Rep. Mike Moon had what was seemingly a simple question for his legislative colleagues.
“Is a sperm alive?” Moon, an Ash Grove Republican, asked during a hearing Tuesday night on a bill that would enshrine in the Missouri Constitution the statement that life begins at conception. “Have you ever seen a tadpole? Is a tadpole alive?”
For the second year in a row, Moon is championing legislation that would amend the state Constitution to expand the definition of “personhood” to include unborn fetuses from the moment of their conception.
It also would add language expressly stating that there is no constitutional protection for an abortion.
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“That all persons have a natural right to liberty, pursuit of happiness and the gains of their own liberty,” Moon said. “Oh wait, I forgot life. The right to life is the first and most important of these natural rights.”
The House passed the bill last year, but the Senate never took it up.
If approved by the legislature, Moon’s bill would put the constitutional amendment on the statewide ballot next year. The ballot wording: “Should the Missouri Constitution be amended to protect pregnant women and unborn children by recognizing that an unborn child is a person with a right to life which cannot be deprived by state or private action without due process and equal protection of law?”
Those who oppose the bill say adding a personhood clause to the Missouri Constitution would severely limit women’s rights explicitly outlined by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.
M’Evie Mead, director of policy and organizing for Planned Parenthood Services Missouri, said the bill oversteps the role of the government.
“It’s the government getting in between a woman, her family and her doctor, and telling that family what they can do,” Mead said. “It’s a serious government intrusion into the most personal pieces of one’s life.”
But reversing Roe is the ideal outcome for many proponents, such as Ike Skelton, executive director of Missourians for the Unborn. (He is not related to the late Missouri congressman of the same name.)
“Since Roe v. Wade, this country has sort of had a culture of death when it comes to babies,” Skelton said. “We need to have a culture of life in the state of Missouri and in this country.”
Abortion rights advocates say a personhood clause could potentially have impact beyond the right to an abortion.
Alison Dreith, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri, worries that the bill could severely restrict, or even outlaw, access to contraceptives, in-vitro fertilization procedures and stem-cell research.
The personhood bill is only one in a series of bills that would restrict abortion in Missouri.
The Senate is considering legislation that would mandate that women get a referral from a doctor before being allowed to seek an abortion in another state. The only clinic in the Kansas City area that performs abortions is a Planned Parenthood facility in Overland Park.
Another bill would place new restrictions on donation of fetal tissue, and yet another would make it illegal for someone to transport a minor across state lines to get an abortion.
In addition to Moon’s personhood bill, the House Children and Families Committee also debated legislation that would require both parents to be notified when a minor is seeking an abortion. Current law requires that only one parent be notified.
Rep. Rocky Miller, a Lake Ozark Republican, said he was inspired to sponsor the legislation after he and his wife were able to encourage their minor daughter to carry her pregnancy to term.
However, Dreith said many minors would be at risk if both of their parents knew about an abortion, especially women who were abused by their fathers.
Republican lawmakers also have proposed legislation that would ban local governments from enacting ordinances that would limit or interfere with the activity of a pregnancy resource center.
These centers provide services aimed to assist women in carrying their pregnancies to full term, such as counseling, housing and supplies for newborns.
They’ve been controversial among abortion rights supporters who say the centers do not inform women of their full range of reproductive options. Critics also say the centers often give false medical information, such as telling women that contraceptives and abortions increase the risk for infertility or that abortions increase the risk of breast cancer.
The legislation has been discussed in the Missouri statehouse for years, but seems to have gotten heightened urgency since St. Louis passed an ordinance that aims to protect women from discrimination on the grounds of abortion or pregnancy.
Gov. Eric Greitens on Thursday said he would lead the fight to repeal the St. Louis ordinance, according to a report in The Pathway, a publication of the Missouri Baptist Convention.
Karen Nolkemper, executive director of the Respect Life Apostolate of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, argued Tuesday that without laws that safeguard them, pregnancy resource centers might be mandated to hire people who refer abortions. Others worry that local governments could impede free speech rights of pregnancy resource centers.
“They should be free, free to operate in accordance with their mission and religious conviction,” Nolkemper said.