Joplin-area lawmakers have supported state legislation that would restrict abortion in Missouri because of their belief that life begins at conception and to keep a clear conscience, they said in interviews with the Globe.
The Missouri House this past week took steps to outlaw most abortions in the state should the U.S. Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade, an effort that’s part of a broader Republican push amid renewed optimism that the high court might be more open to increased restrictions and possibly an outright ban.
The wide-ranging legislation also includes other measures that would take effect even if the high court doesn’t overturn its 1973 ruling establishing the nationwide right to abortion. Among the restrictions is a ban on most abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected, possibly as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. Similar bans in Arkansas, Iowa and North Dakota in recent years have been struck down by courts.
Abortion opponents across the U.S. have been emboldened by President Donald Trump’s appointment of conservative Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, while abortion-rights activists are working to protect the procedure in states where Democrats hold power.
The bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Nick Schroer, R-O’Fallon, lauded it as “the most sound, comprehensive pro-life bill in the entire U.S.”
But supporters of abortion rights said the bill goes too far.
“There’s been no combination of such draconian laws and measures,” said Democratic Rep. Cora Faith Walker, D-Ferguson, adding that she’s “terrified” of the bill.
Local lawmakers react
Missouri’s bill, which includes a so-called trigger ban that would take effect if the high court overturns Roe v. Wade, includes exceptions only for medical emergencies and not for rape or incest. Doctors who violate the law would face a felony charge. Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Dakota and South Dakota also have abortion bans that kick in if Roe v. Wade falls.
Efforts to pass bills limiting abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected are underway in states including Florida, Kentucky, Ohio, South Carolina and Tennessee. The Missouri bill started out with such a ban, and Republicans added a number of other restrictions, including a ban on abortions based on race, sex or an indication of Down syndrome, and a requirement that both parents be notified before a minor receives an abortion, with some exceptions.
Rep. Lane Roberts, R-Joplin, said his vote in support of the bill fell along party lines, but it was based solely on a belief that life begins at conception.
Rep. Bob Bromley, R-Carl Junction, said he supported the bill because he felt a “moral obligation” to protect life.
Both lawmakers said they were comfortable with language in the bill that leaves no exemptions for victims of rape or incest, although Roberts acknowledged that it would “impose on victims.”
“I understand it seems heartless,” he said, “but it’s nonetheless the only decision I can reach with a clear conscience.”
Bromley said it was the most difficult piece of the legislation to review, but he decided to “err on the side of life.”
“The unborn child would be the victim in this, and I don’t believe you punish the victim,” he said.
Opposition to the bill came from most House Democrats. Reps. Crystal Quade, of Springfield, and Keri Ingle, of Lee’s Summit, offered personal stories this past week about how abortion restrictions can place domestic violence victims at further risk. Quade said she was sexually abused as a child by her biological father and that she would have been in danger if she’d been pregnant and had to reach back out to him, according to the Kansas City Star.
“I see nowhere in your bill for people like me whose parents still have that custodial situation,” she said, according to the Star report. “Gentlemen, what would I have done?”
Moving to the Senate
Heartbeat bills have been struck down by the courts as unconstitutional, most recently in Iowa in January. State judge Michael Huppert found that law unconstitutional, concluding that the Iowa Supreme Court’s earlier decisions affirmed a woman’s fundamental right to an abortion, and he also cited several cases in federal court, including decisions in 2015 and 2016 in the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that indicated such abortion laws were unconstitutional.
When asked why Missouri lawmakers are proceeding with a heartbeat bill when they have regularly been deemed unconstitutional elsewhere, Roberts said he thinks the Missouri bill will stand up to similar scrutiny.
“I think because other heartbeat bills have been tried and failed, Missouri has tried to craft a bill that will survive the legal challenge,” he said.
The measure, which also would place “God is the author of life” into statute, now heads to the Senate, where it’s unclear whether lawmakers will keep all of the proposals.
Sen. Bill White, R-Joplin, said he expects “contentious” debate on the matter when it comes to the Senate floor. He said Thursday he couldn’t comment specifically on the House bill because he hadn’t read it yet.
“I’m a very pro-life person,” he said. “It wouldn’t be able to be a pro-choice bill and have me vote for it.”
St. Louis-area Sen. Jill Schupp, who along with her Democratic colleagues wields some power in the Republican-led chamber because of individual senators’ ability to filibuster bills, also said there will be “strong resistance” to the legislation.
Schroer and other Republicans said they were motivated in part after seeing the actions being taken by Democrats in other states. New York recently passed the Reproductive Health Act, which codifies rights laid out in court rulings, including Roe v. Wade, establishing a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy until a fetus is viable, typically around 23 or 24 weeks of pregnancy. The act states that a woman may abort after 24 weeks of pregnancy if her life or health is at risk or if the fetus is not viable.
Missouri Right to Life, a grass-roots anti-abortion organization, praised the state’s legislation.
“Missouri is a pro-life state, and we will not stand by as liberal states around the country legalize abortion up to birth and even infanticide,” said Steve Rupp, president of Missouri Right to Life, in a statement. “This legislation will save thousands of lives and ensure the safety and legal recourse for women in Missouri who seek abortions.”
A spokesperson for Planned Parenthood Advocates in Missouri said the organization would fight the “extreme” abortion ban, saying the majority of Missourians don’t want politicians inserting the government between them and their doctors.
“Reproductive health care is health care,” said M’Evie Mead, director of policy and organizing for Planned Parenthood Advocates in Missouri. “Those attempting to restrict access to women’s health care must be called out for their real intention: running in a political race to be the state that overturns Roe v. Wade at the Supreme Court. At a time when maternal mortality is increasing, we must be doing everything we can to increase access to health care, not to cut it. Shame on those politicians.”
Bromley said he thinks it’s possible the U.S. Supreme Court will eventually weigh in on such legislation, but he wasn’t sure whether it would be Missouri’s. For him, it was New York’s legislation that prompted him to want to take action.
“I think that, if nothing else, has put (abortion) much more in the limelight,” he said. “If you’re a person that’s pro-life and you want to protect these innocent unborn, you see what’s going on in other states and you want to state your position and fight for your position.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.