Abortion rights won big on ballot in Ohio, but advocates remain divided in Missouri

abortion-rally

Demonstrators rally before the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark case that found Americans have the right to an abortion. Missouri doctors worry the state’s new abortion ban could put women with high-risk pregnancies in danger. | Photo by Robin Bravender/States Newsroom

Missouri could be the first state with a near-total abortion ban to use the initiative petition process to restore access.  

But time is running short, with a May deadline to collect enough signatures looming and court battles over ballot summaries still plodding along. 

And while voters in Ohio became just the latest to overwhelmingly back abortion rights on the ballot, Missouri advocates are split on strategy and direction in a way other states have not experienced.

On Friday, a group led by longtime GOP operative Jamie Corley launched a political action committee and signature collection drive for an initiative petition that would add rape and incest exceptions to Missouri’s abortion ban. The proposal would also prohibit the government from interfering with access to an abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and provide immunity from prosecution for women who receive abortions and for those who help them, as well as for those who choose to go out of state for abortion care. 

“When you present voters with a reasonable plan on abortion, they’re going to vote in favor of the reasonable plan,” Corley said, “especially when the alternative is a complete ban, no exceptions for rape and incest. And I think Ohio proved that can happen even in a very red state.”

Meanwhile, groups pushing more expansive abortion-rights amendments have not yet settled on a path forward or on which of the 11 proposals filed in March by St. Louis physician Anna Fitz-James will be the one they seek to place on the ballot.

One thing both campaigns have in common is court battles with Secretary of State Jay Aschroft over ballot summaries, with Corley filing suit late last month and the ACLU of Missouri likely heading to the state Supreme Court after a pair of lower-court victories.

Mallory Schwarz, executive director of Abortion Action Missouri, said Missourians deserve an opportunity to vote to rebuild access to abortion not seen in the state in decades. But she does not believe Corley’s plan is a path forward, calling her initiative “misleading.”

“(Corley) is working against the best interest of Missourians,” Schwarz said, “and also all these measures will do is help re-elect the same politicians who banned abortion in Missouri in the first place.”

Corley maintains her proposal could appeal to the widest audience.

“If other groups want to sabotage and name call, that’s their prerogative. We obviously have very different approaches to advocacy,” she said. “It’s not our place to judge anyone for being pro-life or pro-choice, we think our plan appeals to both groups. There’s simply too much at stake for this nonsense.”

Rape and incest exceptions

When the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June of 2022, Missouri’s trigger law made practically every abortion illegal immediately. The only exception accounts for cases of medical emergency.

Corley called the state’s decision not to support rape or incest exceptions “an extreme position.”

“Being pro-life does not mean total ban on abortion, no rape or incest, criminal penalties for women,” Corley said. “What is currently on the books is a fringe, extreme ban, and it’s not in line with mainstream pro life policies, at least not that I’ve seen.”

Her initiatives, which are being supported by a 501c4 nonprofit she formed in June, state the rape exception would only apply to victims who have reported the rape or sexual assault to a crisis hotline. 

The initiatives have faced criticism from both sides of the abortion debate. 

Missouri Right to Life, the largest anti-abortion organization in the state, publicly opposes all 17 initiatives proposed.

But public comments submitted to the Secretary of State’s office obtained by The Independent show there has been more widespread opposition from anti-abortion groups to the Fitz-James initiatives than to Corley’s. 

Organizations like Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America have not yet taken a public stance on Corley’s initiatives but have spoken out against the Fitz-James initiatives, saying they would provide “abortion on demand.” 

Corley expects that if one of the 11 more expansive proposals makes it to the 2024 ballot, supporters will have to raise tens of millions of dollars to offset a “massive opposition” campaign. 

She argues that opposition won’t be as fierce for her proposal, and thus, she won’t need as large a campaign war chest.

But Schwarz said Corley’s proposals are not a middle road, but rather a false promise.

Corley’s proposals would allow abortion restrictions that have driven providers out of the state to remain in place, Schwarz said. She says she’s heard from abortion clinic partners who would be unable to reopen in Missouri even if Corley’s proposal passes due to existing laws.

“This is not a question of something better than nothing. This is a question of being left with nothing,” Schwarz said. “The petitions filed would not create access in our state and they would leave us in the same position we are in now where people would be forced to flee their homes and their communities to travel out of state to access care.”

Meanwhile, Sam Lee remains skeptical. The longtime anti-abortion activist with Campaign for Life said while he was disappointed by the outcome in Ohio, he is not quick to compare it to Missouri. 

In Ohio, all major pro-abortion rights groups backed the same ballot measure. In Missouri, Lee sees an obvious divide.

The issue is not that 17 ballot initiatives are hanging in limbo. For Lee, it’s that they come from two opposing groups who have yet to start collecting signatures in order to get their efforts on the ballot.

“I don’t see the normal earmarks of an organization or organizations that have their act together to get the signatures, to raise the money to put it on the ballot and expect the voters to pass it,” Lee said. 

Missouri isn’t Ohio

Vanessa Wellbery, vice president of policy and advocacy at Advocates of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis region and Southwest Missouri, said Ohio’s outcome proved again that abortion is a winning issue.

While Ohio has been a critical care access state, Missouri already had extremely restrictive abortion laws in place prior to Roe being overturned. In 2021, the year before the Dobbs decision, only 150 abortions were performed in Missouri, according to state health department data. 

“Data points show us that Roe was not enough to grant access to reproductive health care,”  Wellbery said, adding that the initiative petitions on the table need to be considered through the lens of equity and impact on patients, especially those already facing barriers to care. 

Planned Parenthood has not yet taken a public position on any of the initiative petitions. But Wellbery said the organization is urging advocates and supporters of abortion rights to evaluate the petitions on the table from the perspective of which would provide “meaningful access.”

“How can we make sure we are building something that was better than Roe without loopholes, without exceptions, without limits that harm the most marginalized folks?” she asked.

Alison Dreith, a former executive for NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri who now heads the Midwest Access Coalition, said she’s grateful to now live in Illinois where abortion is legal. But if she still lived in Missouri and was faced with Corley’s ballot initiative, she is unsure what she would do. 

“Abortion was already out of reach for so many. It was out of reach for Missourians pre-2019 when there was only one abortion clinic in the entire state, so even if this bill was passed, would Planned Parenthood want to provide in Missouri again and go through all those state challenges again when they could provide care in Illinois?”

She called Corley’s initiative smart but “dubious at best.” Dreith also acknowledged that it could potentially lift some of the strain on clinics in Kansas and Illinois faced with a massive influx of patients from states with major abortion restrictions.

If either of the two possible ballot initiatives passes, Dreith said it’s only the first step. She predicts Republican lawmakers would come back “with a vengeance” the following year. 

In the meantime, she is watching and waiting. 

“That’s the nature of Missouri politics,” Dreith said. “It’s long and drawn-out and dirty and Missouri politicians continue to play with people’s lives, but they’re not going to be able to gerrymander their way out of this fight.”

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