Government & Politics

Two weeks from deadline, Ashcroft OKs collection of signatures for abortion referendum

Here’s how strict Missouri’s new abortion law is

Missouri’s new abortion law, set to take effect Aug. 28, includes many new restrictions.
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Missouri’s new abortion law, set to take effect Aug. 28, includes many new restrictions.

Supporters of a referendum to challenge Missouri’s new abortion law can now gather signatures, after Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft approved language Wednesday that could appear on the 2020 ballot.

The referendum, filed by the American Civil Liberties of Missouri in May, was an attempt to reverse a law that bans abortions after 8 weeks of pregnancy, with no exceptions for rape or incest.

But backers said the go-ahead to circulate petitions may have come too late. They need to gather more than 100,000 signatures spread over six different congressional districts before the law goes into effect on Aug. 28.

The committee that backs the measure, No Bans On Choice, is scrutinizing the language submitted by Ashcroft, treasurer Robin Utz said in a statement.

“(Ashcroft) has effectively prevented voters from defeating the extreme eight-week abortion ban at the ballot box,” Utz said. “It is outrageous that Secretary Ashcroft, Missouri’s chief elections officer, ran out the clock and blocked the people’s right to a citizen veto. Instead of doing his job, he played political games and blocked Missourians’ right to vote — all in an effort to block access to legal abortion in this state.”

Maura Browning, Ashcroft’s spokeswoman, said the last day allowed by law for the secretary of state to approve the referendum for circulation is Aug. 19. Instead, the office completed its work five days early.

“We have worked just like we have any other initiative petition or referendum and it took about the same amount of time as any other topic we would handle,” Browning said.

After a mandatory 15-day comment period which ended July 27, Ashcroft’s office sent language for Attorney General Eric Schmitt to review three days earlier than legal limits allow, on Aug. 2, according to Browning. Schmitt’s office, which took the full 10 days permitted in state law, finished Monday.

Schmitt’s office is tasked with looking at the language to determine that it is “neither intentionally argumentative nor likely to create prejudice either for or against the proposed measure.”

The ballot language describes the new law as one that would “provide the unborn child with the same protections as those already born” and “prohibit abortions at eight weeks of gestation (at which time there is a medically detected heartbeat), except in cases of medical emergency.”

Sara Baker, the ACLU of Missouri’s legislative director, said the language is “far” from meeting the criteria set out in law.

“It’s definitely not impartial,” Baker said.

A request for comment to the attorney general’s office was not immediately returned.

Browning said the ballot language mimics verbiage in the legislation passed by the Missouri General Assembly.

“This is a bill that is abortion-related and that means that it’s going to include the terms that are involved in House Bill 126 the way the legislature wrote it,” Browning said.

The timeline of the Secretary of State’s review process shifted after Ashcroft threw out the referendum in June, a move the courts eventually reversed. Deadlines were reset after the courts ordered Ashcroft to reinstate the referendum July 12.

The Missouri Supreme Court denied the ACLU’s request to force Ashcroft to expedite the process.

In rallies around the state earlier in the month, supporters of the referendum threw mock ballots in garbage cans, accusing Ashcroft of “trashing” their right to vote on the issue.

Even with the setback, the commitment to protecting Missourian’s legal right to abortion is “unwavering,” Utz said.

“The referendum is one tool to protect the rights of the people,” she said. “There are others, and we will evaluate the best route forward to ensure Missourians retain control over their bodies, their decisions, and their democracy.”

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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.