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Should abortion stance be a purity test for Missouri Democrats? Question roils party

Rev. Molly Housh Gordon of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Columbia addressed people in November 2015 at a rally for Planned Parenthood on the campus of the University of Missouri-Columbia.
Rev. Molly Housh Gordon of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Columbia addressed people in November 2015 at a rally for Planned Parenthood on the campus of the University of Missouri-Columbia.

Annie Rice shocked a room full of Democrats over the weekend when she suggested the state party should amend its platform to include a provision permitting its members to support a right-to-work law in Missouri.

“Everyone was staring at me like I had three heads for suggesting this,” said Rice, an alderwoman in St. Louis and a member of the committee that helped draft the platform.

Rice had no intention of actually amending the platform. She vehemently opposes right-to-work and withdrew the amendment before any vote was taken.

The move, Rice told The Star, was an effort to force a conversation about an earlier amendment the party did adopt aimed at welcoming candidates who oppose abortion rights.

A section of the party's platform pledged Democrats would support "a woman's right to choose" and to "be free from intrusion in medical decisions, including to carry a pregnancy to term."

An amendment added Saturday 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."

The party demands purity on issues such as civil rights and organized labor, Rice said. Why doesn't that purity test, she said, extend to abortion?

“What is the difference between supporting the rights of labor unions and supporting my rights as a woman to my own body?” Rice said. “One is sacrosanct to our state party, and the other is not.”

The battle over abortion is nothing new for the Democratic Party, which has struggled to clarify its stance as it works to win back elected offices in Republican-dominated parts of the country.

But over the last week the internal debate has intensified, as the recently announced retirement of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy has opened the possibility that the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion could be overturned.

Now those who think a woman’s right to make choices about her own health must be a litmus test for candidates face off against those who argue that insisting on ideological purity could cost the party at the polls.

“We are losing votes because people think you can’t possibly be a Democrat and be pro-life,” Joan Barry, a former Democratic state lawmaker from St. Louis County, said Saturday as she proposed the abortion amendment to the state party’s platform. “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.”

Alison Dreith, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri, said the platform was already "pretty basic." It didn’t even include the word abortion. The amendment, she said, undercuts the already watered-down support in the platform for abortion rights.

“I’m really disheartened. I’m at a loss for words,” she said. “With friends like these, why do we need enemies?"

Stephen Webber, chairman of the Missouri Democratic Party, said he fully understands the frustration some may feel about the amendment. That's especially true, Webber said, because the amendment passed the same week of Kennedy's announced retirement form the Supreme Court and Missouri Gov. Mike Parson's signing a state budget that defunds Planned Parenthood..

“There’s really good reasons to be frustrated and angry and concerned right now,” Webber said. “But the bottom line is the Democratic Party fights to empower women to make their own reproductive decisions, and that’s never going to change.”

In a statement to The Star, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat up for re-election this year, reiterated her belief that “women have a right to make their own healthcare decisions.

“But I don’t think the Missouri Democratic Party should shut its doors to those who feel differently,” she said. “It should be up to voters to decide who they want to represent them.”

The party has anti-abortion members, Rice said. And the platform drafted after months of public meetings was an attempt to reflect that reality. Personal objection to abortion is fine, she said. She's more concerned with how candidates will vote once they are elected.

“Reproductive health care is an economic issue for women. It’s the ability to fully participate in the world,” she said. “Choice doesn’t have to be a litmus test, but it should be a guiding principle.”

Saturday’s vote, Rice said, is another example of the Democratic Party “conceding that reproductive health is just a social issue and isn’t an economic issue for women all over the state. If we don’t talk about how contraception and access to abortion allows women to fully participate in the economy, if we don’t lead, we’re never going to educate people.”

Rachel Sweet, regional director of public policy and organizing for Planned Parenthood Great Plains Votes, said reproductive rights are under attack in Missouri and across the country.

“By rolling out the welcome mat for candidates who do not support abortion rights," Sweet said, "the (Missouri Democratic Party) is signaling to its female supporters that their rights are expendable. Planned Parenthood Great Plains Votes will hold accountable any party or candidate who doesn’t believe in every person’s right to make their own personal medical decisions without government interference. This fight is more important now than ever.”

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