Opponents of the abortion law passed earlier this year in Missouri say they are ready to mobilize and begin collecting signatures for a petition that would put the law up for a statewide vote.

They will need to wait, however, and that has some of them frustrated.

“We feel like there’s no reason to be waiting other than to delay,” said Krista Stark, executive director of Southwest Missouri Democrats. “We are asking (Republican Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft) to do his job now that the courts have said he must do so.”

The controversial law was signed by Gov. Mike Parson soon after the legislative session ended in May. Under the law, abortion would be illegal after eight weeks and a doctor who performs an abortion after that could be charged with a felony punishable by prison time. The law makes no provision for rape or incest after that, and it also bans abortions if or when Roe v. Wade is overturned.

Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri has argued that “Gov. Parson and his political cronies are on the wrong side of history,” while Missouri Right to Life called the measure “groundbreaking legislation that will save lives and set the standard for pro-life legislation nationwide.”

The law is expected to face court challenges as well as the petition drive to put it to a statewide vote.

The Missouri chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union in May submitted a referendum petition to overturn the measure with a public vote in the November 2020 general election.

In June, however, Ashcroft rejected that petition and a similar one, based on his belief that an emergency clause in the measure meant that the entire provision had already become law.

In July, the Missouri Court of Appeals disagreed — it found that Ashcroft acted outside of his authority to reject the petitions. Ashcroft said in a statement released on July 12 that he would soon release the petitions. In the statement, he also said he blocked the petitions because he thought they were filed unconstitutionally.

“It’s my responsibility to the people of Missouri to tell them when something is filed unconstitutionally before they go through the hard work and financial expenditure, not after,” Ashcroft said in the statement. “From a plain reading of the Missouri Constitution, it was both my authority and responsibility to reject the referendum when I did.”

The delay means time is slipping away for opponents of the ban to collect more than 100,000 signatures needed for statewide vote.

As the ACLU builds its drive across the state, other statewide organizations supporting the new law are watching what happens next.

“I think the furthest we would go is encourage people to not sign the petition,” said Tyler McClay, executive direct of the Missouri Catholic Conference, a group that supported the bill throughout the legislative session. “We’d encourage people to support the bill and allow it to go into law, but if they do get enough signatures, we’d encourage people to support the law as is.”

Deadline

While the appeals court ordered Ashcroft to release the language that would be in the petition, it rejected a bid from the ACLU for him to do so by July 18. The Missouri Supreme Court decided not to reconsider that decision either.

According to Missouri law, signatures for the referendum petition must be turned in on Aug. 28 — the date when most of the new law’s provisions take effect.

While Ashcroft said his office would comply with the court’s ruling, he gave no indication as to when. Because of that, the ACLU said Ashcroft is effectively stalling to keep people opposed to the ban from having their say.

“Every day of a delay is a denial for voters to take action on this referendum,” said Sara Baker, legislative policy director for the ACLU Missouri. “If Ashcroft continues to obstruct this process, he’s effectively denying people the right to have a referendum by cutting short that time.”

Missouri’s law was one of several passed by state legislatures this year following two new U.S. Supreme Court appointments. Abortion opponents hope that the measures will lead to a legal challenge and an overturning of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that legalized abortion across the country.

Most of the other states approved bans set at six weeks, an estimate of when fetal cardiac activity can be detected.

Locals respond

David Humphreys, Joplin, who has financially supported Republicans and the Republican Party in the past, urged the governor to veto it.

“With no consideration given to victims of rape and incest, this legislation’s impact reflects bad public policy with negative consequences for Missourians,” he said in a statement. “As such, I support the committee’s effort to protect women in the case of rape or incest.”

He contributed $1 million to the recently created Committee to Protect the Rights of Victims of Rape & Incest, which aims to put the new law before voters, but it also was rejected by Ashcroft.

Humphreys’ lawyer, Lowell Pearson, told The Associated Press on July 12 that no decision has been made about that petition. Attempts to reach Pearson for an update based on developments since that interview were unsuccessful.

Baker, with ACLU Missouri, said it has started mobilizing across the state and earlier this month held meetings in several cities in anticipation of launching its campaign.

On Wednesday, members of Southwest Missouri Democrats agreed to join the ACLU’s effort. About 35 town hall attendees voted in favor of endorsing the referendum petition and actively working to collect signatures, Stark said. The group was similarly active on petition drives regarding right to work and medical marijuana issues over the past few years.

“We felt like it was important to do what we can to keep this law from going into effect,” Stark said. “Even though the petition is not released yet, we felt like it was important to take this vote. There’s going to be a short time frame, so we’ll be able to hit the ground running.”

Stark said the ban is driving activity like nothing before it. She said that the issue has prompted people to call and ask what they can do. In addition to helping collect signatures, she encouraged opponents of the law to contact Ashcroft’s office and ask for the release of the petition.

“Even our pro-life members view this ban as too extreme,” Stark said. “We’re reminding people that if they haven’t called Ashcroft’s office yet to do so and ask him to please release the language as soon as he can.”

Some local supporters of the new law aren’t ready to mobilize their side just yet and will wait to see whether the petition drive is successful before determining whether to take any action.

“At this point, we’re waiting to see how it plays out,” said Jimmy Morris, chairman of the Jasper County Republican Central Committee. “Their deadline is not too far away, so we’ll know one way or the other then. I think we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”

The issue has not had the rallying effect that it has for local Democrats, Morris said, adding that while some Republicans have a viewpoint similar to Humphreys’, most of the people with whom he speaks are fully supportive of the ban.

“Obviously, the Missouri Republican Party platform and our platform are strongly pro-life, and this bill was passed by the Republican-led Legislature,” Morris said. “I would say, by and large, we’ve been fully supportive of the legislation that passed. As with any issue, it’s a big tent, and there’s room for opposing viewpoints. ... I have heard others that have voiced (Humphreys’ view), but I don’t see (Humphreys’ view) as a majority within the party.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Joe Hadsall is the digital editor for The Joplin Globe. He has been the editor of the former Nixa News-Enterprise and has worked for the Christian County Headliner News and 417 Magazine.