A coalition of reproductive-rights groups in Missouri kicked off a campaign on Thursday to establish a right to abortion in the state constitution, setting up the nation’s next big test of public support for legalized abortion.
Missouri was the first state to officially outlaw abortion after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade 18 months ago. A successful ballot measure there could make it the first state where a citizen-led initiative reverses a near-total ban.
Abortion-rights supporters have prevailed on all seven ballot measures put before voters since Roe was overturned, and groups in roughly 10 other states are attempting to pass similar abortion-rights measures this year. In Missouri, though, they face a tight timeline, fierce opposition from the Republicans who control state government, and a long tradition of anti-abortion politics.
The proposed ballot measure had been in limbo for months, as abortion-rights groups fought in court against state officials who tried to block it, and as the groups fought among themselves about what kind of measure, if any, they should ask voters to approve.
Some among them argued that Missouri voters are more conservative than those in the states where abortion-rights ballot measures have already passed. They pushed for a ballot amendment that would legalize abortion only in the early stages of pregnancy, which polls show a commanding majority of Americans support.
Leaders of Planned Parenthood and some other groups said they would not support anything short of allowing women total autonomy to make decisions about abortion, with no gestational limits.
Advocacy groups had put forward multiple proposals, trying to bet on what voters would support — the coalition itself put forward nearly a dozen versions. Those proposals differed mainly in what gestational limit, if any, they would include in the proposed amendment. Other groups argued for waiting until the next electoral cycle to put forth an initiative, saying they needed time to raise money and win over public opinion.
On Thursday, though, the coalition presented a unified front, and declared that it did not have time to wait, saying the state’s ban was endangering women with pregnancy complications and forcing obstetrics and maternity practices to leave Missouri.
The ballot measure proposed Thursday resembles those passed in Ohio and Michigan. It would amend the state Constitution to establish a “right to make and carry out” decisions on reproductive health care, including abortion. But it would allow the state to restrict abortion after a fetus becomes viable, or roughly 24 weeks, unless the treating medical professional makes a “good faith” judgment that the procedure is necessary to protect the pregnant woman’s life or mental or physical health.
Supporters must collect roughly 172,000 signatures by early May to qualify the proposal for the ballot. It would then be up to Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican who opposes abortion rights, to decide when the measure would be put to voters — in the primary this summer, or in the general election in November.
“We wouldn’t be moving forward if we didn’t think we could be successful on either ballot,” said Tori Schafer, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, one of the groups in the coalition.
Anti-abortion groups announced their own campaign on Wednesday to oppose any ballot measure legalizing abortion. On Thursday, they tried to underscore the previous disagreements on the other side, and the hurdles that abortion-rights groups face.
“We are united in our efforts to ensure these out-of-state extremists are not allowed to tear the fabric of our constitution by placing unregulated, taxpayer-funded abortions up to the moment of birth, effectively overriding all Missouri’s pro-life laws,” said Stephanie Bell, a spokeswoman for that coalition, Missouri Stands with Women.
Leaders of the abortion-rights groups said they were surprised and encouraged by polling over the last month suggesting that a ballot measure that included a limit at viability would pass. They declined to release polling figures, but said that the measure polled higher than a version that also included a requirement for parental notification, or one that explicitly prohibited government funding for abortion.
Jamie Corley, a former Republican congressional staff member, had begun collecting signatures for what she called a compromise approach to abortion, a ballot measure that would allow abortion until 12 weeks of pregnancy, but add exceptions for later abortions in cases of rape, incest or a threat to the health of the woman. On Thursday, she said her group would look more closely at the new proposal and decide in the next few weeks whether they will continue with their own proposal.
“We are all in agreement that this ban can’t stand,” she said, “and there’s urgency.”
The coalition’s proposed measure faces a steep climb in Missouri, where evangelical Christians make up a larger share of the population than they do in states like Ohio. Missouri is also home to some vocal abortion abolitionists, and some state lawmakers have proposed charging women who have abortions with murder.
Missouri is not considered to be a swing state in the presidential election, which could make outside donors less inclined to invest in a campaign for abortion rights there.
Even so, backers of the initiative are counting on a libertarian streak among the state’s voters to make them receptive to arguments that the government should stay out of health care decisions.
Planned Parenthood joined the coalition proposing the initiative on Thursday despite earlier statements opposing a viability limit. “Today, Missourians are taking a critical step to make their own medical decisions and kick politicians out of the exam room,” said Dr. Iman Alsaden, the chief medical officer for Planned Parenthood Great Plains.
Abortion-rights groups are collecting signatures for similar ballot measures in about 10 other states. Some are states where abortion remains legal, and the ballot measures would enshrine a right to the procedure in their constitutions. Some, like Arizona, are swing states.
In Florida, supporters of an abortion-rights ballot initiative have collected nearly a million signatures — far surpassing the required number — over the last eight months, but the state attorney general is seeking to disqualify the effort. The state Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments over the issue next month.