Strict new regulations on abortion providers were approved Tuesday by the Missouri House, setting up a showdown with the state Senate over just how expansive the legislation should ultimately be.
On a 110-38 vote, the House approved legislation that requires the state health department to conduct annual, unannounced, on-site inspections and investigations of abortion facilities.
The bill gives the state attorney general new authority to prosecute violations of abortion laws without first notifying local prosecutors. It also enacts new requirements for pathologists who provide services to abortion clinics, and repeals a St. Louis ordinance that bans employers and landlords from discriminating against women who have had an abortion, use contraceptives or are pregnant.
The legislation now goes back to the Senate, which passed a paired down version of the bill last week.
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“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,” said House Speaker Todd Richardson, a Poplar Bluff Republican.
In order to get a bill out of the Senate, Republicans stripped out some of the more divisive provision that Gov. Eric Greitens had requested when he called lawmakers back into session earlier this month.
Greitens, a Republican, said immediate action is needed because of a federal judge’s recent ruling striking down some of Missouri’s regulations on abortion providers. He privately expressed concerns with the Senate’s bill and encouraged the House to expand it.
The House agreed with Greitens and restored many of the controversial provisions that were removed by the Senate, such as a ban on abortion-clinic staff from asking ambulances responding to medical emergencies at the facilities not to use sirens or flashing lights during the calls.
“The bill we received from the Senate we thought was a good framework but it did not meet the governor’s call,” said Rep. Diane Franklin, a Camdenton Republican who sponsored the bill in the House. “So we put in provisions that helped provide for the health and safety of women.”
Franklin repeatedly rejected the idea that the special session was called to reduce the number of abortions in the state or make it harder to get an abortion. She insisted that the purpose was to protect the health and safety of women and children.
“I just don’t see that argument, the substance of that argument within the bill,” she said.
Democrats say if Republicans were interested in protecting the health and safety of women it wouldn’t have been solely focused on abortion.
“There were amendments offered dealing with health care issues for women and kids, but we weren’t allowed to include those on this bill,” said Rep. Crystal Quade, a Springfield Democrat.
Richardson said he can’t predict what will happen to the bill now that it returns to the Senate.
But by amending the legislation and sending it back to the Senate, its fate is now up in the air.
A bipartisan group of senators openly questioned whether the governor should have called lawmakers back into session in the first place, arguing that the issue at hand doesn’t constitute an emergency and should instead be handled when the 2018 session begins in January.
“I don’t think we should be here,” Sen. Ryan Silvey, a Kansas City Republican, said during debate last week. “It’s certainly clear the governor doesn’t have any respect for this process.”
Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, a Joplin Republican, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the bill that won Senate approval was the product of more than 10 hours of behind-closed-doors negotiations.
“You can only do what you can do,” Richard said. “We did the best we could do with what we had.”
The Senate is scheduled to be in session on Thursday. But the full Senate is not expected to return to the Capitol until next week.
This is the second time Greitens has called lawmakers back into special session. Last month he asked lawmakers to pass legislation aimed at luring a steel mill to southeast Missouri.
In calling a second special session, Greitens pointed to the federal court’s ruling that halted a state law requiring hospital admitting privileges for doctors who perform abortions and mandating that clinics that provide abortions meet the same standards as outpatient surgical centers. Those regulations were similar to ones in Texas that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down last June.
After the court ruling, Planned Parenthood announced it would begin providing abortion services in four new Missouri locations: Kansas City, Springfield, Joplin and Columbia. Currently, the only Missouri clinic performing abortions is in St. Louis.
But Greitens’ critics contend politics is the main reason the governor called a special session.
Greitens is widely believed to be eying a run for president one day or for the U.S. Senate next year. During last year’s GOP primary for governor, Greitens was the only candidate to not receive the endorsement of Missouri Right to Life, the state’s largest anti-abortion group.
He also caught flak over his position on stem cell research, coming out against it but accepting huge donations from individuals with a long track record in support of embryonic stem cell research.
“This all feels like a political stunt to a lot of us,” said Rep. Peter Meredith, a St. Louis Democrat, later adding: “It’s being sold as an effort to show how ‘pro-life’ the governor is.”
Greitens has dismissed any efforts to question his motives, saying he called the session to “protect life” and “defend life.”