For proof of Missouri’s prominent place in the national abortion debate, one only needs to look at the two developments energizing abortion rights and anti-abortion activists.
Due to a recent federal court ruling, Missouri, which only has one abortion clinic at the moment, likely will see several others open in the coming months — a rarity in the U.S. And St. Louis will be engaged in a legal battle over a new ordinance that bars employers and landlords from discriminating against women who obtain abortions.
Yet, Missouri still stands among the states with the most restrictive abortion laws. Republican lawmakers are floating the prospect of a special session this summer to take another look at anti-abortion bills that didn’t make it through the General Assembly the first time around, knowing they have a potential ally in GOP Gov. Eric Greitens.
St. Louis opened one of the first abortion clinics in the nation after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, making the Planned Parenthood outpost a longtime target for protesters, rallies and religious vigils.
Today, it’s also Missouri’s only clinic, meaning women in far-flung parts of the state often have to drive to other states to obtain an abortion. (Missouri is one of seven states that have only one clinic.)
But the facility is expected to get company as a result of an April ruling by a federal judge that struck down several restrictions, some of them longstanding, including a 2005 one that said any physician performing or inducing an abortion had to be able to provide care at a hospital within 30 miles of the clinic. The ruling was prompted by the U.S. Supreme Court’s action tossing out similar laws in Texas last year.
Although the state attorney general has filed an appeal, Planned Parenthood is preparing to open clinics in Columbia, Kansas City, Joplin and Springfield, the latter of which has been without an abortion clinic since 2005.
No other state is seeing such an expansion of abortion services, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which supports abortion rights and monitors activity around the country. (In Iowa, for example, Planned Parenthood recently announced it will close three abortion clinics because of state family-planning budget cuts.)
Elizabeth Nash, the institute’s senior state-issues manager, noted the contrast with Missouri’s past.
“Missouri is a state that others look to to find abortion restrictions, and that’s been the case for decades,” she said.
Alison Dreith, with the abortion-rights group NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri, is pleased with the new developments, adding that the additional clinics will help rural Missouri women who have had to drive 150 miles or more to obtain reproductive services.
“The future for abortion access in Missouri actually looks bright again,” Dreith said.
Abortion opponents are alarmed.
“We really are in a critical moment in Missouri for protecting women and protecting the unborn. And I think the Missouri legislature really needs to take action,” said state Sen. Bob Onder, a Republican from St. Charles who has fought for decades to restrict abortions.
Onder says he’s talking to Gov. Eric Greitens’ staff about calling a special session to focus on new abortion restrictions that could replace those wiped out in April.
Among other things, Onder has been pushing for stronger state regulations regarding clinic inspections. The bill was among roughly 30 abortion-related measures in the state General Assembly’s 2017 regular session, all of which failed to pass, for various reasons.
Sam Lee, a veteran anti-abortion lobbyist, largely blames the lackluster record on Senate Democrats, who he says skillfully used their filibuster powers. But Lee and other abortion opponents point to their success in putting restrictions in the state budget that will block any abortion provider, including Planned Parenthood, from getting Medicaid money for family-planning services.
M’Evie Mead is state director of policy and organizing for Planned Parenthood Advocates in Missouri, a joint project of the state's two affiliates: the Kansas City-based Planned Parenthood Great Plains and Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri. Mead criticized the budget provision and hinted at possible legal action.
Some Planned Parenthood affiliates in other states, notably Texas, have successfully overturned defunding attempts involving Medicaid funds.
Lee, however, feels good about where the state stands politically, noting that the November elections bolstered his side’s already powerful clout in the state Capitol, especially the arrival of Attorney General Josh Hawley, a Republican, who is an outspoken opponent of abortion. His predecessors — Democrats Chris Koster and Jay Nixon — backed abortion rights.
“Politically, with the legislature and the governor and the attorney general, we’re in great shape,’’ Lee said. “We’re in the best shape we’ve been in, for 25 years.”
Missouri Right to Life President Steve Rupp also supports the idea of a special session.
“We want to do anything we can, as quickly as we can, to save the lives of those innocent children,” said Rupp, whose primary goal is to end all abortions in Missouri and close the St. Louis clinic.
Discrimination ordinance targeted
Onder also wants the special session to address St. Louis’ new anti-discrimination provision that’s aimed at protecting women who undergo abortions or take birth control.
The St. Louis Catholic Archdiocese is among those who have sued to get the changes overturned. Archbishop Robert Carlson emphasized that the Catholic Church opposes abortion, and argued that the ordinance could require this archdiocese to hire women who support abortion rights.
“I am very disturbed that the city of St. Louis has now enshrined into law an ordinance which creates a sanctuary for the evil practice of abortion,’’ Carlson said at a recent news conference. “Now, some of our St. Louis politicians have made a protected class out of reproductive health, which is merely a politically correct euphemism for abortion.”
Sarah E. Pitlyk, one of the lawyers handling the case for the Archdiocese and other plaintiffs, says the St. Louis provision is broader than similar anti-discrimination language in measures elsewhere, notably Washington, D.C., and Delaware, which are aimed at employment. The St. Louis provision also focuses on housing.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if this turned out to be something that other people are watching, as a harbinger of what might happen in their jurisdictions,” Pitlyk said.
Shift in attitudes?
Overall, Planned Parenthood’s Mead contends, abortion critics are mobilizing out of concern about the heightened public support in favor of Planned Parenthood and reproductive rights.
“The levels of engagement and the types of people who are engaging in the political process to advance access to reproductive services is higher than I’ve ever seen before,” she said. “Partly because of that, there’s a tremendous reaction against access to those services and those who provide them.”
Dreith with Missouri NARAL puts the debate in starker terms: “This is not about further restricting access to abortion, or even the health and safety of women. This is about controlling women.”
What’s not in dispute is that nationally and in Missouri, the number of abortions continue to drop.
Just more than 5,000 abortions were performed in Missouri in 2014, according to the latest available figures, and another 3,100 women traveled elsewhere for the procedure. All told, that’s less than half the 19,000 abortions recorded in 1985, one of the state’s peak years.
Missouri’s decline is in line with national trends: 926,190 abortions were performed in 2014 — a 24 percent drop since 2008, when there were about 1.2 million abortions.
But as in other aspects of the abortion debate, the two sides disagree on why the numbers are going down. Abortion rights supporters credit greater use of contraception, while opponents link the lower numbers to Missouri’s increased restrictions.
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