Abortion clinics would face new regulations, and the state attorney general would have the power to enforce them, under a bill approved by the Missouri Senate shortly after midnight Wednesday.
But proponents of even stricter regulations, including the governor, are hopeful the bill will be expanded when it gets to the House.
Gov. Eric Greitens called lawmakers back into session this week, saying immediate action was needed because of a federal judge’s recent ruling striking down some of Missouri’s regulations on abortion providers.
The ruling 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.
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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.
“We want to protect life,” Greitens said Wednesday afternoon at an anti-abortion rally at the Capitol. “We want to defend life, and we want to promote a culture of life here in the state of Missouri.”
After more than 10 hours of closed-door meetings Wednesday, the Senate took up and passed legislation sponsored by Sen. Andrew Koenig, a St. Louis County Republican, that included numerous provisions.
One piece of the legislation would allow the attorney general to prosecute violations of abortion laws.
Currently, only local prosecutors have jurisdiction in these matters, but anti-abortion activists contend that leaves enforcement in the hands of elected prosecutors in more liberal areas of the state, such as Kansas City and St. Louis.
“The legislature can pass a bill, the governor can sign it, it can be challenged in court and defended and upheld,” Sam Lee, a lobbyist for Campaign Life Missouri, recently told The Star. “But unless a local prosecutor or somebody enforces the laws, it doesn’t make any difference.”
Missouri’s current attorney general, Republican Josh Hawley, staunchly opposes abortion.
The legislation also would repeal a St. Louis ordinance that bans employers and landlords from discriminating against women who have had an abortion, use contraceptives or are pregnant.
Opponents of the law say it infringes on the religious rights of pregnancy resource centers, which are faith-based, anti-abortion organizations that provide free services to women who want to carry their pregnancies to term. But critics say pregnancy resource centers often pose as medical clinics while providing inaccurate information designed to scare women away from having an abortion.
The bill would require the state health department to conduct annual, unannounced, on-site inspections and investigations of abortion facilities. It also would provide stronger whistleblower protections for employees of abortion clinics and new requirements for pathologists who provide services to abortion clinics.
The bill passed hours after dueling rallies in the Missouri Capitol, with hundreds of advocates on both sides of the issue pleading their case to lawmakers.
Alison Dreith, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri, slammed lawmakers for waiting until after midnight to give the bill a vote. She called Republicans “cowards” for holding a late-night vote.
“Passing further restrictions on women’s access to abortion in the dark of night is shameful, at best,” she said. “Republican senators know this, or they would have allowed the hundreds of people rallying at the Capitol on Wednesday take part in the process.”
Dreith’s organization has begun running radio ads in the St. Louis area criticizing the governor for calling a special session to restrict access to abortion. The ad focuses on his efforts to repeal the St. Louis ordinance, saying the governor is pushing for laws “that discriminate against women and families.”
The bill now heads to the House, which could pass the legislation without changes and send it to the governor or alter it and force a conference with the Senate to work out differences.
The House will return to the Capitol next week.