas law) as ‘the most restrictive abortion law in the country.’ I’m like ‘well, those are all our laws.’”

Indeed Missouri already had adopted similar -- although not identical -- provisions in the Texas bill, including a ban on abortion after 20 weeks if the fetus is viable and the requirement that doctors have clinical privileges to provide OB/GYN care at a hospital located within 30 miles of clinic.

And the Texas bill shares other commonalities with another piece of Missouri legislation, which became law in 2007. Consider:

  • Critics argued that both bills would lead to the closure of abortion clinics, while proponents said they would keep women safe.
  • Both pieces of legislation faced last-minute filibusters from proponents of abortion rights.
  • And both skirmishes featured some unusual -- and controversial -- parliamentary maneuvers.

But a key difference was the outcome: While Davis and her Democratic colleagues managed – at least temporarily – to block the Texas legislation, the Missouri bill ended up signed into law by Gov. Matt Blunt. And it took longer than a news cycle to settle the Missouri legislation.

Parliamentary maneuver

The Missouri abortion bill – known as HB 1055 – was debated during a particularly turbulent time in the state’s legislative history. 

Republicans controlled the General Assembly and the governor’s office, leaving Senate Democrats often engaged in epic – and, at times, bitter – battles to stop bills from getting to Blunt’s desk. 

The Missouri Senate’s filibuster rules gave Democrats some leverage. While Davis had to speak without assistance or breaks and had to stay on topic, Missouri senators can filibuster in groups and talk about anything to fritter away time. 

While numerous bills were filibustered in 2007, the skirmish over HB 1055 may have been most memorable. The bill – handled by then-Rep. Therese Sander, R-Moberly, and then-Sen. Delbert Scott, R-Lowry City – required any facility that performs second- or third-trimester abortions or at least five first-trimester abortions a month to conform to the standards of "ambulatory surgery centers." It also banned Planned Parenthood from teaching sex education and gave schools the option to teach abstinence-only education.

“If you’re going to have a surgical procedure, it makes sense to have the quality controls that we’ve already established for ambulatory surgical centers,” said Scott, who is now the president of the Kansas City College and Bible School. “I think that’s common sense.”

While Scott’s bill wouldn’t have affected Planned Parenthood’s clinic in St. Louis, it could have required the agency’s Columbia facility to undergo an expensive renovation.

At the time, Justus and other Democrats said that the bill would shut down the Columbia clinic and force rural Missourians to drive hundreds of miles to either St. Louis or Overland Park, Kansas, for an abortion. So like Davis in Texas, Senate Democrats filibustered.

Justus – who in 2007 was in her first year in the Missouri Senate – said she decided to talk things through with Scott, adding “but the negotiations broke down with Delbert."

Justus said the Democrats were willing to stand down if the Republicans removed the abstinence-only provision. They also didn’t want the ambulatory surgical center requirement to apply to clinics that offered medical abortions, or RU-486.

“We struck that deal,” said Justus, adding that they also agreed to stop filibustering a constitutional amendment to make English the state's official language.

Republican leadership, though, scuttled that deal. And Scott used a parliamentary maneuver known as a “previous question” motion to end the filibusters on HB 1055 and the English-only amendment. 

After effects

Planned Parenthood filed a lawsuit against the bill shortly after Blunt signed it into law. It was not settled until May 2010.

Planned Parenthood lobbyist Michelle Trupiano called the settlement "successful."

“The state was required to grant us waivers so we did not have to adhere to all of the requirements,” Trupiano said. “In Columbia, we did have to make some substantial changes to our facility to meet the requirements. We did have to do some significant remodeling. But for some of the more costly changes, they were forced to give us a waiver for them." 

Scott said that Chris Koster, who at the time of the settlement had become attorney general and a Democrat, “was extremely fair in the negotiations.” Scott was especially heartened that Koster directed one of his top aides – former Cass County Judge Joe Dandurand – to be in charge of the settlement.

“Dandurand is a pro-life Catholic,” Scott said. “From my standpoint as the sponsor of the bill, I was very pleased with the straight dealing that Koster’s office did in putting Dandurand in charge of it. I thought we got a settlement that was really fair.”

Still, Trupiano said, the law "makes it more difficult for a new abortion provider to open." And, she added, "It makes it more difficult for a provider to provide non-surgical medication abortion when there’s no surgery involved. They’re required to become a surgical center."

HB 1055's political fallout was just as long-lasting. Senators came to re-examine their use of the "previous question" manuever and agreed in 2008 not to "previous question" legislation any more. While there's been some close calls, the agreement has held up.

One person who agreed to the deal in 2008 was Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey. "By not PQing legislation, I think it gives each standing senator more influence over policy," he said in May. "So I think it’s kind of an unwritten understanding that we’d rather not go there. Because ultimately, it diminishes each senator’s effect on policy."

Loud and clear?

While HB 1055 had some commonalities with the Texas bill, it got little or no national media coverage. And both Scott and Justus have theories on why.

“One of the major reasons that Texas got a lot of attention was that a good-looking female was the filibusterer. And it was very well organized through social media,” Scott said, adding that the Texas Senate's filibuster rules added to the intrigue.

Scott also said Texas Republicans badly blundered.

"The fact that they left it until the last hours of session appeared to me to be a major, major blunder in leadership," he said. "I can tell you that with certainty that you don’t wait until last minute unless you have the tools in the toolbox to shut it down."

Justus said the Texas’ bill grabbed national attention for many reasons, including what she called "the scope of the bill."

“The opponents of abortion in Missouri have been doing this work incrementally and just coming back every year and asking for a little bit more," Justus said. "And (Texas) seems to be one big sweeping bill. Then, No. 2, was the social media aspect and the fact that people are talking about it. And then, of course, the mainstream media pick it up because everybody else is talking about it. But then No. 3, I think is the story – the Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the woman standing in pink tennis shoes for 13 hours.”

But Justus also said that the 2012 campaign may have played a role, too, especially since former U.S. Rep. Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” comments elevated the issue of abortion rights into the national consciousness.

“I’m hoping that every time there’s an incident like what happened in Texas that it does shine a light on the fact that we’re really not talking about the bigger issue – which is maybe we need fewer people to get pregnant,” she added. “And maybe we can start to shift the conversation.”

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.

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

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