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Government, Politics & Issues

In waning days of legislative session, abortion bills may face Senate filibuster

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 6, 2010 - For decades, the Missouri Legislature could be counted on to spend part of its final weeks grappling over bills or proposals aimed at discouraging abortions.

This session is no different.

State Sen. Joan Bray, D-University City, says she and a couple other abortion-rights allies in the state Senate are prepared to talk until they drop to block two proposals that they say go too far.

Both provisions originated in the Missouri House, which made changes in bills that originated in the Senate. The amended measures now require new Senate votes, unless the House changes are dropped in conference committees.

One amendment -- part of a professional licensing bill -- would allow pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions for any drug they believe causes abortion, including emergency contraception pills taken within 72 hours after sex. (Critics say such contraception cannot cause abortions.)

Such pharmacists also would be shielded from lawsuits.

The second provision would require doctors to provide women -- in person and in writing -- certain state-mandated information at least 24 hours before performing an abortion.

That proposal has been tacked onto two bills: the licensing bill, as well as a broader measure aimed at discouraging abortions, and long sought by abortion opponents, including Missouri Right to Life. The Senate also has passed a version of the broader bill, but it has some differences with the House version.

Bray said the physician mandate violates an agreement reached between the anti-abortion and abortion-rights factions in the Senate. That deal would allow medical professionals besides doctors to provide women with any state-mandated information.

Unless that provision directed at physicians is removed, Bray said that fellow Sens. Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City, and Rita Days, D-Bel Nor, are prepared to join her and "talk until we decide to forget it," thus forcing the Senate to kill the bill or debate nothing else.

Bray said they also will block the amendment about pharmacists, which critics assert is written in such a way that pharmacists could refuse to fill any sort of contraception. Justus is on the conference committee handling the different versions of that licensing bill.

Missouri Right to Life president Pam Fichter said she supports allowing pharmacists the right to refuse to fill prescriptions for drugs they believe could end a pregnancy.

But her group is lobbying particularly hard for the broader anti-abortion measure, which imposes more requirements for information to be presented to women during the 24-hour waiting period that the Legislature approved several years ago.

Among other things, women considering abortions would have to be offered an opportunity to view an ultrasound -- which already is conducted but not now required to be shown to the patient.

Women considering abortions also must be provided information that "describes the anatomical and physiological characteristics of the unborn child's brain and heart functions, extremities and internal organs; various methods of abortion and the risks associated with each method; the possibility of causing pain to the unborn child; alternatives to abortion; and that the father of an unborn child is liable to provide child support, even if he has offered to pay for an abortion."

"It greatly expands a woman's right to know," said Fichter.

In the case of an ultrasound, she added, "we know that when a woman sees a heart beat, she is more likely to choose life."

The broader bill also contains a provision to bar abortion coverage in any health-insurance exchanges that Missouri may offer to otherwise uninsured people as part of the new federal health-care overhaul. The coverage could not be purchased even by exchange participants willing to use their own money.

For 27 years, Missouri already has restricted private insurance companies from offering coverage for abortion services, except to save the life of the mother, unless a separate rider was purchased. 

The new provision would not even allow a rider.

Paula Gianino, chief executive of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region, said her agency has been told by its legislative allies that some form of the broader bill is likely to pass.

She is disturbed by the additional insurance restrictions, although most women getting abortions already use their own money.

Gianino also disagrees with the additional state-mandated procedures or statements during the 24-hour waiting period. However, she notes that the language is the same as enacted in South Dakota and subsequently upheld by the federal Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, based in St. Louis.

In other words, a court fight is likely futile, she said.

But Gianino is outraged over the pharmacy measure, which she says could hurt hundreds of thousands of women in Missouri who are on birth control. Many rural women, she said, have access to only one pharmacist in town.

"We're hopeful that we're able to beat that one back," Gianino said. "I am hopeful the Senate will do the right thing, and not cut off access to contraception for potentially millions of women in Missouri."

The battle over emergency contraception -- marketed as "Plan B" or "Preven" -- centers on the two sides' disagreement over what the pill does.

All medical journals agree that emergency contraception won't work if a woman is already pregnant, and won't harm a fetus. What the contraceptive does do is prevent a fertilized egg from implanting itself in the womb, much like an IUD.

Fichter says that blocking implantation is the same as any other abortion.

Right to Life lobbyist Susan Klein emphasized that Right to Life takes no position on contraception.

Klein said that the chief sponsor of the pharmacist provision is state Rep. Ed Emery, R-Lamar. He also is running for the state Senate this fall.

Gianino contends that politics -- and this fall's elections -- are on the minds of many anti-abortion legislators under pressure from Right to Life and allied groups because no anti-abortion legislation passed last year.

Fichter said Right to Life will soon be preparing its lists of recommended candidates. But her aim, she emphasized, is to get legislation passed that will curb or eliminate abortions in the state.

From that standpoint, said Fichter, "It's looking like it's going to be a very productive session."

Perhaps not, if Bray and her Senate allies are successful.

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