JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri lawmakers on Tuesday delivered Republican Gov. Eric Greitens a political win by sending him a wide-ranging bill tightening abortion regulations that would give the attorney general power to prosecute violations, prompting critics to say the changes are aimed at limiting access to abortion in a state that already has tough restrictions.
The bill's passage comes after the first-year governor called lawmakers back to the Capitol for a special summer session focused on abortion policy. He said the move was motivated by a St. Louis ordinance banning discrimination in employment and housing based on "reproductive health decisions" and a federal judge's ruling that struck down some Missouri abortion restrictions passed in previous legislative sessions.
Greitens asked lawmakers to pass provisions that he said would protect pregnancy care centers from the St. Louis ordinance and add new abortion regulations in place of the ones struck down in court, and lawmakers appear to have done that. Despite pushback, senators voted 22-9 to ditch a bipartisan compromise they'd reached earlier and instead pass a harsher bill backed by the House and governor. Groups such as Missouri Right to Life touted the bill's passage.
"Today is a great victory for pregnancy care centers that help women and children all over the state," Greitens said in a statement. "I'm proud that many of Missouri's lawmakers stood strong to protect the lives of the innocent unborn and women's health."
Democratic senators and abortion-rights advocates decried the special session and the resulting bill as medically unnecessary. NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri Executive Director Alison Dreith called the session "free advertising for Greitens' personal political ambitions" and said women were "treated as pawns."
"This political theater is an expensive and ideological ploy to end abortion access in the state," said M'Evie Mead, director of policy and organizing for Planned Parenthood Advocates in Missouri, in a statement. "The notion that this session has any benefit for patients' health and safety is nonsense, and Missourians are smart enough to know that."
The measure headed to Greitens' desk would give the state attorney general, now Republican Josh Hawley, new powers to prosecute abortion law violations. Lawmakers ultimately ditched a provision that would have required the attorney general to first give local prosecutors 10 days' notice before taking action.
Supportive Republican lawmakers have said they want to give the attorney general new authority out of concern that a local prosecutor, particularly in a Democratic-leaning city, might not pursue potential abortion-law violations. But some Republican and Democratic senators raised concerns about giving more power to the attorney general.
Other provisions in the bill include mandatory annual inspections of abortion clinics by the state health department, stricter requirements on what's done with fetal tissue removed from abortions, and limiting which medical professionals can have state-mandated discussions with women about the procedure and its risks at least 72 hours earlier.
Currently, doctors, nurses, physicians' assistants, licensed counselors and others can provide that information to women. The measure passed Tuesday would limit that to doctors who refer women to receive abortions or the physicians performing abortions.
If signed by Greitens, the measure also would make it a crime for abortion clinic staff to ask ambulances to respond to calls without lights or sirens. Clinics also would first have to submit a plan for dealing with complications and get approval from the health department before providing medication-induced abortions.
Democratic Sen. Jill Schupp said the changes "have been designed to get in the way" of Planned Parenthood's efforts to expand abortion services — now only in St. Louis — to Columbia, Joplin, Kansas City and Springfield, although she said it's difficult to tell at this point what impact the bill will have on the ability to open more abortion clinics.
Republican Sen. Bob Onder, who helped craft the bill, said "there is really nothing in this bill that prevents clinics from opening, but they have to open under situations in which the health and safety of women is safeguarded."