Government & Politics

ACLU seeks to overturn Missouri abortion ban by placing question on 2020 ballot

The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri filed notice Tuesday morning that it will pursue a referendum to repeal the new Missouri law that criminalizes abortions after 8 weeks of pregnancy, except in the case of medical emergencies.

The ACLU has until Aug. 28 — the day the abortion ban is scheduled to go into effect — to collect more than 100,000 signatures to place the law on the ballot for an up-or-down vote. If it succeeds, the ban won’t take effect until Missourians get the chance to have their say in 2020.

A “yes” vote would mean the ban becomes law, while a “no” means it doesn’t.

The measure, passed by Missouri General Assembly earlier in the month, has no exceptions for victims of rape and incest, and doctors who perform abortions after eight weeks face five to 15 years in prison. Gov. Mike Parson signed the bill in a private ceremony Friday.

“There’s a Constitutional right to an abortion,” Sara Baker, the ACLU’s Missouri legislative policy director, said. “Missouri voters are aware of this and we hope they will affirm this and repeal this law. “

Citizens may call a referendum on a measure approved by the General Assembly and not vetoed by the governor as long as they collect signatures totaling 5 percent of the voters from two-thirds of the state’s congressional districts.

The mechanism was used in Feb. 2017, when then-Gov. Eric Greitens signed a “right-to-work” law that allowed employees in unionized workplaces to opt out of paying unions for the cost of being represented.

Hours later, labor unions filed a referendum. Over the next several months, they turned in more than 310,000 signatures. The question was placed before voters in August of 2018. More than 67 percent of voters sided against right-to-work, overturning the law.

Like right-to-work, the abortion ban is a high priority for Missouri Republicans.

State Rep. Nick Schroer, the O’Fallon Republican who sponsored the bill, said he expected “some kind of push back,” most likely in the form of a lawsuit. He said Missouri is a “pro-life state,” as witnessed by the anti-abortion stance of most statewide elected officials.

“Putting (House Bill) 126 on the ballot for 2020 is going to be a move these groups are going to regret,” Schroer said.

Though the lack of exceptions falls outside of mainstream views on abortion, Schroer said rape victims have up to two months to report their assault, receive emergency contraceptives and/or receive an abortion if they choose.

Opponents of the bill have said that oftentimes, victims of rape and incest, especially young ones, are reluctant to come forward. By the time, a victim realizes that an emergency contraceptive hasn’t worked, the 8-week period could be over, they said.

The lack of exceptions for rape and incest has one of the GOP’s most prolific donors coming out against the law. Last week, David Humphreys, who has donated more than $15 million to GOP causes and candidates, asked Parson to veto the bill. He has pledged to bankroll the new law’s repeal, a source close to Humphreys confirmed.

Baker said the ACLU has reached out to Humphreys but the two aren’t currently working together. She said the ACLU hoped to do so in the future.

Baker said the ACLU is looking to push the referendum forward with a broad-based coalition.

“Abortion is a part of health care and denying access to health care is dangerous for all Missourians,” Baker said.

The referendum does not preclude the ACLU from also filing a lawsuit, challenging the law, Baker said.

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This story was updated to include comment from the bill’s sponsor.

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Crystal Thomas covers Missouri politics for The Kansas City Star. An Illinois native and a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism, she has experience covering state and local government.