Could Missouri women face felony charges for having abortions?

When Missouri Gov. Mike Parson signed into law one of the nation’s most restrictive abortion bans in May, supporters of the measure said their aim was not to prosecute women who seek the procedure.

But concerns are growing that overreaching prosecutors could pursue charges against women who perform or induce their own abortions after eight weeks of pregnancy. Officials in Missouri’s public defender’s office say that women who seek self-managed, or pill abortions, could potentially face felony charges under the law, which contains no exceptions for rape or incest.

In June, Kathleen Lear, comptroller for the public defender’s office, detailed concerns in a memo to state Auditor Nicole Galloway about the possibility of poor women facing prosecution for inducing abortions. In that scenario, Lear wrote, the understaffed public defender’s office would be ill-equipped to offer indigent women effective representation, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

In a memo, Lear wrote that the law “creates a new Class B felony for ‘any person who knowingly … induces an abortion of an unborn child … ,’ which arguably would include post-conception contraception.”

Missouri’s abortion ban, which outlaws the procedure after eight weeks except in medical emergencies, is set to take effect Wednesday.

Ian Mackey, a Democratic state representative and attorney from St. Louis County, said the concerns raised by the public defender’s office are valid. With Republican lawmakers in Missouri and several other states moving aggressively to enact more restrictive abortion bans, Mackey said the new frontier in reproductive rights is terrifying for women.

“It is absolutely plausible that a women could be charged if she (obtained the pill in another state) and performed the procedure in Missouri,” Mackey told The Star.

Danco Laboratories, which manufactures the prescription abortion pill mifepristone, known by its brand name of Mifeprex, says on its website that more than 3 million women in the United States have used the pill since 2000.

Missouri last offered pill abortions in 2017.

While medical providers who violate the law could face five to 15 years in prison, a provision of House Bill 126 exempts women from prosecution.

Still, the possibility that a woman who performs or induces her own abortion could face felony charges is real, according to If/When/How, a legal assistance organization for women who self-administer their abortions.

Low-income women and women of color across the state are more likely to suffer the consequences of such criminalization when seeking access to abortions, said Jill Adams, executive director of If/When/How.

“When the very people charged with fighting back against (violations) of Missouri laws raise concerns about this possibility, we would all do well to listen,” Adams said.

Opponents of the ill-considered abortion law have challenged the constitutionality of the ban, and a federal court in Kansas City has scheduled a hearing for next week.

Supporters say the measure clearly states a woman who seeks an abortion will not be charged with conspiracy. But, as Mackey said, women could be charged for visiting out-of-state clinics for abortion pills, or ordering them online and administering them in Missouri.

“An overzealous prosecutor will find a way to warp the law to bring charges,” Adams said.

Platte County Prosecutor Eric Zahnd said he does not intend to prosecute women who take the abortion pill. Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker, Clay County’s Dan White and Cass County Prosecutor Ben Butler did not reply to inquiries.

“We can see why public defenders are concerned,” Adams said. “A climate that stigmatizes abortions increases the likelihood that people who have abortions will be criminalized.”

If this fatally flawed abortion ban is allowed to stand, Missouri lawmakers should add more explicit language to the measure to ensure that women who terminate their pregnancies with abortion pills can’t face charges in any scenario. If legislators mean what they say about not prosecuting women for seeking abortions, they should codify that sentiment in state law.