Michael Ryan

Pro-life advocates don’t want to debate Missouri abortion law — but they should

Opponents of Missouri’s impending ban on abortions after eight weeks of pregnancy plan to circulate a petition for a public vote next year to overturn the law.

As a Star editorial asked this week, why wouldn’t Missourians who are pro-life be lining up with their pro-choice friends to sign the petition? After all, wouldn’t a referendum on the November 2020 ballot give birth to the public, democratic, non-court-imposed debate pro-lifers have always wanted?

Maybe. And that’s what I initially thought. But pro-life supporters in the region tell a different story.

Pro-life proponents are longing for a robust public discussion on abortion. But as one of them explained, it hasn’t been the pro-life camp that has squelched such discourse.

Pro-life advocates have deep-seated doubts about the media’s willingness to be an impartial moderator of such a debate, especially in the context of a high-stakes public referendum. Many of them view contact with the media as they would a hot stove. Why reach out after already having been burned, they figure.

Fact is, even this pro-life columnist had a hard time getting many of them to talk on the record, and in some cases, at all.

Besides, the pro-life adherents note, it’s not as if they’ve eschewed our representative democracy: On the contrary, the Missouri law in question is precisely the result of that process, which the pro-life community has always promoted over court dictates beginning with Roe v. Wade. Since the new law is the legitimate product of the legislative process, they argue, why agree to a “veto referendum” aimed at overturning it? And will every legal regulation on abortion passed by a legislature and signed by a governor be subjected to such a plebiscite?

Folks on the right further doubt those on the left’s willingness to accept any outcome unfavorable to their point of view — even though support for, and opposition to, abortion was split evenly among Americans in a Marist poll earlier this year. The poll also found that 80% of Americans favor limiting abortion to the first three months of pregnancy.

Such reports give pro-life backers added confidence that they are making incremental progress in the battle for hearts and minds.

But might that progress be stalled by the Missouri law, which looks like the poster child for overreach? Perhaps, though that overreach appears overstated: Planned Parenthood itself once touted Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 66% of legal abortions occur within the first eight weeks, and 92% within 13 weeks.

Those numbers suggest that the Missouri law wouldn’t have any impact on two-thirds of abortions — yet another reason why pro-life champions may not exactly jump at the opportunity to revisit it.

Certainly pro-life legislators might have incurred less wrath if they’d opted for a near-total ban at 21 weeks, after which the CDC reported only about 1% of abortions are performed. A later prohibition also would likely have a better chance in the courts. Even some fervent pro-life adherents here fear Missouri’s eight-week ban may not survive a court challenge.

But it seems they’d rather take their chances with the courts than with a public debate they feel would be stacked against them.

My own view, like that of a three-judge Missouri Court of Appeals panel, is that Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft must stop trying to block or delay the petition to overturn the law.

And while I understand the concerns of my pro-life friends about putting the new law to the test — in what they feel is an environment hostile to their point of view, no less — I’d suggest they welcome it. Embrace the opportunity to make the pro-life case in what could be a historic, if not unprecedented, debate. And as long as the petition organizers, including the ACLU of Missouri, agree to accept the vote’s outcome, which they must do for credibility’s sake, it’s a perfect opportunity to press the pro-life argument in ways never seen.

Why shrink now from such a noble task?