A bill enacting new regulations on abortion providers in Missouri is headed to Gov. Eric Greitens.
Six weeks after lawmakers first returned to Jefferson City to consider new abortion regulations, Senate Republicans used a procedural maneuver Tuesday to cut off debate and force a vote on the wide-ranging legislation.
“This is probably one of the most important bills I’ve ever been involved with in my legislative career,” said Assistant Senate Majority Leader Bob Onder, a St. Charles County Republican.
Sen. Jill Schupp, a St. Louis County Democrat, said the bill approved Tuesday will “put women’s health and safety at risk.”
“There are provisions in this bill,” she said, “that undermine women’s access to one of the safest medical procedures there is.”
The biggest sticking point for critics of the bill is a provision giving the Missouri attorney general’s office new powers to prosecute violations of abortion law. Under current law, that power is limited to local prosecutors.
Several Republican senators expressed apprehension about expanding the attorney general’s jurisdiction in abortion law. They fear the new authority sets a dangerous precedent and ultimately could be abused.
Sen. Ryan Silvey, a Kansas City Republican, said he had a 13-year anti-abortion voting record. But he said he would have to vote against this bill because it created a “state-level super prosecutor” in the attorney general’s office.
“I don’t think I can open that box,” Silvey said.
Sam Lee, a lobbyist for Campaign Life Missouri, said the provision is not unprecedented. He noted at least six areas, ranging from labor law to hazardous waste regulations, where the attorney general and local prosecutors have joint authority to prosecute criminal violations.
In the end, 22 Republicans voted for the bill. Silvey joined eight Democrats in opposition.
The bill also requires that doctors, not social workers or nurse practitioners, explain potential medical risks to women seeking an abortion, 72 hours before the procedure.
Supporters of the bill are hopeful that provision could halt Planned Parenthood’s goal to expand the number of clinics providing abortions to four new cities: Kansas City, Columbia, Springfield and Joplin.
Currently, abortion services are offered only in St. Louis.
“I think it’s likely to stop” Planned Parenthood’s expansion, state Sen. Andrew Koenig, a St. Louis County Republican sponsoring the legislation, told St. Louis Public Radio. “If they are going to have their doctors in St. Louis travel to Columbia or Springfield, the regulations could stop them from opening clinics unless they can get other doctors to perform abortions.”
Among the other provisions in the bill:
▪ Annual, unannounced inspections of abortion clinics by the state health department will be mandatory.
▪ Abortion clinic staff who ask that ambulances responding to medical emergencies at the facilities not use sirens or flashing lights could be charged with a misdemeanor.
▪ Pathologists who provide services to abortion clinics will face new requirements.
▪ New whistleblower protection for employees of abortion clinics will be enacted.
▪ Local governments will be prohibited from enacting or enforcing any ordinance that “adversely affects” alternative-to-abortion agencies and pregnancy resource centers, which typically are faith-based, anti-abortion organizations that provide free services to women who want to carry their pregnancies to term.
The Missouri General Assembly adjourned for the year in May. Greitens called lawmakers back into session six weeks ago to focus on abortion regulations. The Senate originally approved abortion legislation in early June, but at the governor’s urging, the House voted to expand the bill’s scope.
Democrats and a handful of Republican senators bristled at the changes made by the House. They argued that by accepting the House version of the bill, Senate leaders were reneging on a deal they agreed to last month after hours of negotiation with Democrats.
“This undermines every future negotiation going forward,” Silvey said.
The Senate should hold its position, opponents of the bill said, or request a conference with the House to work out differences.
“We should go to conference and find out if there’s a place where we can meet in the middle,” said Sen. Jason Holsman, a Kansas City Democrat.
The bill’s proponents disagreed. State Sen. Bill Eigel, a St. Louis County Republican, questioned whether those pushing to go to conference were actually trying to work out a deal or trying to further delay the legislation’s passage.
Others argued Tuesday’s vote demonstrated that a majority of senators think the House improved the bill.
“That’s not me going back on any deal or burning down the building,” said Sen. Dave Schatz, a Franklin County Republican.
When Democrats made it clear they were not willing to allow a vote on the bill, Senate leaders used a maneuver to cut off debate known as “calling the previous question.”
The maneuver was once rarely used in the Missouri Senate — only five times in the Senate from 1970 to 2001. It’s now been used five times in the last two years.
Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, a St. Louis Democrat, said she thinks the legislation approved Tuesday will follow the pattern of many abortion regulations and end up in court.
Earlier this year, a federal judge halted a Missouri law requiring hospital admitting privileges for doctors who perform abortions. The law also mandated that clinics that provide abortions meet the same standards as outpatient surgical centers.
The state was recently ordered to pay more than $156,000 to cover Planned Parenthood’s legal bills tied to a dispute over a clinic’s abortion license.
“This trash piece of legislation,” Nasheed said, “which isn’t worth the price of the paper it’s printed on, will go down in flames in a court of law.”