Story updated June 7 at 1 p.m.
Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft has rejected two referendum petitions that would have sought to repeal a new abortion law passed in Missouri. However, a third referendum petition to repeal the law remains active.
Ashcroft rejected two of the petitions because of an emergency clause that was placed in HB 126, also known as the Missouri Stands for the Unborn Act. The law's provision to require a second custodial parent to be notified when a minor is seeking an abortion went into affect immediately when Gov. Mike Parson signed the bill in May. Ashcroft said that while a referendum petition is a constitutional right, the state Constitution, as well as several Supreme Court rulings, have noted that this right doesn't extend to laws that have already gone into effect.
"Because the legislature approved HB126 and its emergency clause with the constitutionally-required two-thirds vote of both houses of the legislature, HB126 may not be referred to the people," Ashcroft said in a statement, following a June 6 press conference.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, which is behind one of the rejected petitions, filed a lawsuit June 6. Tony Rothert, acting executive director of the ACLU of Missouri, said Ashcroft "is trying to deprive Missourians' of their right to weigh in on the abortion question with a vote."
Meanwhile, Joplin businessman and conservative donor David Humphreys also has
supported efforts to overturn the law, including a recent donation of $1 million to a political action committee. He also is behind a referendum petition that would repeal everything in the law except for the two-parent notification clause. That petition remains active on the Secretary of State's website as of June 7.
More than 100,000 signatures (five percent of voters in five of Missouri's eight Congressional districts) would need to be collected by Aug. 28. If that happens, the law would be blocked per the Missouri Constitution until voters have a chance to vote on it in the 2020 general election.
“If this gets on the ballot, the pro-life law we worked so hard to pass could be overturned,” said Tyler McClay, executive director of the Missouri Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the state’s bishops. The MCC is urging people not to sign the referendum petition.
The Missouri Stands for the Unborn Act places further restrictions on abortions in the state, including a ban on abortions after eight weeks of pregnancy. The law also has a ban on abortions at later gestations, if the eight-week ban is struck down by the courts. Other provisions of the new law include a “trigger ban” that would ban all abortions in Missouri if Roe vs. Wade is overturned; a ban on abortions for reasons including Down syndrome, race or gender; and a recognition that God is the author of life and that Missouri is a “sanctuary of life” that protects pregnant women and unborn children.
“Failing to protect the right to an abortion violates the individual freedom of Missourians,” Sara Baker, legislative and policy director with the ACLU of Missouri, wrote in a statement. “HB 126 runs counter to our shared belief in autonomy and it has devastating health consequences for Missourians who become pregnant.”
Generally speaking, a referendum petition allows voters to uphold or repeal an act of the legislature. Once enough signatures are collected on the petition, they are verified and the measure appears on the ballot for a vote of the people. In Missouri, 25 of the last 27 referendum petitions were defeated by voters. One recent example was the Right to Work law, which was overturned by voters in August 2018.
Meanwhile, Planned Parenthood in St. Louis was granted a temporary restraining order, hours before the clinic’s abortion facility license was to expire at the end of the day May 31. A St. Louis Circuit Court judge heard further arguments in the case June 5, but it was unclear when a decision would be made. (Check stlouisreview.com for updates.)
Reproductive Health Services of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region filed a lawsuit against the state May 28 in St. Louis Circuit Court. It alleges that the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services is attempting to shut down the abortion clinic by “unlawfully conditioning” a decision on its license renewal application. Health department director Dr. Randall Williams and Gov. Mike Parson also were named as defendants in the suit.
As part of the renewal application process, the health department is seeking to interview seven physicians that have worked at the clinic as part of its investigation. Five of those doctors have refused to be interviewed. Planned Parenthood has said that it has no power to compel those doctors to speak with investigators as they are not directly employed by the clinic.
Planned Parenthood in St. Louis, located in the Central West End, is the only abortion clinic in Missouri. If it loses its license, Missouri would become the first state without an operating abortion clinic since the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision. Non abortion-related services would still be offered at the clinic.
Regardless of whether the St. Louis clinic has a license to perform abortions, “It doesn’t mean that Missourians aren’t seeking abortions,” said McClay of the Missouri Catholic Conference. “We have to continue to witness to the value of life. And that’s what HB 126 is trying to change … that we ought to be protecting lives in the womb. That’s the ongoing witness that we have to get across.”
At a May 31 sidewalk rally in front of Planned Parenthood, Mary Maschmeier of pro-life group Defenders of the Unborn said she was cautiously optimistic about the fate of the clinic’s abortion license. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think this would happen,” she said. “In 1985, we had eight abortion clinics in St. Louis — now we’re down to one. These women deserve better than Planned Parenthood, and we’re here to help them.”
>> Referendum petition
The Missouri Secretary of State’s Office is accepting comments on the referendum petition. See www.sos.mo.gov/ referendumcomment.