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Supreme Court Ruling Thrusts Missouri Back To Center Of National Abortion Debate

Frank Morris
KCUR 89.3

The U.S. Supreme Court transformed the landscape of the abortion debate this summer with a sweeping decision throwing a broad class of abortion restrictions into question, and thrusting Missouri back into the center of the abortion debate.

The Planned Parenthood clinic at Cleaver Boulevard and Troost Avenue in Midtown Kansas City dispenses birth control and provides reproductive health exams, but doesn’t do everything a woman might expect from Planned Parenthood. 

When a timid-looking young couple approached clinic’s front desk recently trying to set up an abortion, they were directed to a facility in Overland Park, Kansas.    

A woman can have an abortion on the Kansas side of the Kansas City metro, but not nowhere Missouri side.

Mary Kay Culp, the Executive Director of Kansans for Life says Missouri has been actively fighting abortion since at least 1973.

“What Roe v. Wade did was so huge, that the blow-back was huge, and it created the pro-life movement,” Culp says.

Culp says that blow-back was especially strong in Missouri.

Credit Frank Morris/ KCUR
KCUR 89.3
Kansans for Life Director, Mary Kay Culp.

“There’s a reason for that,” says Culp. “The people in Missouri are very Catholic, at least on the eastern side of the state, and very Baptist on the south side of the state. So, you put those two together, and I’m sure that’s why,” she says.

Culp should know. She’s been active in the anti-abortion movement for decades. She lead Missouri Right to Life before taking over its Kansas counterpart. And Culp says these groups have fought abortion with legislation from every conceivable angle.

“You try to do a lot of things that you know are constitutional,” Culp says. “But we didn’t just do things that were constitutional, you also want to push against the Supreme Court, too. And so, that’s what we do. We push against the Supreme Court.”

The anti-abortion movement has notched a long string of successes in Missouri. Shortly after Roe v. Wade, Missouri began requiring doctors who perform abortions to have “admitting privileges," — that is to say agreements with hospitals allowing the physicians to admit their patients without going through the ER.

Laura McQuade, the President and CEO of Planned Parenthood Great Plains, says the state has gradually made those admitting privileges harder to come by.

“This facility used to provide abortions,” says McQuade of the clinic at Cleaver and Troost, “until the regulations changed in Missouri in 2007.” 

Credit Frank Morris
KCUR 89.3
Laura McQuade

That’s when Missouri tightened the restriction, requiring doctors to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of their clinic, within the state. And McQuade says legislators pressure hospitals not to grant admitting privileges.

Late last year, a federal judge found that Missouri’s attempt to revoke the abortion license of the one Planned Parenthood clinic in the state performing surgical abortions was unconstitutional. The state has appealed.

Missouri also requires that clinics performing abortions be built to the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers, with wide hallways, and many other costly features. The World Health Organization says that’s unnecessary. Clinics that do statistically riskier procedures, like colonoscopies, don’t face the same requirements.

McQuade says the restrictions have decimated the number of clinics performing abortions in Missouri.

“We are looking at a reduction in a 20-year period from 35 to one,” says McQuade.

Texas tried to impose very similar admitting privileges and ambulatory surgery center restrictions three years ago.  This summer, the U.S. Supreme Court struck them down. McQuade calls the ruling “a reaffirmation of the right to abortion in the United States,” and she says it paves the way for lawsuits challenging Missouri’s restrictions.

“It opens up a world of opportunity, to be honest. And it’s not just about ambulatory surgery center requirements, and it’s not just admitting privileges. We believe strongly because of the breadth and scope of the SCOTUS decision we have the opportunity to go after additional abortion restrictions,” says McQuade

For instance, Missouri forces women to wait 72 hours between an initial visit for an abortion and the procedure itself.  Supporters say it’s an important “cooling off” period, allowing women to rethink an irrevocable decision.  But, McQuade calls the waiting period senseless, and burdensome, especially in a state where the nearest clinic may be 100s of miles away. McQuade says the waiting period, and other restrictions are vulnerable to court challenge.

Courts have long weighed the state’s interest in establishing abortion restrictions against whether those restrictions pose an “undue burden” on woman’s right to the procedure.  Mary Kay Culp, of Kansans for Life, says the prevailing interpretation of that standard before the Texas decision seemed to sanction some level of burden.

“I liked the undue burden standard.  Because what it means is, Ok states, you can have laws regulating abortion as long as it’s not an “undue burden” to the woman getting the abortion.  What that means, what that’s saying is that there are some burdens due here.

That’s a nice standard,” continues Culp. “I mean there could be even better standards in our view, but that one was pretty darn good.  Well, what they’ve done is, basically undone that undue burden standard.”

The court’s recent interpretation of that standard has undermined decades of anti-abortion legislation. It’s a major reset for Culp and allies like Patty Skain, Executive Director of Missouri Right to Life. Skain pledges to rebuild.

“We will continue to do what we do in the legislature,” pledges Skain. “We’ll continue to do what we do in our political action committees, electing pro-life legislators, and so we will continue to pass pro-life laws.”

It’s just that making those laws stand up in court is going to be tougher than it has been in decades. 

Frank Morris is a national correspondant and senior editor at KCUR 89.3. You can find him on Twitter, @FrankNewsman.

I’ve been at KCUR almost 30 years, working partly for NPR and splitting my time between local and national reporting. I work to bring extra attention to people in the Midwest, my home state of Kansas and of course Kansas City. What I love about this job is having a license to talk to interesting people and then crafting radio stories around their voices. It’s a big responsibility to uphold the truth of those stories while condensing them for lots of other people listening to the radio, and I take it seriously. Email me at frank@kcur.org or find me on Twitter @FrankNewsman.
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