How Missouri made abortion nearly illegal
Former Missouri state Rep. Elijah Haahr distinctly remembers his parents protesting in front of clinics that provided abortions.
And when he was younger, he participated in marches against abortion rights — which is why the issue especially resonated with him when it came to the House floor.
“It’s rare that you get to move the needle on an issue that you grew up as a child believing was really important,” Haahr said.
Haahr was speaker of the House in 2019 when the legislature passed arguably the most important law restricting abortion rights in the state’s history. It contains language that would ban most abortions if Roe v. Wade is overturned — a prospect that seems increasingly likely after a draft of a U.S. Supreme Court majority opinion became public last week.
Some say that once Missouri’s so-called “trigger law” goes into effect, voters, even those who are comfortable with abortion restrictions, may change their voting behavior. And it could provide a jolt to the state’s U.S. Senate race later this year, especially since legalizing abortion on a federal level may be an avenue to roll back Missouri’s restrictions.
“This is the one issue that I’m voting on — hands down,” said Kansas City resident Taylor Hirth, a rape survivor who is outraged that the law doesn’t have exceptions for rape or incest. “I am just so emboldened by this fight. I am ready to fight. I am so sick of my rights being constantly trampled on.”
The road to the 2019 law
The law in question, which has been in federal litigation for years, contains language that would ban abortions with the exception of medical emergencies to save the mother.
The 2019 legislation passed after lawmakers who are opposed to abortion rights made significant policy gains. They were able to enact legislation that created waiting periods before women could obtain abortions — as well as creating what’s known as ambulatory surgical standards that required expensive repairs.
“If you look back historically, I think every step of the way Missouri has been at the forefront of the pro-life movement,” Haahr said. “And I think the actions we took in 2019 once again put us at the front of that line.”
Samuel Lee, director of Campaign Life Missouri, said the state was uniquely situated to respond to Roe v. Wade in the 1970s, pointing to large numbers of people who affiliated with religions, such as the Catholic Church and the Assemblies of God, that spoke out against legal abortion.
“There was activity from the beginning,” Lee said. “And there wasn’t in other states. It took awhile for them to build up.”
Both Lee and Haahr noted that the draft opinion may not be the final decision that the Supreme Court renders later this year. And like other Republicans, Haahr, an attorney, said he was dismayed that the draft was leaked in advance.
Maryland Heights resident Deborah Moulton, 67, remembers a time before Roe v. Wade when states like Missouri could make abortion illegal. She and other abortion-rights proponents have argued that the impending Supreme Court decision takes away fundamental rights that women have had for decades.
“I had a very physical reaction as well as an emotional one,” said Moulton about the news of the likely ruling.
Some have noted that in the event of Roe v. Wade being overturned, women could either travel to states like Illinois to get an abortion or use what’s known as “self-managed abortions,” which involve taking medicine to terminate a pregnancy. But Democratic lawmakers like House Minority Leader Crystal Quade expect legislation to start moving around those topics once the state’s trigger law goes into effect.
“Yes, we need to be prepared for that next fight,” said Quade, D-Springfield. “But the reality is where we are now in our state, because of the passage of the [2019 legislation], we are not going to have access to abortion coverage — even in the cases of rape or incest. And that is the fight that people need to be talking about right now.”
The lack of exceptions for rape or incest was arguably the most contentious part of the 2019 law. At the time, supporters of keeping that exception out, such as Sen. Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester, said that “we shouldn’t do another bad act because one bad act happened.”
And then-Rep. Holly Rehder, R-Scott County, said during the 2019 debate over legislation that “those in our family who have struggled and have come from the horrific crimes that we have just talked about, I’m glad they chose life.”
Hirth, though, said the prospect of someone who was raped having to give birth is completely unacceptable.
Hirth was raped in 2016. She said one of the assailants removed an internal birth control device during the attack, putting Hirth at an increased risk of getting pregnant. She took emergency contraception and did not become pregnant. (St. Louis Public Radio is identifying Hirth with her permission.)
“And I hands down would have gotten an abortion,” Hirth said. “There is no chance I would be carrying that man’s baby while he had raped me in front my daughter. The emotional toll that experience took on me, and then compound that with a potential pregnancy, would have just broken me.”
Hirth said the outcome of the 2019 law will not only inflict more trauma for rape and incest survivors, but will make abortions available only to those who are economically more stable and can, for instance, afford to travel and take off work.
“I am so flummoxed by the whole thing,” Hirth said. “We’ve got people planning marches. And I’m like, ‘I’m so sick of marching. I’m done marching.’ At this point, all I can do is vote. And I absolutely will be voting for people who are very vocally pro-choice and who are not afraid to make that a rally cry.”
Lee, who has lobbied against abortion rights for years, noted that predictions that Republicans would suffer at the ballot box after the 2019 law was passed turned out to be faulty.
Gov. Mike Parson, who signed the legislation into law, won a sizable victory over Democrat Nicole Galloway in a race where the 2019 law was a major issue. GOP lawmakers ended up with numerous victories in both the Missouri Senate and House.
“If voters are concerned about it, they’re not concerned enough to get rid of Republicans and elect Democrats,” Lee said.
Added Haahr: “I think 2022 will continue be a very strong pro-life year in Missouri.”
“I think Democrats that believe that this issue will somehow be the linchpin back to the majority will be disappointed in November,” Haahr said.
But in 2012, then-U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill won a landslide victory over U.S. Rep. Todd Akin after a firestorm erupted over his comments that women who were “legitimately raped” could “shut down” pregnancies.
In a recent interview McCaskill noted that the big difference between 2012 and 2022 is that national and state Republicans condemned Akin’s remarks and tried to get him to leave the race, while today the top-tier GOP contenders for Missouri’s Senate seat are supportive of Roe v. Wade being overturned and Missouri’s 2019 law.
“Now the Republican Party lives it. They embrace it. They support it,” McCaskill said. “So really what has changed in Missouri is the willingness of people in both parties, and in this instance the willingness of the Republicans that are in leadership positions, to speak out against the extremities of this law.”
McCaskill said the 2019 law could be too much for some Missouri voters in the upcoming election, even for voters who tend to support restrictions on abortion.
“And the question remains: Will Missourians reject this much extreme change?” McCaskill said. “It’s stunning, in fact, how extreme the party has become and how far they’re willing to go to marginalize women in the state. And will they pay a political consequence for it?”
Most political observers believe that the best way to roll back measures like Missouri’s trigger law is through Congress. Democrats like U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, D-St. Louis County, support codifying the right to an abortion in federal law but said such a move is not possible without making substantial changes to the filibuster.
Currently, there are not enough votes in the Senate to advance federal legislation to bolster access to abortion. It’s possible that if Democratic candidates win in places like Missouri, they could either end or make a carve-out to the filibuster to pass federal abortion legislation.
All of the top Democratic candidates for the U.S. Senate have vocally supported codifying the right to an abortion in federal law. All of the major Republican candidates for the Senate have put out statements saying they support Roe v. Wade being overturned.
In addition to heightening the focus on the federal midterm elections, McCaskill predicted the upcoming Supreme Court decision would prompt people to get better acquainted with state legislators.
“I think most people don’t know who their state representative is,” McCaskill said. “This might be a year where people figure out who is their state senator and their state legislator — and should they be supporting them?”
Others aren’t confident that elections could turn the tide.
Steve McAchran of Overland is a retired mortician who saw the bodies of women who tried to give themselves abortions before Roe v. Wade was decided. He strongly supports abortion rights. But he’s not confident that Republican voters are going to abandon the GOP in November.
“I think what happens this November may be where it’s going to go one way or another,” McAchran said. “If it goes south for this issue, I don’t know in 2024 they’ll be able to recover.”
St. Louis Public Radio’s Brian Munoz contributed information to this story.
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