The high price of appeasing Missouri’s anti-abortion lobby

Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, appeared Tuesday at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing in Washington, D.C.
Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, appeared Tuesday at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing in Washington, D.C. Bloomberg

In a more sane political climate, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster’s unequivocal report clearing Planned Parenthood in Missouri of any unlawful activity regarding fetal tissue disposal would take the topic of legal abortion off the front burner.

But it likely won’t. Not with statewide elections coming up next year. And not after the University of Missouri’s administration handed Planned Parenthood opponents a huge victory by ending hospital referral privileges that a doctor needed to perform non-surgical abortions at a Columbia clinic.

Already, state Sen. Kurt Schaefer, a Republican from Columbia who wants to be the next state attorney general, has said he will continue using taxpayer money to pay staff time and travel expenses for lawmakers to travel to Jefferson City so that he can continue his “sanctity of life” committee investigation. Two state House committees are holding joint hearings about Planned Parenthood and have a meeting scheduled on Oct. 14.

And R. Bowen Loftin, who became Mizzou’s chancellor in February 2014, is learning the steep price of acquiescence to political pressure. Not content with the university’s role in ending abortions at the Columbia clinic as of Dec. 1, Missouri’s leading anti-abortion group has set its sights on certain types of stem cell research being done by university scientists.

Investigators from Koster’s office reviewed about 3,500 pages of documents connected to the disposal of fetal parts at Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, the only Missouri clinic that performs surgical abortions. They also interviewed staffers from the clinic and its pathology lab before concluding that everything was in order.

“We have discovered no evidence whatsoever to suggest that Planned Parenthood’s St. Louis facility is selling fetal tissue,” Koster said in a statement.

Missouri is at least the sixth state where investigations have cleared Planned Parenthood of breaking any laws. The allegations arose after selectively edited videos showed a Planned Parenthood doctor talking in a cavalier manner over lunch about the program that donates fetal tissue and organs for scientific research, if the patient having the abortion consents.

Cecile Richards, Planned Parenthood’s national president, correctly asserted at a Congressional hearing this week that producers of the sting videos “failed to succeed in convincing even a single affiliate to enter into a procurement contract” to sell fetal parts.

Richards also reminded listeners that federal money is not used for abortions, except in life-saving circumstances permitted by law. Most of the organization’s federal money comes from Medicaid reimbursements for services like birth control, cancer screenings and detection and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases.

But conservative Republicans in Congress are still vowing to shut down the federal government to avoid giving money to Planned Parenthood.

An especially dismaying consequence in Missouri is a potential reprise of the stem cell wars of about a decade ago. Certain politicians teamed up with anti-abortion groups back then to contend that scientific research on microscopic cells that came from human embryos equated to the destruction of human life.

It was an extreme position that divided Missouri Republicans and had a chilling effect on the state’s academic and research climates. Now Missouri Right to Life, the state’s most powerful anti-abortion group, is reportedly vowing to make embryonic stem cell research an issue in the 2016 legislative session.

Voters in 2006 passed a constitutional amendment that says the state cannot outlaw medical research that is permitted under federal law. But lawmakers could exert pressure on Missouri’s state-financed universities by threatening to cut funding. That is exactly the tactic that Schaefer, the Senate’s appropriations chairman, used to bully the University of Missouri with regard to the Planned Parenthood clinic.

The message for university administrators and politicians should be clear: Only the end to legal abortion and life-saving embryonic research will satisfy Missouri’s anti-abortion lobby. To pander to it now will lead to more demands down the road.