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GOP Quarreling Could Doom Sweeping Anti-Choice Bills in Missouri

Teddy Wilson

A Republican bill winding its way through the legislature during a special session would further restrict access to abortion care, but political gridlock could endanger its passage.

Lawmakers in a state that has some of the country’s most restrictive abortion laws are poised to pass legislation that would go even further in eliminating access to abortion care. However, a clash between a politically ambitious governor and frustrated state lawmakers could create political gridlock that may sink the legislation.

Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens (R) this month announced that for the second time he would call lawmakers back to Jefferson City, Missouri’s capital, and requested legislation be sent to his desk that targets so-called “abortion sanctuary cities” and increases medically unnecessary regulations on abortion clinics.

State Sen. Jill Schupp (D-Creve Coeur) told Rewire there is bipartisan agreement that Greitens has called lawmakers back to the capitol for political reasons. “I don’t believe for a moment that this is about the policy that we’re putting into place in the state of Missouri,” Schupp said. “I think that the special sessions are based on politics.”

Schupp was not convinced that Greitens’ justification meets the “constitutional intent” for calling a special session. The state’s constitution gives the governor the power to call a special session in “extraordinary occasions.”

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State Sen. Bob Dixon (R-Springfield) told the Associated Press that Greitens’ rhetoric had “poisoned the well.” Dixon is among a growing number of Republican lawmakers who have grown frustrated with the governor’s tactics. “It really has been a consistent poisoning from really throughout the campaign and it did not change when he came to the building,” Dixon said.

Lawmakers opened the special session last week in the state senate, as the seniors, families, and children committee held an hours-long hearing on a trio of anti-choice bills, and voted to advance each bill with a party-line 4-2 vote.

Dr. Colleen McNicholas, an obstetrician and gynecologist from St. Louis, testified against the bills during the senate committee hearing, and dismissed the special session as a political stunt, reported the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

“There are some real ways that the legislature could promote health and even reduce the need for abortion, but it would require women’s health to be viewed as something other than a political football,” McNicholas said.

After reportedly 14 hours of closed-door negotiations, the state senate Thursday morning passed a compromise version of the bill that did not include some of the abortion restrictions requested by the governor

SB 5, sponsored by state Sen. Andrew Koenig (R-Manchester), combined elements of the two other bills passed by the committee: SB 6, sponsored by Dixon, and SB 1, sponsored state Sen. Bob Onder (R-Lake Saint Louis).

The senate approved SB 5 with a 20-8 vote.

The bill approved by the state senate included language intended to nullify an ordinance passed in St. Louis that bans landlords and employers from discriminating against people based on their reproductive health choices. The GOP bill would prohibit cities and municipalities from passing ordinances that require people or organizations to “participate in abortion,” and included protections for “alternatives to abortion agencies,” also known as anti-choice crisis pregnancy centers, or fake clinics.

The bill would increase the state attorney general’s jurisdiction to prosecute violations of the state’s abortion laws; create additional reporting requirements concerning fetal tissue reports; create whistle blower protections for people involved in performing abortions; change the license requirements of abortion facilities; and increase inspections of facilities that provide abortion care.

Koenig conceded that there were “concessions” made during negotiations, and lawmakers on both sides characterized the bill as a “watered-down” version of what Greitens had requested. “There are certainly some things in here that definitely got watered down,” Koenig said, reported the Columbia Missourian.

Schupp was a key figure in the negotiations, and told Rewire that she worked with her Republican colleagues to prevent more severe restrictions from being included in the bill, which included provisions from the two other bills considered by the senate committee. Schupp warned that “unless the house passed the bill exactly as it is, with every comma intact,” it could unravel the results of the tenuous negotiations by the senate.

Immediately after the passage of the senate bill, the governor’s top policy adviser and anti-choice activists called on lawmakers in the house to amend the bill.

The house children and families committee on Monday held a hearing on SB 5, and attached several controversial amendments to the bill. Committee Chairwoman Diane Franklin (R-Camdenton) said the bill passed by the senate “did not meet the muster that we felt like was important to go forward for the state,” reported the AP.

Among the amendments approved by the committee was a provision to prohibit staff members of abortion clinics from requesting that ambulances responding to medical emergencies at clinic not use sirens or flashing lights.  Another amendment approved by the committee would allow the Attorney General to prosecute violations of the state’s abortion laws without first notifying local prosecutors.

The committee approved the amended bill with 7-3 vote along party lines.

McNicholas, who also testified during the senate committee hearing, said that any legislation that further restricts abortion access will have negative impact, reported St. Louis Public Radio. “Every version of this bill is bad for Missouri,” she said. “What we saw today was the unfortunate reality of how health care policy in Missouri is being created.”

Samuel Lee, director of Campaign Life Missouri, told the Associated Press that the legislature is on the cusp of approving major changes to the state’s laws. “If this passes, it would be the biggest change in Missouri’s abortion laws in at least ten years and possibly since 1986,” Lee said. 

The house on Tuesday considered more than a dozen amendments to SB 5, and approved an amendment to create additional inspection requirements of abortion clinics and another amendment to created additional forced counseling requirements. After several hours of debate approved the amendment version of the bill by a 110-38 vote

M’Evie Mead, director of policy and organizing for Planned Parenthood Advocates in Missouri, said in a statement that SB 5 “imposes additional, medically unnecessary restrictions on abortion providers,” and falls outside of the bounds of the precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt.

“Missourians are tired of politicians ignoring the Constitution and denying access to health care in order to climb a political ladder,” Mead said. “Lawmakers need to stop interfering with Missourians’ personal, private medical decisions and go back to work creating policies that promote citizens’ health and well-being.”

House Speaker Todd Richardson (R-Poplar Bluff) told the Kansas City Star that he hopes the state senate accepts the house amendments and sends the bill to the governor. “My hope is that the Senate will approve our changes and send this important pro-life piece of legislation to the governor’s desk to be signed into law,” Richardson said.

The changes made to SB 5 by the house may result in a political stalemate.

Rep. Tracy McCreery (D-Olivette) told Rewire that if SB 5 was amended by the house, it could create a “stand off” between the house and senate leadership. “If the governor puts enough pressure on house leadership to change the bill and make it better, but the senate won’t come to conference, then the bill will actually die,” McCreery said.

Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard (R-Joplin) told the Post-Dispatch that the senate bill was the product of negotiations that avoided the use of parliamentary tactics to overcome Democratic opposition. “You can only do what you can do,” Richard said. “We did the best we could do with what we had.”

Typically when the house and state senate pass different versions of the same bill, the bill is then referred to a conference committee. Five members from each chamber then negotiate a final version of the bill, which is sent to each chamber for final approval. 

If no agreement between the house and state senate can be reached, lawmakers could make a motion to adjourn and end the special session.

McCreery said if the chambers adjourn it would amount to a “huge defeat” for a governor who she said has been “disrespectful” of the legislative process. “This shows that running as a political outsider is fine and dandy,” McCreery said. “Now this is what happens when someone doesn’t understand the process, and they don’t understand the different branches of government, and they don’t understand teamwork.”

The state senate will reportedly be in session on Thursday, but lawmakers are not expected to take up SB 5 until next week.

Reproductive rights advocates have promised to challenge the law in court if lawmakers manage to send a bill to the governor’s desk. Laura McQuade, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Great Plains, said that “if the Missouri legislature passes once again clearly unconstitutional regulations,” Planned Parenthood will pursue all legal avenues, reported the Missourian.

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