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Appeals court to hear Missouri's inmate abortion suit

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St. Louis Public Radio file photo
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Arguments are being heard at the Eagleton Courthouse in downtown St. Louis

By AP/KWMU

St. Louis, MO. –

Hear: NPR's Kathy Lohr report for Morning Edition about another abortion issue in Missouri - the new law that could shut down two clinics

A federal appeals court panel in St. Louis is hearing arguments this (Mon.) morning over whether Missouri is obligated to transport female offenders seeking an outside abortion.

A three-judge panel of the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is hearing the class-action case.

Attorney General Jay Nixon appealed a federal court ruling requiring Missouri to take pregnant inmates to abortion clinics when they request the procedure.

U.S. District Court Judge Dean Whipple in Kansas City last year ruled that a relatively new Missouri policy against transporting inmates for abortions was unconstitutional.

Whipple cited a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court ruling "holding explicitly that Missouri law prohibiting the use of Missouri state funds to assist with an abortion does not encompass transport to the location where the procedure is to take place."

A past state Department of Corrections policy on the health care of pregnant inmates specifically stated that the government would pay to transport an inmate for an abortion, although it would not pay for the abortion itself.

But the department reversed that policy in July 2005. It cited costs, security concerns and a 1986 state law prohibiting the use of public funds, facilities and employees to assist an abortion when it's not necessary to save the life of the woman.

Under the revised policy, the department would only transport an inmate for an abortion if her life or health were endangered.

Whipple ordered the state to transport a pregnant inmate referred to in court as Jane Roe to receive an abortion in October 2005, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene. The case was certified as a class action, leading to Whipple's ruling last year that would allow any Missouri inmate seeking an abortion to have access to one.

Diana Kasdan, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said Friday at least two other courts, in cases out of New Jersey and Arizona, have held that female offenders have the right to access an abortion.

Nixon's office declined to comment.

The state is expected to argue that the revised policy is a reasonable regulation because of its legitimate interest in providing security, even if a constitutional right is curtailed.

Since September 2006, the state has transported three offenders to obtain an abortion. The state has transported a total of seven to abortion clinics since June 2005, the Department of Corrections said.

By contrast, from July 2006 to this past July, 52 female offenders all at the women's prison in Vandalia delivered babies at area hospitals.

Most of the children end up living with other family members, Corrections spokesman Brian Hauswirth said. Missouri has no program that allows offenders and their children to remain together in prison or to take part in overnight visits.

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