News Politics

Anti-Choice Ex-Lawmaker Behind Missouri Democrats’ Abortion Platform

Ally Boguhn

The amendment, which opens up the party to people holding anti-choice views, was introduced by a former board member of Democrats for Life of America.

A former state lawmaker with ties to an anti-abortion organization failed to insert “personhood” rhetoric into the Missouri Democratic Party platform—but she succeeded in getting the party to welcome candidates who oppose abortion rights.

Missouri Democrats on June 30 approved an amendment to the party’s state platform almost identical to language posted on the website of anti-choice group Democrats for Life of America (DFLA) as “proposed platform language to [sic] unites Democrats around historic Democratic principles.”

The amendment, introduced by former state Rep. Joan Barry, states: “We respect the conscience of each Missourian and recognize that members of our party have deeply held and sometimes differing positions on issues of personal conscience, such as abortion. We recognize the diversity of views as a source of strength, and welcome into our ranks all Missourians who may hold differing positions on this issue.”

“We are losing votes because people think you can’t possibly be a Democrat and be pro-life,” Barry, who has worked as an OB/GYN nurse, told the Kansas City Star last week. “We are tired of being second-class citizens in our party. We just want to know we are accepted in the party under our broad umbrella.”

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Kristen Day, executive director of DFLA, confirmed to Rewire.News Wednesday that Barry had served on the organization’s board but said that “[Barry] brought the language herself” to Missouri Democrats. Sources told Rewire.News that Barry did not disclose her past connection to DFLA during discussion of the amendment.

Day said the language on DFLA’s website was “historically significant” because it echoes since-removed language from the 1996 national Democratic platform. She added that Barry “did a great job of just inclusion for those of us who are pro-life and want to be active participants in the party.”

While in the Missouri House of Representatives, Barry, who did not return requests for comment, sponsored and voted for abortion restrictions. In September 1996, for example, she voted to override then-governor Mel Carnahan’s (D) veto of a bill placing restrictions on abortion clinics, including a requirement for annual clinic inspections, which reproductive rights advocates said was intended to shut down abortion clinics, as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported at the time.

In 1999 Barry sponsored a “partial-birth abortion” ban, and in 2000 she tried to amend legislation so that it would block the state’s share of a national tobacco settlement from being used for abortion services. The following year, Barry introduced a so-called informed consent bill requiring a 24-hour waiting period and mandating that doctors inform patients of risks associated with abortion. As the Guttmacher Institute has noted, such laws often force doctors to provide patients with “information that is irrelevant or misleading.” That year Barry co-sponsored another “informed consent” bill to require a waiting period for patients seeking a medication abortion.

An archived version of Barry’s 2004 campaign website from her failed run for U.S. Congress show an endorsement from the anti-choice Susan B. Anthony List Candidate Fund.

Megan-Ellyia Green, a St. Louis alderwoman who served as vice chair of the Missouri Democratic Party’s platform committee, explained in a June 30 statement that reproductive rights had been a “contentious part of the platform creation process.” She said the committee approved a platform stating “that we support ‘a woman’s right to chose, and [to] be free from government intrusion in medical decisions, including a decision to carry a pregnancy to term, and oppose any efforts to limit access to reproductive healthcare.’”

“No one was asking any democrat [sic] to choose to have an abortion. Rather we were asking our democratic candidates to not support making that decision for other people,” Green said in her statement. “Although support for this [phrase] was not unanimous on the committee, the majority approved it and felt that it was a way to support what we heard on the listening tours, be conscious that not all people will personally chose to have an abortion, and that the continued position of Democrats must be that we support women in making the personal choices that they feel are best for them regardless of what we may feel personally,” she wrote.

During the platform committee’s deliberations, Barry attempted to include anti-choice language regarding “life from conception until natural death,” which ultimately did not make it into the platform. Such phrasing uses so-called personhood rhetoric that, if implemented into law, could criminalize abortion and some forms of contraception.

Pamela Merritt, a longtime reproductive justice activist in Missouri and a member of the state party’s platform committee, said in an interview that she “immediately saw it as personhood language” and that she “objected to it along with several other members of the committee, and that language did not make it into the final draft that was voted on.”

Jalen Anderson, a Democratic state committee member and chair of the platform committee, said that while Barry’s language regarding “life from conception to natural death” did not make it into the platform, ultimately a “middle ground” was found that he considered acceptable. 

But shortly before the platform was scheduled to be voted on by the Democratic state committee, Barry introduced her anti-choice amendment, which was then voted into the platform in a move that opens up the party to people holding anti-choice views.

Criticism of the party for the new language is misplaced, Anderson said, when “it should be focused on those that created the language and not the party itself. Because I know that this party is not at all wanting to go back to the day of putting women as second-class citizens when it comes to health care.”

Anderson plans to push for Barry’s language to be removed from the platform. “I think it is of great urgency that the state committee would reconvene and remove the amendment that Joan and others agreed to,” he said. “And I don’t believe that the language that was added reaffirms our morals. It weakened us, it makes us look foolish, and I don’t believe it has any place on the platform. So I would intend to do everything that I can as a state committee person and as the platform chair to have the state committee remove the language that was added.”

Anderson said removing the language would take 15 members of the state committee writing to Missouri Democratic Party Chair Stephen Webber to call for an emergency meeting.

Merritt said she would support action to remove the language. “The sooner the better,” she said. “It is insulting to Missourians who are passionate about reproductive health care and look to the Missouri Democratic Party to represent their interests politically … to have national Democrats fundraising off of this incredible historic threat to [the U.S. Supreme Court] and have the state party essentially be holding language that celebrates the threat to Roe and also would celebrate its ultimate destruction.”

When asked whether DFLA intended to seek the inclusion of similar language in other states’ Democratic platforms, Day told Rewire.News the organization would work “once again on the national level” to get it into the platform. “I know some people would rather be in the minority than have pro-life Democrats back in the party, but we have to look at the big picture of what are our goals,” said Day. “Yes, we would like to see abortion eliminated, but we also think there’s more we can do to support women to help them with the opportunity to parent,” she said, pointing to the organization’s advocacy for paid family leave.

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