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Missouri's Legislature Has Teed Up More Than a Dozen Anti-Abortion Bills So Far This Year

Missouri lawmakers are working to restrict access to abortion with state-level laws whose fate could eventually be determined by the late Justice Antonin Scalia's replacement on the US Supreme Court.

by Colleen Curry
Mar 25 2016, 6:40pm

Photo by Chris Greenberg/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Missouri lawmakers are trying their best to make it difficult, if not impossible, for women in the state to receive abortions.

As part of national effort by conservatives to curtail access to abortions, the Missouri state legislature has proposed more than a dozen restrictions in the first session of 2016, using templates for laws created by national pro-life groups that have succeeded in other states such as Texas.

According to pro-choice advocates, the frenetic pace at which lawmakers in the state are introducing these laws is about one thing: energizing the base in an election year.

"They want to take back these measures to the right-wing constituency — Republicans who may have primaries — to say I'm more anti-choice than my opponent," said Alison Dreith, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri.

Pro-lifers counter that the bills being pushed reflect a groundswell of public support, amounting to a reaction against President Obama's Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare, and the release of videos in 2015 that purported to show Planned Parenthood executives discussing the sale of fetal tissue donation. The videos launched investigations across the country that found no wrongdoing on the part of Planned Parenthood but nonetheless provoked outrage for the way executives were shown discussing aborted fetuses.

"I think probably a big part of the answer as to why so many state laws have been introduced lately is some of the fallout from the Obamacare debate," said Eric Scheidler, executive director of the Pro-Life Action League. "The pro-life movement is taking advantage of the way Obamacare was passed on the thinnest of all possible margins, with only a few votes in each chamber of Congress. The American people really balked at that, and saw it as undemocratic."

Scheidler believes tens of thousands of people who have been against abortion throughout their lives have become more "fired up" because of the Planned Parenthood videos.

"Not because of the law-breaking, but because of the inhumanity," he said.

Related: Planned Parenthood Sues Anti-Abortion Group over 'Sting' Videos

The laws that were proposed during the first half of the legislative session, which ran from January 18 to March 17, will be debated and voted on during the second half following Easter break. Bills swiftly approved by the legislature could potentially land on Gov. Jay Nixon's desk anytime before May.

Most recently, the Missouri House of Representatives passed a bill by a sweeping majority that would mandate that girls under 18 who wanted an abortion would have to ensure in writing that both of her parents had been notified of the procedure, with at least one parent consenting to it.

Scheidler thinks it's common-sense legislation.

"We know teenagers' brains are not fully formed," he remarked. "They have outsized ideas about the reactions their parents will have. I got my girlfriend pregnant and had to tell my parents about it. I was 23. I wasn't a minor, but their reaction was they stepped up."

Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, calls it dangerous political gamesmanship.

"We all know we want young women having important conversations with families about all issues in their lives, including pregnancy, and most young women do," he said. "But there are some kinds of families where that is not possible, and in fact would be dangerous."

The House also proposed five fetal tissue bills that have been combined into one omnibus bill, as well as an "All Lives Matter" bill that includes a personhood amendment, which says that a fetus has the same constitutional rights as a person. The personhood provision has been defeated or shot down by voters and courts in every other state where it's been pushed.

In all, the House has 12 bills regarding abortion. The State Senate has meanwhile proposed three abortion bills.

Though the state legislature was thrust into the spotlight earlier this month when Missouri Democrats filibustered a religious freedom bill proposed by Republican colleagues, the House took the opportunity to add a measure into its proposed state budget that would cut $380 million in funding for Planned Parenthood — money that is already prohibited from being used for abortions but can be used for other health services, like sexually transmitted disease testing, HPV vaccinations, and exams.

"If you look at the number of bills that have been introduced in the legislature that seek to restrict women's access to healthcare, or seek to interfere in a Missouri family's ability to make medical decisions for their family without a politician inserting himself into their family, it's really very, very troubling," Mittman said. "When you look at the array of bills, what you see is a consistent effort to attack and shame women."

Scheidler said that the two most powerful laws in the pro-life toolkit involve parental notification and funding restrictions.

"When the state or federal government won't pay for abortions, that has a massive impact," he said. "When parents are involved in decisions, that has a major impact."

The state only has one clinic that can currently perform abortions, which is in St. Louis. Another clinic in Columbia, where the state university is located, was stripped of its ability to provide abortions in the fall when the clinic doctor's admitting privileges at a nearby hospital expired and the hospital would not renew them. The state had already passed laws mandating that any abortion provider must have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles; without renewed privileges, abortions at that clinic were effectively banned.

Planned Parenthood has challenged that decision in federal court. A US District judge issued an injunction against the health department in December, saying that it had acted "more harshly" toward Planned Parenthood than other "similarly situated institutions." The two sides will begin arguing the case on April 28.

Watch the VICE News dispatch America's Election 2016: Pro-Choice in Colorado

A similar case will be heard by the US Supreme Court this session over state regulations in Texas, the outcome of which could have an effect on the Missouri case. Both states have been at the forefront of a national wave of state-level abortion restrictions in recent years, and the future of the Supreme Court could determine whether those laws will stand.

With the current case over restrictions in Texas, the death of Justice Antonin Scalia will loom large. If a majority votes that the restrictions are unconstitutional, the ruling could apply to similar restrictions in other states. But if the justices are split 4-4 over the constitutionality, then the ruling of the lower court stands without establishing precedent, and the decision will have no far-reaching impact for other states, which means a similar restriction from another state could end up back before Supreme Court again in the future.

Related: Scalia's Absence Looms Large as Supreme Court Hears Biggest Abortion Case in Decades

Scalia's eventual replacement could have an even greater impact, Scheidler said. If the next justice is conservative on abortion rights, the movement could hope to see access to abortion scaled back even more. But if a justice is appointed who is liberal on abortion rights, it could eventually lead to the current crop of state-level restrictions being rolled back over the coming years.

"Who would President Trump or Clinton or Sanders appoint? If it's someone who has a very different view of the Constitution and what it says on abortion than Scalia did, like a [Justice Elena] Kagan or a [Justice Sonia] Sotomayor, that would create a majority that would be pretty radical on abortion rights," he said, explaining how the pro-life movement's 40-year legal strategy to fight access to abortion in the wake of Roe v. Wade could be undone. "It would be no holds barred. We could see every one of these restrictions dismantled by the court."

If that happens, Scheidler said he hopes that there will be a political reaction from the population since he believes "nobody supports the kind of radical access to abortion" that is currently favored by the Democratic Party.

The Missouri legislature will reconvene on March 29 to begin debating the proposed bills.

Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: @currycolleen