Missouri Democrats could take abortion issue to voters. What would it look like?

Jill Toyoshiba/jtoyoshiba@kcstar.com

Bolstered by an August vote that upheld the right to an abortion in Republican-controlled Kansas, abortion rights supporters are considering whether to seek a ballot initiative to restore abortion rights in Missouri.

Abortion is almost entirely banned in Missouri under a law that was triggered after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June.

Missouri voters in recent years have used the ballot box to circumvent the GOP-controlled Missouri General Assembly and pass progressive statewide issues like Medicaid expansion and both medical and recreational marijuana. Now, some Democrats and abortion rights advocates are looking to get an abortion-related ballot measure in front of voters in 2024.

“I think it makes a lot of sense for that ballot initiative to go to voters and give them the opportunity to weigh in,” said state Sen. Lauren Arthur, a Kansas City Democrat.

But one of the biggest challenges is crafting what that initiative would like and what Missouri voters would support. Abortion rights groups will likely weigh several options that range from enshrining all forms of abortion in the state constitution to returning Missouri to its standards set under Roe v. Wade.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of disagreement from advocates and it’s a question of whether everyone can come together to agree on an approach that we can all get on board,” said state Rep. Peter Merideth, a St. Louis Democrat.

A change to the state constitution at the ballot box — which would require an expensive signature-gathering campaign — would prevent lawmakers in the GOP-controlled Missouri General Assembly from later nullifying any abortion protections voters might approve.

The potential effort in Missouri would follow successful abortion-related election results in California, Kentucky, Michigan and Montana. But abortion rights groups and some Democrats have largely remained mum on what kind of legislation they plan to pursue or support.

Emily Wales, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Great Plains Votes, said in a statement to The Star that her organization was “looking seriously at the best paths to restore abortion access in Missouri.

“The overwhelming victory in Kansas, followed by the midterm elections, certainly showed lawmakers that anti-abortion laws are out of step with voters,” the statement said. “We’re leaving no stone unturned to help people get care in their communities because Missourians shouldn’t have fewer rights than their neighbors in Kansas or Illinois.”

Sam Lee, a Jefferson City-based anti-abortion lobbyist, told The Star that he was surprised abortion rights groups haven’t already filed a petition. He said abortion opponents could file a measure — either through the legislature or through the initiative petition process — to compete against any upcoming abortion rights campaign.

“We’re basically taking a wait-and-see attitude,” he said. “If they file something, we will see what it is that they’re filing and we would fight that because we would oppose whatever it would be.”

Lee said abortion opponents would craft their competing legislation differently depending on what is proposed, particularly if abortion rights groups file measures similar to states like California, Michigan and Vermont, which amended their constitutions to include reproductive rights.

What would an abortion petition look like?

Peverill Squire, a University of Missouri political science professor, said an abortion-related ballot question would likely come from a number of organizations focused on progressive and abortion issues.

Squire said there would likely be considerable interest among voters for a ballot measure that brought Missouri back to the standards before Roe v. Wade was overturned. If abortion rights groups were seeking a proposal that had more political appeal, they may settle on a “16 week provision,” he said.

Merideth, the St. Louis Democrat, said he expects some activist groups to propose a measure that would fully protect all reproductive rights. He said others will want to simply return Missouri to where it was before the abortion ban, which he described a “pretty restrictive.”

Before the Supreme Court decision, abortion options already were few in Missouri, due in large part to years of Republican legislation that had whittled away at the law. A sole Planned Parenthood clinic in St. Louis performed the procedure prior to June.

Merideth said Missouri abortion rights advocates would likely craft a ballot initiative similar to the one passed in Michigan last month, which enshrined rights to reproductive services into the state constitution and invalidated a state law that criminalized most abortions in the state.

House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, a Springfield Democrat, said she would generally support an abortion-related ballot initiative, but it would depend on what was proposed. She said she did not support where Missouri’s abortion laws stood before Roe v. Wade was overturned.

‘The people who have been doing this work for a very long time, who understand what’s at stake in Missouri, are at the table putting together a plan so that folks throughout the state of Missouri will get access to abortion care,” she said. “That may come in several different fashions in terms of how that strategy plays out, but folks are working on it, and there will be ways for citizens to engage to help.”

Would it have public support?

A poll released in August by St. Louis University and British pollster YouGov showed that a majority of Missourians support some form of legal access to abortion. It found that 58% of those surveyed supported a woman’s right to an abortion after eight weeks of pregnancy compared to 32% who disagreed.

It also showed that 75% of respondents agreed that a women should be able to get an abortion in a cases of rape and 79% supported abortions in cases of incest.

The state’s abortion ban does not include exceptions for rape or incest, making Missouri one of a dozen states with trigger laws that don’t allow abortions in those circumstances. Only a single exception, for medical emergencies, was included.

The poll results also showed that 48% would support a ballot initiative to reverse the ban while 40% said they would vote to keep it in place. The remaining respondents said they weren’t sure.

Squire, the political science professor, said support to restore abortion rights would be more prevalent in urban and suburban areas than in rural parts of the state.

“I think when voters are given a chance to vote up or down on particular issues, in many cases, partisanship doesn’t drive it as much as just their simple opinions on whatever the issue is,” he said.

But dampening the optimism among Democrats and abortion rights groups is an expectation that the GOP-controlled legislature will continue to push this legislative session to make it harder to amend the state constitution through the initiative petition process.

Last session, GOP lawmakers proposed a raft of bills that would have raised the threshold for an initiative to make it onto the statewide ballot, and be voted into law. The proposals, which did not pass, would have expanded signature-gathering requirements and established a supermajority vote of the public to approve future amendments to the constitution.

Republicans have argued that it’s too easy to amend the state constitution and that the current process has given outside interest groups too much of a role. However, initiative petition defenders say it allows citizens to directly participate in the democratic process.

Restricting the ballot initiative process in the next legislative session could blunt a future move by Missouri voters to add some form of abortion rights to the state constitution.

“I think the battle that we’re seeing is that Missourians are working to try and have their voices heard in this way and the legislature is going to try to make it harder for them to exercise the citizen initiative process,” said Denise Lieberman, director and general counsel of Missouri Voter Protection Coalition.