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The latest news from every corner of the state, including policy emerging from Missouri's capitol.

Missouri lawmaker files bill to ban most abortions, permit citizens to sue providers

The Planned Parenthood center in St. Louis remains open as shown on Wednesday, July 1, 2020.
Bill Greenblatt
The Planned Parenthood center in St. Louis remains open as shown on Wednesday, July 1, 2020.

A Missouri lawmaker has proposed legislation that would drastically reduce the availability of abortions in the state.

State Rep. Mary Elizabeth Coleman, R-Arnold, filed a bill that would ban abortions when doctors have determined that a fetus has cardiac activity. That can occur as early as six weeks.

Under the bill, private citizens could sue doctors or others who aid abortion seekers for damages if they disobey the law.

“It takes enforcement from the hands of the state government and puts it into the hands of Missourians,” said Coleman, who filed the bill late last week.

If passed by Missouri’s Republican-controlled legislature, the bill also would deny public funds to the state’s abortion providers.

The bill is modeled after an abortion measure the Republican-controlled Texas legislature passed earlier this year. It limits abortions after about six weeks and is among the most restrictive abortion laws in the country. Several Republican-led states are modeling their own laws on the Texas one.

The Texas law remains in effect but is being challenged in court.

Coleman is confident her bill will gain widespread support in Missouri’s Republican-majority statehouse. Gov. Mike Parson in 2019 signed a law that prohibits abortions after eight weeks.

Parts of that law have been haltedas a federal appeals court considers it.

Coleman, who is running for state Senate, said her bill's provision to allow citizen enforcement is similar to the way Medicaid fraud is curtailed.

“It's by no means really a new way of doing enforcement of laws,” she said. “But it is new in the context of abortion.”

If passed, the law could be used to target St. Louis abortion providers that send many patients to Illinois, Coleman said. Planned Parenthood, the clinic that provides abortions in the state, has said it refers many patientsto Illinois, where there are fewer abortion restrictions.

“If Planned Parenthood has a network that is set up to refer women across the river rather than receiving abortion services in the state of Missouri, that would be aiding or abetting receiving an abortion,” Coleman said. “And so this would create a private cause of action against Planned Parenthood by any citizen.”

Abortion rights advocates say that abortion is a legal right and that the law will further jeopardize maternal health in the state.

They’re concerned the law could have chilling effect on abortion access.

Many who would have previously helped could soon become afraid to offer information, financial assistance or even transportation to someone seeking an abortion, said Lauren Nacke, Pro-Choice Missouri's board president.

“Honestly, I do think that it puts any providers at risk,” she said, “from a cab driver to an Uber driver to a health care provider to even someone who owns a hotel or someone who's providing child care. I think it puts more and more Missourians at risk for providing everyday services that are legal services to provide.”

Advocates say many don’t know they’re pregnant six weeks after conception, which could be just two weeks after a missed period.

“A ‘heartbeat bill’ or a six-week bill would be completely devastating,” Nacke said. “Pregnancy can just begin to be detected at that point, and most opportunities for medical services would then be denied.”

Even though abortion is legal in Missouri, recent laws passed by Missouri lawmakers have confused people or scared them out of seeking the procedure, said Mallory Schwarz, Pro-Choice Missouri policy director.

Coleman’s bill functions in the same way, she said.

“This is about control,” she said. “The point is to scare people, even if it won’t hold up to a court challenge.”

Follow Sarah on Twitter:@petit_smudge

Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Sarah Fentem reports on sickness and health as part of St. Louis Public Radio’s news team. She previously spent five years reporting for different NPR stations in Indiana, immersing herself deep, deep into an insurance policy beat from which she may never fully recover. A longitme NPR listener, she grew up hearing WQUB in Quincy, Illinois, which is now owned by STLPR. She lives in the Kingshighway Hills neighborhood, and in her spare time likes to watch old sitcoms, meticulously clean and organize her home and go on outdoor adventures with her fiancé Elliot. She has a cat, Lil Rock, and a dog, Ginger.