Missouri's strict abortion ban could change. Even a GOP-led group thinks it should.
Minutes after theU.S. Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to abortion, Missouri's Attorney General announced a trigger law would go into effect, making the state's abortion ban one of the strictest in the nation.
Its only exceptions are for medical emergencies that threaten the life of the pregnant person.
Like many Missourians, Jamie Corley was outraged. She would go on to form the Missouri Women and Family Research Fund, aimed at enshrining some abortion protections in the state constitution.
Corley is hardly alone in doing this. Many abortion rights advocates and groups have mobilized to try to cement protections in states with abortion bans.
But unlike many public opponents of Missouri's ban, Corley is a Republican. She spent years in the nation's capital working for GOP lawmakers.
"I'm obviously a Republican, but this is not a Republican or Democrat initiative," Corley said. "People, whether they say they're pro-life, whether they say they're pro-choice, can get behind what we're doing."
Corley's organization has submitted six proposed ballot initiatives that would establish abortion exceptions in the case of fatal fetal abnormalities, incest, or rape – if someone calls into a crisis hotline. Some iterations would allow abortions up to 12 weeks of pregnancy, and all would prevent the state from punishing those who receive or perform abortions.
"It's dangerous to be pregnant in Missouri," Corley said shortly after filing her petitions to the Missouri Secretary of State's office. "This is not fear mongering, it's not hyperbolic. We are seeing stories of women faced with just unbelievable medical complications, because they weren't able to get the care they needed because of draconian abortion laws."
She's optimistic that if the issue is taken directly to voters, it will be possible to chip away at the state's ban come 2024, when her initiatives could potentially make it on the ballot. In Missouri, voters can amend their state constitution by a simple majority vote on a ballot initiative.
"I think most Republicans do not want to see a total ban on abortion," she said.
Christine Matthews, president of Bellwether Research and a public opinion pollster based in Virginia, said there's data to back that up.
Matthews, who has spoken with Corley about polling work but has not been paid by her organization, recently took a survey of states with strict abortion bans — including Missouri.
"The state legislators who do not support exceptions for rape and incest are very much out of step with constituents," Matthews said. "70 percent say abortion should be legal in cases of rape and incest in Missouri. And that is very roughly what we found among all of these strict abortion ban states."
Matthews says recent history is on the side of abortion rights supporters.
"What we're finding is in red states, when the abortion question is on an initiative as a standalone – and this happened last cycle in Kentucky, Montana, and others– voters sided with the reproductive rights position."
In 2022, in every state where voters weighed in directly on the issue of abortion rights, they supported measures protecting those rights and rejected initiatives that jeopardized them.
Abortion rights advocates are intent on continuing that trend.
Missourians for Constitutional Freedom, a group that supports abortion rights, has submitted nearly a dozen abortion-related petitions as well, with some allowing abortions up to 24 weeks of pregnancy, and others barring the procedure after "fetal viability" except where the pregnancy endangers the patient. One of the petitions doesn't have a viability limit — or mention things like parental consent or funding for abortion services.
Any ballot item would need more than 171,000 signatures by May of next year.
But abortion rights proponents in Missouri have run into two roadblocks: Disagreement over whether voters should decide on a narrow approach like Corley's or expand abortion access beyond what was available before Roe v. Wade was overturned.
A lonely place for Corley
Corley has faced criticism from both sides of the abortion rights debate.
Republican State Sen. Bill Eigel, who is also a Missouri gubernatorial contender, has expressed no interest in carving out exceptions.
"The fundamental belief of the pro-life movement is that all life is precious," said Eigel. "If we get away from that very foundational, fundamental belief, then we are no longer the pro-life state that we talk about being."
Other abortion rights supporters are pushing for ballot initiatives that are more expansive than Corley's proposals, and argue her approach doesn't go far enough.
"Yes, most folks are accessing abortion early in pregnancy," said Dr. Colleen McNicholas, the chief medical officer with Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri. "But there are a whole host of reasons why folks might need abortion access after 12 weeks of pregnancy."
She underscores: "Bottom line: the government should not be the one who's making a decision about when somebody should be able to continue, or not, a pregnancy."
Mallory Schwarz, of Abortion Action Missouri, said Corley's initiatives "don't actually create access, while allowing people, namely Republicans, to suggest support for survivors." She also questioned why someone should have to call into a crisis hotline in order to get access to abortion services.
"We know the only way to support survivors and victims in supporting their autonomy and their decision making around pregnancy is to ensure meaningful access to abortion for everyone," she said.
Corley said Schwarz's comments are "disappointing," adding that survivors of rape and incest "don't have access to make a determination about their pregnancy outcome." She's also said her organization believes exceptionsrequire a reporting element to be effective.
She says proposals that broaden abortion access beyond adding exceptions may have trouble gaining traction in a state like Missouri, which voted solidly for Donald Trump in 2016and 2020, and has a history of electing officials who oppose abortion rights.
"These initiatives have to pass with the majority of voters in Missouri," Corley said. "That is the only way that we are going to expand abortion rights in our state."
'Gumming up the process'
Another hurdle abortion rights advocates face is Republican elected officials who are trying to make it harder for any abortion-related initiative to make it onto the ballot or pass.
It's not yet clear which initiatives from Corley's group or others will be circulated for signatures. Corley's initiatives will soon receive ballot summary language, while the more expansive proposals have been ensnared in a time-consuming legal battle.
GOP opponents of abortion rights have filedlawsuits challenging the estimated cost of Missourians for Constitutional Freedom's initiatives and written unfavorable ballot summary language that prompted litigation.
"I fully support gumming up the process," said state Sen. Andrew Koenig, a Republican who supported the bill that ultimately banned most abortions in Missouri. "I do not want any measure going to the vote of the people specifically when it comes to abortion, because that life has an interest in being protected in this state."
These moves have outraged backers of abortion rights, like Koenig's colleague Sen. Tracy McCreery. The St. Louis County Democrat said the tactics show how Missouri Republicans lack confidence that their ban can survive a vote of the people.
"This is shameful and it's all about delaying it and delaying it," McCreery said. "Pro-choice people will get this to the ballot, but it's just going to be a lot more work."
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