Hartmann: Missouri Voters Must Protect Abortion Rights

Amending the state constitution is the only recourse in a post-Roe world

Nov 14, 2022 at 5:00 am
click to enlarge Abortion rights rally in Kiener Plaza
Theo Welling
Missouri needs to get an abortion-rights amendment on the ballot, ASAP.

The time  has come.

The midterm elections have confirmed that the judicial affiliate of the Republican Party — a.k.a., the U.S. Supreme Court — awakened a sleeping giant by violating principle and precedent with its Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade. As Jay-Z said, “Numbers don’t lie, check the scoreboard.”

In 2022, there were six ballot measures addressing abortion across the nation — the most on record for a single year. All six resulted in solid pro-choice victories.

First was the historic rejection by Kansas voters in August of an attempt to remove protection of abortion rights from the state constitution. It was rejected in that red state by an astonishing landslide of 59-to-41 percent.

The only major poll published before that election had the anti-abortion side winning by four points. That 22-point miss should have alerted the punditry to a Dobbs effect coming to the midterms.

It did not. But the five ballot measures decided last week took care of that.

Voters in deep-red Kentucky and Montana rejected anti-abortion measures by nearly identical 52-to-47 margins. The Kentucky measure would have amended the state constitution to assert that nothing in it creates a right to abortion or government funding for it. Montana’s would have stated that infants born alive at any stage of development are legal persons.

Less surprising were the huge margins by which voters in Michigan, California and Vermont asserted broad rights to reproductive freedom in their constitutions. Taken with the three red-state victories for the pro-choice side, a clear message emerged:

Dobbs changed everything.

That’s why the pro-choice majority in Missouri needs to do something that has never happened in the history of the state: It needs to put the issue of reproductive rights before the voters.

For all the bitter and costly wars over abortion rights that have dominated Missouri’s political landscape for decades, neither side has put the matter on the statewide ballot. Now’s the time to change that.

Here’s my suggestion for how a Missouri constitutional amendment should read on the state ballot, at the next available general election:

The Missouri General Assembly shall make no law abridging the reproductive freedom of any person in the first 13 weeks of that person’s pregnancy. Neither the state of Missouri nor any of its political subdivisions shall restrict the right of any person to assist another person in exercising the right to an abortion; nor shall any law or ordinance restrict the right of a licensed physician to perform an abortion. All existing laws and ordinances in Missouri restricting a person’s access to medical care during the first 13 weeks of a pregnancy — including abortion services — are hereby repealed.

The most important concern regarding any such constitutional amendment is that it has the maximum chance of passage. Here are some reasons I believe this approach could work:

  • It is simple and straightforward, with language modeled after the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which is where the right to reproductive freedom belongs.
  • It avoids the usual objections to such amendments by not indulging in language that is readily subject to misinterpretation. It declares what government shall not do but does not attempt to legislate what it must do.
  • It represents common ground. Like it or not on the pro-choice side, a more aggressive approach such as attempting to codify Roe v. Wade language into the state constitution would fail. It just would. Moving the discussion out of the existing partisan divide is essential.
  • It would have an enormous positive impact on the lives of thousands of Missouri women and their families. More than 90 percent of abortions occur during the first 13 weeks of pregnancy.
  • It does not attempt to do too much. Nothing in the amendment precludes aggressive efforts by anti-abortion forces to restrict or outlaw abortion after the first trimester. So be it. Better that than to have the public swamped with arguments attempting to make all abortions seems as if they’re taking place moments before childbirth.
It is critical to understand why the Dobbs decision changed the political world to the degree it did. This is no longer a matter of dueling philosophies over women’s control of their bodies, or the origin of life or any of the rest.

The unique feature of Dobbs is that — for the first time in nearly 50 years — the argument over abortion has been transformed from an ideological issue to reality. Women are no longer horrified at the prospect of losing their freedom.

It’s happening in real time.

For almost the past 50 years, since a principled iteration of the U.S. Supreme Court protected women with its landmark Roe v. Wade decision, millions of women have suffered from unending attempts to obliterate their reproductive freedom. The anti-abortion movement has emerged as one of the most powerful forces in American politics.

For many of those years, I’ve been arguing in these pages that the issue has been miscast. Anti-abortion policies needed to be understood for what they were, I would rail, which is “an unfunded government childbirth mandate for all pregnant women in America.”

If one surveys Americans about whether they “favor abortion on demand,” it is far more likely to evoke negative reactions than if the question reads, “Do you believe that the federal government should require by law that every pregnant woman bring her pregnancy to term?”

To that last question, one could add clauses such as “regardless of her religious views regarding the origin of life” or “regardless of how her unintended pregnancy came to be, or whether bearing a child would have devastating consequences for all concerned.”

The bottom line is this: Americans of all political views and religions and ethnicities and economic classes overwhelmingly share a healthy distrust of the government regulating their lives. That’s not unique to women, or to pregnant women. It’s not about labels or groups; it’s about being an American. We all cherish freedom.

Obviously, “freedom” gets defined differently when the subject is other people’s freedom. That’s true of both ends of the political spectrum.

But move those differences of opinion into real life and you get a very different landscape. That’s what happened with the Dobbs decision obliterating women’s reproductive freedom.

That’s why this is the time for action. Missouri’s Republican legislators are enemies of women’s freedom — and will remain so — because opposing that freedom has been so richly rewarding for so many years.

There remains a zero possibility that these legislators are about to change their stripes. Ditto for the conservative, former rural sheriff in the governor’s seat.

So, there’s only one alternative available to people who care about protecting women’s rights in Missouri. That’s to go to the ballot, sooner rather than later, and put it to a vote of the people.

There’s a real chance that by taking away Roe protections for women, the conservative justices may have inadvertently done more to assure the long-term freedom of those women than anyone dreamed. Measures to protect abortion rights will keep cropping up all over America, in states red and blue.

In Missouri, this too shall pass.

Ray Hartmann founded the
Riverfront Times in 1977. Contact him at [email protected] or catch him on Donnybrook at 7 p.m. on Thursdays on the Nine Network and St. Louis In the Know With Ray Hartmann from 9 to 11 p.m. Monday thru Friday on KTRS (550 AM).

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