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As abortion legalization measure gathers signatures, Missouri lawmakers mull options

The Rev. Dr. Love Holt kicks off a rally to gather signatures for a Missouri constitutional amendment that would legalize abortion up until fetal viability on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024, at The Pageant in St. Louis’ West End neighborhood.
Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
The Rev. Dr. Love Holt kicks off a rally to gather signatures for a Missouri constitutional amendment that would legalize abortion up until fetal viability on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024, at The Pageant in St. Louis’ West End neighborhood.

Backers of the ballot item legalizing abortion up to fetal viability held a number of signature gathering events on Tuesday.

Enola Proctor felt devastated when she witnessed the demise of legal abortion in Missouri.

The Olivette resident was in her early 20s when Roe v. Wade first provided protections around the right to an abortion. And after the 2022 Dobbs decision activated Missouri’s trigger law that banned the procedure in most circumstances, Proctor knew she needed to become involved somehow to reverse course.

“When Roe was enshrined in the Constitution, I felt that it immediately made women safer,” Proctor said. “I had college friends who had sought abortions, very unsafe ones. I worried about the immediate damage to their bodies and their future ability to give birth. And so I felt then that women were safe. And it pains me to know that women are no longer safe.”

Proctor was one of hundreds of people who flocked to the Pageant on Tuesday night to sign an initiative petition from Missourians for Constitutional Freedom. While the group had unveiled the ballot initiative in January, Tuesday marked the unofficial kickoff of a truncated rush to get roughly 171,000 signatures by early May.

The ballot item would effectively repeal Missouri’s ban on most abortions and replace it with language allowing the procedure up to fetal viability. In the proposal, fetal viability is defined as the point in pregnancy when, "in the good faith judgment of a treating health care professional and based on the particular facts of the case, there is a significant likelihood of the fetus’ sustained survival outside the uterus without the application of extraordinary medical measures.”

The amendment would also bar state government from infringing on someone’s right to “reproductive freedom,” which includes but is not limited to “prenatal care, postpartum care, birth control, abortion care, miscarriage care, and respectful birthing conditions.”

“This amendment is our chance to end this cruel ban and its devastating effects,” said the Rev. Love Holt, the emcee for the kickoff event. “This policy will transform our state and restore abortion access for millions of Missourians. For us, our partners, and our children, our grandchildren and generations to come. And guess what, everybody? That future starts right here tonight.”

Even though the timeline to collect signatures is tight, organizers say they’re gratified by the response from the public: Since January, the campaign received 38 donations that exceed $5,000 — totaling more than $2.9 million — and that doesn’t include smaller contributions. They’ve also recruited more than 5,000 volunteer signature gatherers, a rare feat in Missouri where campaigns typically contract with companies that pay people to get signatures.

“We know that Missourians wanted this for a very long time,” said Tori Schafer, deputy director of the ACLU of Missouri who was at Tuesday’s event on behalf of Missourians for Constitutional Freedom. “They were calling our offices nonstop, saying: ‘Hey, we want to do that thing that Ohio and Michigan did.’ And they saw the win over in Kansas. We're amazed by the amount of support that we've seen from across the state.”

Schafer is referring to how Republican-leaning states like Kansas and Ohio either rejected ballot items that restricted abortion or enshrined protections in their constitutions. Unlike in those states, passage in Missouri later this year would eventually overturn a ban on most abortions.

To even have that chance, backers of the initiative will need the signatures of 8% of voters in six of the state’s eight congressional districts. That amounts to more than 171,000 signatures.

Schafer said backers of the initiative plan to collect signatures all over the state.

“Folks will be out organizing in the Ozarks and Springfield and Rolla,” Schaefer said. “And while you only need a certain amount to sign, we know that it's important for people to be involved in this campaign. Because it is Missouri's campaign, and they should have ownership over it.”

Enola Proctor, 75, of Olivette, signs a petition for a Missouri constitutional amendment that would legalize abortion up until fetal viability on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024, at The Pageant in St. Louis’ West End neighborhood.
Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Enola Proctor, 75, of Olivette, signs a petition for a Missouri constitutional amendment that would legalize abortion up until fetal viability on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024, at The Pageant in St. Louis’ West End neighborhood.

Legislative shadow

The campaign kickoff comes as some Missouri lawmakers are scrambling to try to put something on the ballot that would raise the threshold to amend the state constitution — which abortion rights opponents have explicitly stated is aimed at thwarting Missourians for Constitutional Freedom’s initiative.

“At this point, where there's so much at stake, the gloves are off, and we're willing to do whatever it takes to protect life, and to ensure that our constitution is protected,” Sen. Rick Brattin, R-Harrisonville, said last month. “That's what we swear an oath to protect and defend your beliefs.”

While there are various proposals floating around the GOP-controlled legislature, one measure lawmakers may send to the ballot would require any proposed constitutional amendment to prevail in a majority of state House districts. It would also give “exclusive authority” to enact laws enforcing provisions in the constitution relating to initiative petitions proposing constitutional amendments.

But the only possible way for a measure boosting the threshold to pass constitutional amendments to affect the abortion legalization initiative is for the two proposals to be voted on in different elections this year. Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican, would ultimately make that call, and the sequencing could have significant consequences for the Missouri GOP.

If the constitutional threshold boost is put on the August ballot and it fails, a November abortion legalization initiative could give Democrats, who are generally in favor of abortion rights, a major turnout mechanism for a slew of key statewide and state legislative elections.

Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, also noted there are differing legal opinions about whether that plan would succeed — adding he’s seen memos from attorneys stating that “the court would probably allow them to live under the old rules in November.”

“I don't think it has a tremendous impact on statewide elections, because Missouri is a pretty bright red state,” Rowden said. “But I certainly think it has a tremendous impact on the pivotal kind of swing elections in St. Louis County, Boone County, Greene County and some of the places that we know those swing districts are.”

Parson demurred when asked whether he would place any constitutional amendment threshold increase on the August ballot and let the abortion legalization initiative be voted on in November.

“I don't want to sound like I'm just not answering your question. I just think there's a lot of unknowns to that,” Parson said. “And I think at some point, we'll be glad to answer that.”

John Bowman, president of the St. Louis County branch of the NAACP, said GOP efforts to try to change the initiative petition process as a means to stymie the abortion legalization measure could end up backfiring. Voters in Republican-leaning states like Ohio and Arkansas voted down efforts to make their constitutions more difficult to amend.

“If they decide to make those types of decisions, you will see a duplication of what happened in Ohio,” Bowman said. “There's no reason to deny one vote, one voice, one person, one vote.”

Hundreds gather as the group Missouri for Constitutional Freedom launches a signature collecting event for a constitutional amendment that would legalize abortion up until fetal viability on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024, at The Pageant in St. Louis’ West End neighborhood.
Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Hundreds gather as the group Missouri for Constitutional Freedom launches a signature collecting event for a constitutional amendment that would legalize abortion up until fetal viability on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024, at The Pageant in St. Louis’ West End neighborhood.

Battles ahead

Whatever the legislature decides to do, there’s certain to be organized opposition to Missourians for Constitutional Freedom’s initiative. A group known as Missouri Stands with Women is raising money to try to defeat the measure, while groups such as Missouri Right to Life are urging the state’s residents not to sign the petition.

Schafer said her group has heard from people who have moral objections to abortion but still want to get involved in repealing the state’s ban.

“We're not telling you to feel one way or another on abortion, we're saying that the government should not have the ability to infringe on that very personal decision that you make for yourself and your family and alignment with your doctor's guidance,” Schafer said.

Proctor, the Olivette resident who signed the petition on Tuesday, said a successful outcome for the abortion legalization measure would be “amazing.”

“It would return health care to women and their doctors, where it fundamentally belongs,” she said.

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Jason Rosenbaum