Missouri’s anti-abortion advocates cheer as attorney general authorizes trigger ban
Abortion rights supporters in Missouri decried the court's decision to roll back decades of federal protections for people seeking abortions.
Missouri anti-abortion advocates are praising a decision Friday by the U.S. Supreme Court that overturns Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that legalized abortions across the country.
Immediately after the Roe decision, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt issued an opinion that effectively enacted a law originally passed in 2019 that would make most abortions in the state unlawful the moment Roe was overturned. The law allows abortion if the mother’s life is in danger but does not contain exceptions for rape or incest, and makes assisting in an abortion a felony.
"With this attorney general opinion, my Office has effectively ended abortion in Missouri, becoming the first state in the country to do so following the Court's ruling," Schmitt said in a statement.
But abortion rights supporters expressed outrage at the decision, which they said would put women at risk.
"And this is a far right extremist Supreme Court is making this decision that affects other people," said U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, a St. Louis County Democrat.
The decision follows a decades-long fights from anti-abortion advocate groups that have long sought to restrict abortion access across the state. At the same time, abortion rights groups stress that the end Roe v. Wade will put women’s health at risk.
"The decision is a discredit to the Supreme Court and to the history of law and order and precedent in the United States," said Pamela Merritt, executive director of Medical Students for Choice. "I think the decision to overturn Roe...is an extreme overreach of judicial power, and ultimately, this overreach will backfire. But in the immediate aftermath, this decision helps no one, it will not decrease abortion, it simply will criminalize abortion.”
St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones upbraided the decision, noting that seven in 10 Missourians support the right to abortion.
"If you’re a Democratic leader who has somehow managed to stay silent on abortion rights, it’s far past time for you to speak out and join together with us in this fight," Jones said in a statement. "Overturning Roe v. Wade was just the first step in a rightwing plot to take away our freedoms, and more attacks are coming. From limiting access to the ballot box to overturning marriage equality to prohibiting teachers from teaching accurate history, our children could grow up with fewer rights than we ourselves did. That’s not the future I want for my son."
'It's finally here'
Anti-abortion activists said the Supreme Court’s decision is an enormous victory in their fight to end abortion. However, they say their work is not over.
“Unborn children can once again be fully protected in the law,” said Samuel Lee, the director of Campaign Life Missouri, an anti-abortion rights group. “I’m really grateful for all those lawyers and judges and pro-life advocates who over the decades have worked hard to bring us to this point.”
Lee this week has the Supreme Court and SCOTUS Blog’s websites open on his computer and each morning compulsively has hit “refresh” to see if the opinion has come down. When the court issued its decision this morning, he let out a sigh of relief.
“It's finally here,” he said. “[But] I realize there’s a lot of work ahead for the pro-life movement to help pregnant mothers in need and protect their unborn children.”
Lucy Gonzalez, the regional coordinator for Students for Life in Missouri and Arkansas, learned about the court’s decision from an all-staff email blast.
“I would be lying if I said I didn’t shed a tear,” she said. “I’m just overjoyed. It felt like our work is paying off, the hard work we’re doing to end abortion and change hearts and minds is truly paying off.”
Gonzalez and other Students for Life workers immediately began planning a rally to take place tomorrow in Jefferson City and other state capitals around the country.
She said the organization’s members want to celebrate, but they also plan on the rally to be quiet and serious.
“We want to make sure people who are attending the event also have a somber heart,” Gonzalez said. “Just to stand in solidarity with the lives that have already been lost due to abortion and the women who have been hurt and reflect on the fact our work is just beginning in a lot of ways.”
‘Far from over’
Even after Missouri and other states outlaw abortion, there are still many other places it will be available, Lee said. St. Louis area abortion rights advocates have been mobilizing to help women seek abortions in neighboring states. Thousands of people from the state travel to Illinois and Kansas to get abortions each year.
Anti-abortion activists will need to increase their presence in those states, Lee said.
“For the pro-life movement in Missouri, the goal has always been to make not only make abortion unlawful, but more importantly, to make abortion unthinkable,” he said.
Lee wants to further increase state funding for controversial pregnancy resource centers. Proponents of the centers say they link pregnant women with financial resources and offer alternatives to abortions. Critics say the centers misrepresent themselves as unbiased medical clinics while operating under an anti-abortion agenda.
Campaign Life Missouri also is lobbying lawmakers to increase the amount of time pregnant and postpartum women can receive Medicaid benefits.
Other anti-abortion groups aim to increase their presence outside clinics in the Metro East.
“I think it's really important that we don't just call this a victory, and we don't just say this is more done, or this is the end,” said Brian Westbrook, founder and director of Coalition Life, a St. Louis-based anti-abortion group that does work in Missouri and Illinois. “I think it's really important for us to understand that women are in fact still struggling with unplanned pregnancies and our work is far from over.”
The ruling allows Missouri and other states to make their own laws prohibiting or restricting the procedure.
Lives at risk
But abortion rights advocates who have long fought to preserve the right to an abortion worry the court’s decision will have far-reaching consequences for women across the state.
"In states like Missouri, we are fighting a compounding crisis made worse because of a defund Planned Parenthood law that is shorthand for blocking patients from access preventative health care services at the Planned Parenthood health centers or any provider if that is a provider of their choice," said Yamelsie Rodriguez, president and chief executive of Planned Parenthood of St. Louis and Southwest Missouri.
The decision puts women’s lives at risk, especially Missouri’s women of color and low-income residents, said Merritt, the executive director for Medical Students for Choice.
“For the state of Missouri and in the St. Louis region, where we have infant and maternal mortality rates for Black women and babies that are four times worse than the general population, this is both the worst moment to be withdrawing access to reproductive health care and criminalizing abortion,” Merritt said.
Many abortion rights advocates argue the 2019 law does not outlaw Plan B or birth control medications since they prevent pregnancies. The language in the state law targets procedures that terminate a pregnancy.
But Merritt said if Missouri outlaws abortion, that will have consequences that will further strain health care systems across the country, limiting how people can schedule appointments.
“We're seeing increased delays in people's ability to get an appointment,” Merritt said. “It's not even something that people can fly and get a quicker appointment or take a train. It's really a health system that is stretched.”
Xavier Becerra, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said on Friday in St. Louis that the right of women to access reproductive health care will not stop.
"There may be a change in how we look at the legal circumstances behind abortion," said Becerra at a roundtable discussion at the Central West End just before the ruling was handed down. "But the right of women to reproductive health care will not stop in America, regardless of what the Supreme Court does."
A focus on Illinois
Anti-abortion rights activists plan to shift their attention to the Metro East and other locations in Illinois, which has become a destination for people in Missouri and other states who are seeking abortions.
Efforts by Missouri’s Republican-controlled legislature to restrict abortion access have led many women to travel there to seek the procedure, and thousands are expected to travel to Illinois.
“I believe that people from Missouri understand that Missouri women will be traveling to Illinois to receive abortions. And so, with that fact in hand, we know that we need to do a lot of work here to serve women, where they are right here, Westbrook said.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker and other Democratic leaders said they will protect the right to the abortion, and several Midwest organizations are helping women to access care in the state. Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri opened its regional logistics center in Fairview Heights, Illinois to help arrange travel and lodging for people who are traveling for care. The Chicago-based Midwest Action Coalition also arranges travel plans.
But many abortion rights advocates are worried Illinois won’t have the capacity to treat people leaving neighboring states to seek abortions.
Pritzker has said the state will need more doctors as clinics across the region expect to see an influx of patients. The Hope Clinic for Women in Granite City, Illinois is anticipating more patients from other states.
About 65% of people coming to the clinic are from out of state and more patients are expected, said Dr. Erin King, executive director of the clinic.
“What we're anticipating by the end of the year is about a 40% increase in volume just from the restrictions that will most likely be passed in the states,” King said.
King said while clinics are preparing for more patients, they hope people understand that abortion is still legal in many states around the country.
“I want patients that might need abortions to hear the message loud and clear, it is still legal, in many parts of the country it is still accessible,” King said. “It is still there. I think the biggest challenge will be trying to undo a bunch of the confusion that is going to ensue in the first days, weeks, months, years after Roe is overturned.”
This is a developing story that will be updated.
St. Louis Public Radio's Farrah Anderson contributed reporting to this story.
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