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

Missouri’s anti-abortion advocates cheer as Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade

Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, the last Missouri clinic which offers abortion care, on Thursday, June 23, 2022, in the Central West End.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, the last Missouri clinic which offers abortion care, on Thursday, June 23, 2022, in the Central West End.

Missouri anti-abortion advocates are praising a decision Friday by the U.S. Supreme Court that overturns Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that legalized abortions across the country.

Immediately after the Roe decision, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt issued an opinion that effectively enacted a law originally passed in 2019 that would make most abortions in the state unlawful the moment Roe was overturned. The law allows abortion if the mother’s life is in danger but does not contain exceptions for rape or incest, and makes assisting in an abortion a felony.

"With this attorney general opinion, my Office has effectively ended abortion in Missouri, becoming the first state in the country to do so following the Court's ruling," Schmitt said in a statement.

But abortion rights supporters expressed outrage at the decision, which they said would put women at risk.

"And this is a far right extremist Supreme Court is making this decision that affects other people," said U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, a St. Louis County Democrat.

The decision follows a decades-long fights from anti-abortion advocate groups that have long sought to restrict abortion access across the state. At the same time, abortion rights groups stress that the end Roe v. Wade will put women’s health at risk.

“We are regressing at a moment when we really need to take women's health care and reproductive health care seriously,” said Pamela Merritt, executive director of Medical Students for Choice.

Anti-abortion activists said the Supreme Court’s decision is an enormous victory in their fight to end abortion. However, they say their work is not over.

“Unborn children can once again be fully protected in the law,” said Samuel Lee, the director of Campaign Life Missouri, an anti-abortion rights group. “I’m really grateful for all those lawyers and judges and pro-life advocates who over the decades have worked hard to bring us to this point.”

Lee this week has the Supreme Court and SCOTUS Blog’s websites open on his computer and each morning compulsively has hit “refresh” to see if the opinion has come down. When the court issued its decision this morning, he let out a sigh of relief.

“It's finally here,” he said. “[But] I realize there’s a lot of work ahead for the pro-life movement to help pregnant mothers in need and protect their unborn children.”

‘Far from over’

Even after Missouri and other states outlaw abortion, there are still many other places it will be available, Lee said. St. Louis area abortion rights advocates have been mobilizing to help women seek abortions in neighboring states. Thousands of people from the state travel to Illinois and Kansas to get abortions each year.

Anti-abortion activists will need to increase their presence in those states, Lee said.

“For the pro-life movement in Missouri, the goal has always been to make not only make abortion unlawful, but more importantly, to make abortion unthinkable,” he said.

Lee wants to further increase state funding for controversial pregnancy resource centers. Proponents of the centers say they link pregnant women with financial resources and offer alternatives to abortions. Critics say the centers misrepresent themselves as unbiased medical clinics while operating under an anti-abortion agenda.

Campaign Life Missouri also is lobbying lawmakers to increase the amount of time pregnant and postpartum women can receive Medicaid benefits.

Other anti-abortion groups aim to increase their presence outside clinics in the Metro East.

“I think it's really important that we don't just call this a victory, and we don't just say this is more done, or this is the end,” said Brian Westbrook, founder and director of Coalition Life, a St. Louis-based anti-abortion group that does work in Missouri and Illinois. “I think it's really important for us to understand that women are in fact still struggling with unplanned pregnancies and our work is far from over.”

The ruling allows Missouri and other states to make their own laws prohibiting or restricting the procedure.

Lives at risk

But abortion rights advocates who have long fought to preserve the right to an abortion worry the court’s decision will have far-reaching consequences for women across the state.

The decision puts women’s lives at risk, especially Missouri’s women of color and low-income residents, said Pamela Merritt, executive director for Medical Students for Choice.

“For the state of Missouri and in the St. Louis region, where we have infant and maternal mortality rates for Black women and babies that are four times worse than the general population, this is both the worst moment to be withdrawing access to reproductive health care and criminalizing abortion,” Merritt said.

Many abortion rights advocates argue the 2019 law does not outlaw Plan B or birth control medications since they prevent pregnancies. The language in the state law targets procedures that terminate a pregnancy.

But Merritt said if Missouri outlaws abortion, that will have consequences that will further strain healthcare systems across the country, limiting how people can schedule appointments.

“We're seeing increased delays in people's ability to get an appointment,” Merritt said. “It's not even something that people can fly and get a quicker appointment or take a train. It's really a health system that is stretched.”

Rain pummels a billboard promoting The Hope Clinic for Women on Thursday, May 19, 2022, in East St. Louis.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Rain pummels a billboard promoting The Hope Clinic for Women on Thursday, May 19, 2022, in East St. Louis.

A focus on Illinois

Anti-abortion rights activists plan to shift their attention to the Metro East and other locations in Illinois, which has become a destination for people in Missouri and other states who are seeking abortions.

Efforts by Missouri’s Republican-controlled legislature to restrict abortion access have led many women to travel there to seek the procedure, and thousands are expected to travel to Illinois.

“I believe that people from Missouri understand that Missouri women will be traveling to Illinois to receive abortions. And so, with that fact in hand, we know that we need to do a lot of work here to serve women, where they are right here, Westbrook said.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker and other Democratic leaders said they will protect the right to the abortion, and several Midwest organizations are helping women to access care in the state. Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri opened its regional logistics center in Fairview Heights, Illinois to help arrange travel and lodging for people who are traveling for care. The Chicago-based Midwest Action Coalition also arranges travel plans.

But many abortion rights advocates are worried Illinois won’t have the capacity to treat people leaving neighboring states to seek abortions.

Pritzker has said the state will need more doctors as clinics across the region expect to see an influx of patients. The Hope Clinic for Women in Granite City, Illinois is anticipating more patients from other states.

About 65% of people coming to the clinic are from out of state and more patients are expected, said Dr. Erin King, executive director of the clinic.

“What we're anticipating by the end of the year is about a 40% increase in volume just from the restrictions that will most likely be passed in the states,” King said.

King said while clinics are preparing for more patients, they hope people understand that abortion is still legal in many states around the country.

“I want patients that might need abortions to hear the message loud and clear, it is still legal, in many parts of the country it is still accessible,” King said. “It is still there. I think the biggest challenge will be trying to undo a bunch of the confusion that is going to ensue in the first days, weeks, months, years after Roe is overturned.”

This is a developing story that will be updated.

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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.
Chad Davis is a 2016 graduate of Truman State University where he studied Public Communication and English. At Truman State, Chad served as the executive producer of the on-campus news station, TMN Television. In 2017, Chad joined the St. Louis Public Radio team as the fourth Race and Culture Diversity Fellow. Chad is a native of St. Louis and is a huge hip- hop, r&b, and pop music fan. He also enjoys graphic design, pop culture, film, and comedy.