With eye on Supreme Court, Missouri Republicans file flurry of anti-abortion bills

Missouri House Speaker Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield, stood before the chamber last week and made clear the state GOP’s credo on abortion.

“We stand for the innocent. We stand for the infirm. We stand for the born. We stand for the unborn,” he said.

Republicans members clapped, and, from back to front, slowly stood for an ovation.

The Democrats sat and watched in stony silence.

Missouri’s abortion laws, already among the most restrictive in the U.S., could tighten even more as Republican lawmakers have proposed 21 bills so far this session to further limit or almost completely ban the procedure.

The measures include a constitutional amendment to define life as beginning at conception. Bills introduced would ban late-term abortions; establish criminal penalties for doctors; require two-parent consent and make abortion illegal once a fetal heartbeat is detected.

“Missouri has always been a leader in pro-life and we believe that Missouri will speak loud and clear and respond to what’s going on in society across the United States in regards to the unborn child,” said Susan Klein, the executive director of Missouri Right to Life.

Planned Parenthood describes the heartbeat legislation as “amounting to a total abortion ban” because a fetal heartbeat can be detected as early as six weeks after conception — before many women know they are pregnant. There were 3,903 abortions performed in Missouri in 2017, down from 4,562 the previous year, according to the governor’s office.

Haahr said he supports the “heartbeat bill” and that some form of anti-abortion legislation will definitely pass the House this year. Gov. Mike Parson, asked if he would sign such legislation, said: “I’ve been pro-life my entire career, and I support that all the time… I’m going to support pro-life.”

Republicans in Missouri have traditionally been firmly anti-abortion. A federal appeals court decision last year effectively reduced the number of clinics in the state to one—Reproductive Health Services of the Planned Parenthood St. Louis Region—by upholding a law requiring clinics that provide abortions to be set up as ambulatory surgical centers and that doctors who perform them hold admitting privileges at local hospitals.

Women seeking abortions in Missouri often travel across state lines to Illinois or Kansas, and several proposed bills this session would put restrictions on that practice.

“The idea that there’s only one abortion clinic in a state as populous as Missouri shows what the political climate is like. It’s pretty hostile,” said Elizabeth Nash, senior states issues manager for the Guttmacher Institute, an abortion advocacy group.

That climate has only heightened interest in more aggressive policies. GOP lawmakers nationwide have been emboldened by the Supreme Court’s increasingly conservative profile with President Trump’s appointments of Justices Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.

During Kavanaugh’s nomination hearing, he said the court’s landmark 1973 decision Roe v. Wade, which established a constitutional right to abortion, was “important precedent,” but many on the right and left speculated that he could be a decisive fifth vote to overturn Roe. In the State of the Union address on Tuesday, Trump endorsed a federal law banning late-term abortions.

Many Missouri legislators would be eager to see at least one of the pending bills passed and signed into law to serve as the basis for a challenge to Roe.

But abortion rights advocates won a clear, if temporary, victory Thursday evening, suggesting that the court’s conservative majority may not be rock-solid. It voted 5-4 to halt implementation of a Louisiana law requiring that any doctor performing abortions have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital—a provision of the Missouri law upheld on appeal. The Louisiana law is also nearly identical to a Texas statute the high court invalidated in 2016.

Despite the fact that he dissented from the court’s decision in the 2016 Texas case, Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the four liberal justices to grant the stay Thursday. The court could hear full arguments on the Louisiana case next year.

Julie Burkhart, founder and CEO of Trust Women Foundation and a former employee of George Tiller, the Wichita doctor who was gunned down for providing abortions, said the Supreme Court’s Louisiana vote “gives me some hope.”

“I think this is a good sign for now and we’ll take that win that we have in terms of staying this burdensome law that would put all types of obstacles in the way of women trying to gain access in Louisiana,” she said.

Haahr made it clear the Republican lawmakers are not acting just out of hope for favorable rulings from the Supreme Court.

“Our goal is to protect the lives of the unborn,” Haahr said. “If that has to be through the courts, we’ll take that fight, but that’s not our goal.”

‘A slow, quiet chipping away’

While both sides wait to see if the Supreme Court will entertain a challenge to Roe, activity at the state and even local level has been intense.

New York, Massachusetts Virginia, New Mexico and Vermont are among the states that have passed legislation to secure abortion rights, partly out of concern that Roe will be overturned.

Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Kentucky and South Carolina and Kansas are pushing the envelope to see how far they can roll back abortions — or even ban them outright — without being stopped by the courts. Proposals range from mandatory waiting times, to counseling requirements, to late-term bans, to fetal heartbeat bills.

“For years and years we’ve been seeing a slow, quiet chipping away at women’s access to abortion,” said Jennifer Dalven, director of the Reproductive Freedom Project for the ACLU. “But what we’re seeing now is more attempts to not just sort of slowly build the wall to make it higher and higher hurdles for women to jump over to get abortions, but rather just go for what the end goal has always been, which is to outlaw abortion completely.”

Burkhart likens the legislative activity in Missouri and other states to “taking spaghetti noodles and throwing them against the wall and seeing in which state this type of bill might stick,” she said.

Some have stuck, some not.

A heartbeat bill was vetoed in Ohio in 2016 by former Gov. John Kasich (R) although new governor Mike DeWine (R) promised to sign such a measure if it reached his desk. An Iowa judge ruled last month that a heartbeat statute violated the state constitution because advocates could not demonstrate a compelling state interest in barring abortions after a heartbeat can be detected.

Similar laws in Arkansas and North Dakota were struck down by federal circuit courts as unconstitutional, and the Supreme Court declined to hear the cases.

Meanwhile, abortion cases from Indiana and Alabama are moving through the legal system toward the Supreme Court. The Kansas Supreme Court is currently considering whether the state constitution guarantees a right to abortion while a proposed amendment in the legislature would effectively ban it outright.

While it is largely a federal and state issue, abortion has even surfaced in Kansas City’s nonpartisan mayoral race. At a candidate’s forum sponsored by the Heartland Progressive Alliance last month, the eight candidates present (there are 11 total) were asked if they were “pro-choice.”

Seven said they supported abortion rights. The eighth, attorney Steve Miller, declined to answer the question and said it’s not up to the mayor.

“And one thing my race is about is not finding ways to divide us but to bring us together, and I am not going to let those national agenda issues keep us from unifying,” Miller said.

‘Reasonable abortion legislation’

A group of six Republican senators formed the Conservative Caucus last month to highlight their commitment to small government, gun rights and abortion. They said they want to be a resource to other Republicans as they push for conservative causes.

Two caucus members, Sens. Robert Onder, R-St. Charles County, and Andrew Koenig, R-St. Louis County, filed anti-abortion bills. Onder’s would restrict abortions after 20 weeks; Koenig’s is the Senate version of the fetal heartbeat ban. Koenig also filed a bill that would make it a felony for doctors to perform abortions.

“I think in 2019 you will see legislation pertaining to human life moving through the process,” Onder said.

He added that the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court, the federal appeals court for cases originating in Missouri, is friendly toward anti-abortion laws.

“I think there’s a good chance that whether or not Roe is overturned, that there will be more receptiveness to laws that first protect the health and safety of women, second protect birth and care centers and third protect innocent lives of the unborn,” Onder said.

A heartbeat bill would face a major fight from Democrats in the Senate. While they likely wouldn’t have the votes to stop it outright, they could threaten to derail the entire session with filibustering and procedural maneuvering.

Would they take such a drastic step?

“Oh hell yeah,” said Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis. She said she’s seeing more energy from the right to restrict abortion than in any of her 13 years in Jefferson City.

Senate leaders wouldn’t commit to a specific bill. But Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia made clear the issue would get a thorough hearing this year, regardless of which direction the courts take. He said there will be a conversation in the Senate about “what is a reasonable view of abortion regulation.”

“I think our job is to represent our constituents, represent the views and the things that we hold dear and let the courts take care of what they are charged with taking care of,” he said.

Star reporter Allison Kite contributed to this article.

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Hunter Woodall is a political reporter for The Kansas City Star, covering the Missouri General Assembly and state government. Before turning to Missouri politics, he worked as The Star’s Kansas political corespondent.