With the Missouri legislature weeks away from opening its 2017 session, abortion rights advocates are gearing up to continue their lopsided battle against a conservative-dominated House and Senate.
This year, however, Planned Parenthood officials have chosen to strike first.
Last month, Planned Parenthood affiliates in Missouri filed a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of two state laws that pro-choice leaders say function to restrict patients’ access to healthcare without imparting any actual safety benefits. The laws in question obligate abortion clinics to meet standards for surgical centers and for abortion doctors to have hospital admitting privileges.
Over the summer, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down similar laws in Texas. But Planned Parenthood isn’t content to wait around for the case to play out in federal court. On Monday, the group’s regional leaders asked a judge to issue a preliminary injunction that would block both laws until the court determines their constitutionality.
If the judge agrees with Planned Parenthood, clinics in Joplin, Springfield, Columbia and Kansas City would be able to start offering abortion services.
In a conference call with reporters, Mary Kogut, the CEO of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, said "the timing is right" to expand abortion access. Presently, Missouri women are forced to utilize the St. Louis clinic — Missouri's single abortion facility — or travel out of state for the procedure.
"This lawsuit is critical," said Laura McQuade, who leads Planned Parenthood in mid-Missouri and Kansas. "We consider this to be an incredibly urgent moment for our patients in Missouri, and for what also might be coming down the pike."
McQuade is right to worry. Dozens of anti-abortion bills are expected to flood the state legislature after the session begins in January. The 2016 election yielded almost no change to the balance of power in the legislature; Republicans still hold iron-clad majorities in both the House and Senate.
Notably, one bill already filed by Rep. Tom Hurst (R-St. Thomas) would force abortion doctors to first consult with women about options for the "final disposition" of any aborted fetus.
Although Hurst's bill doesn't go as far as a widely-criticized Texas law requiring the burial or cremation of fetal remains after abortion or miscarriages, NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri executive director Alison Dreith says they share the same underlying philosophy.
"This isn’t about helping women, this is about shaming women," Dreith says. She points out that the Hurst's bill only targets the fetal remains that follow abortions, ignoring the same kind of remains that result from miscarriages. For Dreith, who has written publicly about her own experience getting an abortion, such laws don't have anything to do with safety.
Dreith believes that the election of Donald Trump has emboldened anti-abortion groups, although the president-elect's actual position on the issue is far from clear. Missouri's governor-elect Eric Greitens has stated that he's pro-life, but during his campaign he failed to gain the endorsement of the state's largest anti-abortion group.
The electoral losses have been frightening for abortion rights advocates, concedes Dreith. But she says that those fears "come with great responsibility."
"It's a reminder that our rights haven’t always been our rights and we need to protect them now, more than ever," she says. "And we have the next four years to organize and make sure our voices are heard and make sure we do a better job next time at the polls."
Until then, Planned Parenthood and its supporters will set their hopes on the legal system. The group's leaders expect the federal judge to issue a decision by January or February.
Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at Danny.Wicentowski@RiverfrontTimes.com