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It’s Open Season on Abortion Access, and Missouri Is Leading the Charge 

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Protestors pretending to be clinic escorts to confuse patients. - VIA NARAL PRO-CHOICE MISSOUR
  • VIA NARAL PRO-CHOICE MISSOUR
  • Protestors pretending to be clinic escorts to confuse patients.

As HB 126 quickly transformed from bill into law last spring, Schwarz says that NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri heard rising concerns from citizens. After the referendum was thwarted, though, she says her office was flooded with calls and emails from Missourians who wanted to advocate for their reproductive rights.

"I think that passing HB 126 caused outrage across the state and really woke people up — people who don't pay a lot of attention to politics, people who are busy with their kids and jobs and lives and haven't thought about what abortion access could mean," Schwarz says. "All of a sudden they heard this, they saw this, and I think those people were awakened, are increasingly engaged and are fed up."

On the eve of HB 126 going into effect on August 28, U.S. District Judge Howard Sachs issued a preliminary injunction blocking the gestational age bans outlined in the bill. A month later, the federal judge issued a separate preliminary injunction blocking the bill's provision banning abortion due to the sex or race of the fetus, or a Down syndrome diagnosis.

Currently the bill is caught up in appeals courts, with Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt seeking to reverse the preliminary injunctions issued by Sachs. The appeals are scheduled for argument during the week of April 13.

For his part, Parson still seems motivated to see HB 126 or legislation similar to it take effect in Missouri under his tenure. On February 1, the governor reaffirmed his position on abortion, becoming the first sitting state governor to speak at the Midwest March for Life rally.

"We're just part of the troops, in Army terms, because we've still got to fight battle after battle after battle," Parson said at the rally, as reported by the News Tribune in Jefferson City. "But I will guarantee you, sure as I'm standing here in front of you as governor of the state of Missouri, we're winning the war."

Long before Mike Parson was a politician, he was a Missouri farmer and U.S. Army serviceman. Raised in Hickory County near Bolivar, he would eventually become the third generation in his family to earn his livelihood off the land. After graduating from Wheatland High School in rural western Missouri, Parson served in the Army for six years and later was the Polk County sheriff for twelve years before running for state representative. He later moved up to the state senate and, eventually, lieutenant governor.

As a politician, he has cultivated an image as a gentleman farmer — he still runs a cattle operation in Bolivar with his wife, Teresa — and state Republicans welcomed his promotion in 2018 to replace departing Governor Eric Greitens, who clashed with party leaders before allegations surrounding an affair led to his resignation.

Parson had only been governor for a year when he signed HB 126. During his time working in the Missouri General Assembly, Parson had voted in favor of several bills seeking to restrict abortion access. When he announced his plans to run for a full term as governor this past September, Missouri Right to Life fully endorsed him. (A Parson spokeswoman said the governor was not available for an interview.)

As Parson gears up for his first gubernatorial race, he'll have to double down on his anti-abortion views and politics more fiercely than ever. Abortion is expected to be a central issue in the race given the extreme nature of HB 126 — even some conservatives find the lack of exception for survivors of rape and incest to be egregious.

This fall, Parson will face off in the gubernatorial election against State Auditor Nicole Galloway, who has specifically come out against HB 126 and its lack of exceptions for survivors of rape or incest. Democrats seeking to win over Republican moderates in Missouri have traditionally avoided pushing abortion access as a key part of their platform, but advocates see an opening in the extreme measures of the ban.

(Repeated attempts to interview Galloway were not successful.)

Although most Missouri voters identify as "pro-life," according to a survey conducted by Kansas City-based Remington Research Group (founded by Republican strategist Jeff Roe), 54 percent of those surveyed opposed an abortion ban with no exceptions for survivors of rape or incest, including 42 percent of Republicans and 58 percent of independents.

Last summer, an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll of voters across the U.S. found similar results, including that a majority of Americans are against overturning Roe v. Wade, although 61 percent of those surveyed believed in some sort of abortion restrictions.

"What it speaks to is the fact that the debate is dominated by the extreme positions on both sides," said Barbara Carvalho, director of the Marist Poll, in a story with NPR. "People do see the issue as very complicated, very complex. Their positions don't fall along one side or the other. ... The debate is about the extremes, and that's not where the public is."

Schwarz has found the same to be true in her work with NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri. "Polling has shown that seven in ten Missourians, like seven in ten Americans, support access to legal abortion and support Roe v. Wade," Schwarz says.

Even before Galloway announced her campaign for governor, she began to attack Parson on the issue. In an editorial published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in June 2019, she called HB 126 "a travesty for women."

"[Parson] wants rapists in Missouri to have more power over their victims. He wants a woman's decisions over her health care to be criminalized. These positions are extreme and cruel.

"I join the probable majority of Missourians who are appalled by this new law. But I also know this law represents another emotion for Missouri women — fear."

Days before Galloway's op-ed, the state auditor spoke at the Jackson County Democrats' 32nd annual Truman Gala.

"Until now, a survivor of rape could decide what came next," Galloway said at the gala, as reported by the Kansas City Star. "Governor Parson has taken that choice away from women, and instead a survivor must accept that her rapist could have parental rights."

Although Missouri has lit up red in presidential elections in recent years, Galloway has proven to be a viable candidate in historically Republican-leaning counties. She is currently the only Democrat to hold statewide office, and in 2018, when she was reelected as state auditor, she won eight typically red counties: Buchanan, Callaway, Cole, Greene, Howard, Platte, Ste. Genevieve and St. Charles. Those rural and suburban victories were crucial for Galloway, who won the election with just 50.413 percent of the vote, according to reporting by St. Louis Magazine.

Galloway isn't the only Democrat to sway a historically Republican suburban area in recent years. In St. Louis County, Democratic Representative Trish Gunby flipped the 99th District, which represents communities including Twin Oaks, Valley Park and Manchester, in a special election.

Gunby is running again this year, currently against two Republican challengers. She credits her victory in 2019 to voters who cared less about voting along party lines and more about where candidates stood on the issues.

"I think there's a lot of people who are more focused on the candidate, and I think that's what I found," Gunby says. "I know Republicans voted for me because they told me they did. They were more focused on the candidate and that candidate's willingness to work with people and work across the aisle. That's what resonated with them."

Galloway and Gunby are both backed by EMILY's List, the influential political action committee that has recruited pro-choice candidates across the nation. Just across the border in Kansas, the group played what the Kansas City Star described as a "major role" in the election of Democrat Sharice Davids, a gay Native American who defeated a Republican incumbent for U.S. representative in Kansas' 3rd congressional district. It was one of the most shocking upsets of the 2018 cycle.

In a story about Galloway's then-rumored bid for governor, the Kansas City Star suggested that if EMILY's List were to get behind Galloway's campaign in a big way in 2020, it could potentially give her a similar boost.

EMILY'S List helps with campaign fundraising efforts for candidates and can donate to those campaigns directly as a political action committee, but the real money — including most of what funded Davids' historic run — comes from Women Vote. The Super PAC is connected to but legally independent of EMILY's List.

According to an EMILY'S List representative who spoke to the Riverfront Times on background, EMILY's List and Women Vote don't communicate with one another and there's a wall separating the two groups for campaign finance law purposes. Women Vote advocates for pro-choice candidates through advertising. It's not yet clear if Women Vote will do the same for any Missouri candidates.

In a conversation with the RFT, an EMILY's List representative acknowledged that a lot of people in Missouri and across the U.S. don't support abortion, but that doesn't mean they agree with how extremely a bill like HB 126 aims to limit access.

Gunby agrees, suggesting that even members on both sides of the aisle in the Missouri General Assembly may not support the more extreme bans outlined in HB 126. She points to legislation that was passed earlier in the current session around lifting the statute of limitations for survivors of sexual abuse.

"I find it very interesting," Gunby says. "So the [legislative] body is OK with doing something like that, acknowledging that somebody who has been sexually harmed may wait years before she comes forward, and yet they expect somebody who experienced sexual trauma through rape or incest to know in less than eight weeks what they should do around that issue. That to me is a disconnect. I feel like we're in a time and a place in Missouri where the rules of logic are not being utilized depending on the topic, and what's good for one issue does not apply to another, and that's what we're dealing with around the abortion issue."

In addition to Galloway and Gunby, EMILY's List is also rallying behind State Senator Jill Schupp, who is running for the U.S. House of Representatives. Schupp has supported reproductive rights throughout her political career, which includes tenures in the Missouri House and Senate, and has seen how abortion access has gradually been whittled down by conservative legislation over time.

"Over the years I've seen actions to chip away and to put stumbling blocks in front of women trying to access abortions or their right to choose," Schupp says. "And that chipping away, year after year, making a woman wait 72 hours, having restrictions on the kind of facility that offers women the choice of abortion, all of the relationships with hospitals — all of these laws have been to chip away at a women's access, and this is now just the outright ban."

Not unlike the fight between Galloway and Parson, Schupp is also challenging a staunch anti-abortion politician, Ann Wagner, in the 2020 cycle. Wagner has represented Missouri's 2nd congressional district since 2013.

In that time, she has been outspoken about her unwavering views on abortion. She introduced a bill, the "Born Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act," in early 2019 which seeks to "ensure any infant born alive after an abortion receives the same protection of law as any newborn: mandating care and instituting penalties for doctors who allow such infants to die or who intentionally kill a newborn."

Under Roe v. Wade and state law, abortion is banned after fetal viability except in rare cases of medical emergency. Therefore, critics of the "Born Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act" say that it won't apply to most abortion procedures.

"Congress must act to protect those who cannot protect themselves," Wagner said in a press release issued in February 2019. "That is why I introduced the 'Born Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act,' which merely ensures that babies who survive abortions receive immediate, lifesaving care — just as any other baby would. To my colleagues, this is the simplest vote you will ever take: either you support babies being killed after they are born or you don't."

Wagner has also previously opposed anti-abortion legislation including exceptions for survivors of rape or incest similar to the language used in HB 126. Schupp believes that HB 126 has potentially alienated even Missourians who don't identify as pro-choice.

"I think this is such an irresponsible and extreme law — it's dangerous, it's outrageous, and frankly it's unconstitutional," Schupp says. "I think people are appalled knowing that regardless of their situation or circumstance that this law makes abortion illegal. I think that women and common-sense people in the state of Missouri are saying, 'This is absolutely a bridge too far.' Even people who have not been pro-choice are so offended by the way that this has come about and the extreme measures that are in this piece of legislation."

Sitting around the table at that library for the NARAL Listening Tour, people agree. The night is winding down and we're now discussing the events of last summer, including HB 126. Most of the people in the room aren't aware of the most extreme measures in HB 126; some aren't aware of it at all. When they're informed that the people of Missouri were denied the chance to put the bill to a public vote, emotions run even higher.

Gazing into the faces of people ranging in age from seventeen to 70, it's hard not to consider the generational impact of HB 126. It's been almost fifty years since Roe v. Wade became federal law, and the people in this room and their stories represent our world before and after its passage. It's hard not to consider Katie's great-grandmother in Brooklyn, who chose to have an abortion decades before the procedure was legal. It's hard not to think of the people who will still seek out abortion if it's once again denied to women under the law.

Given what's at stake, this next election cycle feels like another major defining moment for America. We will either remain a country where people are allowed to make their own decisions about their personal health care, or we will begin banning people's access to it, starting with abortion.

"The future of women's health care in the state of Missouri will be determined in November," Schupp says. "My Republican colleagues have made it illegal to have an abortion even if you're the victim of rape or incest. It is really critical that people who are concerned about women's access to abortion, which will affect one in four women in the state, get out and vote. That's how we're going to make change."

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