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Missouri Attorney General sues to stop St. Louis from using public money to ensure abortion access

Rachel Lippmann
St. Louis Public Radio

St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones signed legislation directing $1 million in federal coronavirus relief funds to help people cover the logistical cost of accessing abortion. Attorney General Eric Schmitt says the proposal violates a state law banning the use of public funds to assist with abortions.

Updated at 3:15 p.m., July 21, with Schmitt officially filing suit

Calling it decisive action that empowers people to make their own health care decisions, St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones signed legislation Thursday directing $1 million in federal coronavirus relief funds to help people cover the logistical cost of accessing abortion.

“A few weeks ago, I stood in this very spot, and I said I would fight like hell to make sure St. . Louisans can access the reproductive health care they need,” Jones said during a signing ceremony at her office in City Hall. “Today, we won the first round in the ring.”

Missouri’s trigger law, which took effect June 24 upon the U.S. Supreme Court rejecting the constitutional right to an abortion, bans the procedure unless the health of the mother is in danger. There are no exceptions for rape or incest.

Hours after Jones put her signature on the measure, Attorney General Eric Schmitt filed a promised lawsuit, asking a judge to declare parts of the law unconstitutional and stop the city from going forward with spending the money.

“As Attorney General, I’ve tirelessly fought to uphold the sanctity of life in Missouri,” Schmitt said in a statement. “The move by the City of St. Louis to use taxpayer dollars to help push out-of-state abortions plainly and clearly violates Missouri law,”

The bill contains language that says a court striking down one portion does not automatically strike down the entire measure. Jones called the lawsuit a search for “clout” by the attorney general, and said she was not worried about a lengthy legal fight.

“If the attorney general thinks that he knows better than St. Louisans about our rights, our doctors, or our health care, or our neighborhoods and our needs, then I say, ‘Bring it,’” she said.

In addition to $1 million for things like travel or childcare, the measure also directs $500,000 toward other reproductive healthcare, like support for doulas or lactation consultants.

“The goal of this funding is to support pregnant people in all of their options,” said Mallory Schwarz, executive director of ProChoice Missouri, which helped craft the language. “How truly groundbreaking it is to recognize and center in one piece of legislation the full spectrum of health needs for each of us.”

There is also $1.6 million in funding for coronavirus tests and vaccines.

Getting the proposal to the mayor’s desk required some careful vote-counting on the part of its supporters. Newly-elected 11th Ward Alderman Jimmy Lappe proved to be the deciding 15th vote on his first day in office because his colleague in the 7th Ward, Jack Coatar, was at home with his new baby.

“I’m just really happy that I was able to be here to help make sure that folks are able to have health care in our city,” Lappe said Thursday.

With the mayor’s signature, the city’s health department will begin deciding exactly how to distribute the funds. Dr. Mati Hlatshwayo Davis, the health director, said the timeline would depend on which process is chosen.

Similar measure fails in St. Louis County

St. Louis joins cities like Austin, Texas and Cincinnati in directing public funds toward logistical support for abortion.

But, the St. Louis County Council defeated a similar proposal Tuesday, when Fourth District Councilwoman Shalonda Webb, D-St. Louis County, joined the council’s three Republican members in voting no.

“I am pro-choice,” Webb said, “but I also need to be aware that we cannot use public funding to support activities that are not for the public as a whole.”

In Kansas City, the City Council late last month adopted a resolution calling on the city manager to work with the city’s health care system to protect access to FDA-approved contraception, and to allow city employees and their dependents to be reimbursed for travel to access needed health care that is not available in Missouri.

The language of the resolution specifically says the reimbursements cannot come from Kansas City’s general fund, or other taxpayer-generated funds.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

Copyright 2022 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Lippmann returned to her native St. Louis after spending two years covering state government in Lansing, Michigan. She earned her undergraduate degree from Northwestern University and followed (though not directly) in Maria Altman's footsteps in Springfield, also earning her graduate degree in public affairs reporting. She's also done reporting stints in Detroit, Michigan and Austin, Texas. Rachel likes to fill her free time with good books, good friends, good food, and good baseball.
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