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Senate stalls on ‘comprehensive’ abortion bill — but supporters say it’ll be back soon

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — After several hours of debate, the Missouri Senate stalled on what could be one of the strictest anti-abortion bills in the country — but proponents of the legislation have indicated the fight isn’t over. 

Championed by Sen. Bob Onder, the comprehensive legislation has many components — some of which overlap or “nestle” in the event of potential court rulings — and would make Missouri a so-called “sanctuary of life” state, meaning it would flatly prohibit abortion if Roe v. Wade is ever overturned. The bill includes a “heartbeat” component, which would require physicians to perform a heartbeat detection test first. If a heartbeat is detected, abortions would be prohibited except in the cases of a medical emergency.

SB 279 would also establish the “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act,” prohibiting abortion in cases when an “unborn child” is capable of feeling pain — which is typically set at 20 weeks. Additionally, it would prohibit abortions based on sex, race, or detection of Down Syndrome. 

“We believe as years have gone on since [the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision], the science … and the window of the womb we have with modern ultrasounds, more and more reinforce the humanity of the unborn child and more and more argue that we should protect innocent human life,” Onder told The Missouri Times. 

He noted “a number of states” have adopted individual provisions included in his bill but couldn’t say if “any other state has … taken this comprehensive of an approach.” He intentionally included components that “overlap” in the bill depending on potential future Supreme Court decisions regarding abortions. 

Republican senators voiced support for Onder’s bill from the floor. Sen. Wayne Wallingford said he could understand circumstances when it’s “not the right time” for a couple to have a child, “but it’s never the right time to take a life,” he said. 

“Denying life in the womb is almost the equivalent to believing the Earth is flat,” Sen. Andrew Koenig said. 

“Denying life in the womb is almost the equivalent to believing the Earth is flat.”

“While lawmakers in states like New York and Virginia advocate for infanticide, here in Missouri we’re fighting to protect the lives of unborn children,” Koenig later told The Missouri Times. 

Sen. Jill Schupp

Sen. Jill Schupp, a Democrat, attempted to attach an amendment to the bill, exempting victims of human trafficking from abortion bans. The provision would protect these women from being “re-victimized by having to carry the product of their victimization to term.” 

“To force these women to carry a reminder of their victimization from trafficking would be heartless and unconscionable,” Schupp said. “I can’t see moving forward with this bill without considering their lives.” 

Sens. Lauren Arthur and Scott Sifton supported Schupp’s amendment from the floor. Arthur, in particular, said she hoped to see additional protections included for women who are impregnated due to rape or rape by incest.  

“We’ve debated abortion a number of years since I’ve served in this legislature … but it’s been interesting to see the evolution of this debate. A few years ago, I think this would have been considered too extreme, for even members of the Republican Caucus,” Arthur said. “The idea that we’re forcing women who have been raped, raped even by family members, and we’re not providing exceptions in the cases of rape or incest, that’s pretty extreme.” 

“The idea that we’re forcing women who have been raped, raped even by family members, and we’re not providing exceptions in the cases of rape or incest, that’s pretty extreme.”

“While proponents of this legislation would argue that Missourians favor a ban on abortion, when you start talking about the specifics … I think most Missourians would agree that’s a pretty extreme measure [to not include exceptions for rape], and most Missourians would oppose something like that,” she said. 

But Republicans voiced opposition to the amendment. Wallingford, in particular, said it “goes against what we’re trying to do here, which is to save lives.” And Onder argued the amendment could have the “unintended consequence” of facilitating human traffickers further as those people “exploit their female victims by forcing them to have abortions.” 

Onder has pushed for legislation, including this session, in an effort to protect trafficking victims. However, he said: “Sex trafficking victims, first and foremost, need to be liberated from their lives of sexual slavery, and really mixing the human trafficking issue with the pro-life issue is really not productive.” 

He also opposed Arthur’s suggestion, contending, “I don’t think one crime justifies another.” 

Earlier Wednesday, activists from Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, and other pro-choice organizations descended on the Capitol to rally for reproductive rights. 

Schatz anticipates passing abortion bill this year

“The real agenda of these bills is to ban abortion outright,” Sara Baker, legislative and policy director for the ACLU of Missouri, said in a statement to The Missouri Times. “Since they can’t, they are using this restrictive law to put abortion out of reach. Measures like this do not end abortion, they end a woman’s ability to safely obtain an abortion. With our collective voice, we want to make one thing clear to politicians: stop the bans.”

M’Evie Mead, director of policy and organizing for Planned Parenthood Advocates in Missouri, accused lawmakers of “engaging in a political race to get” an abortion law before a “Kavanaugh Supreme Court,” referring to Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the controversial and latest addition to the nation’s highest court. 

“This is bad policy, bad politics, and it will destroy peoples’ lives,” Mead told The Missouri Times. 

With a little more than a week left in the legislative session, Mead praised the more than 200 advocates at the Capitol Wednesday and the senators who stood in opposition to the bill. She said she hopes the Senate “doesn’t revert to procedural tricks” to pass an abortion bill before the session’s end.  

After about three hours of debate, the bill was placed on the informal calendar — but President Pro Tem Dave Schatz has promised to push an abortion bill through the General Assembly and bring it to the governor before the term’s end. And Onder said Wednesday he expects his bill isn’t dead. 

“We have a week left in session. There were some other things going on tonight that kept us from giving this bill more time, but I think we can expect this bill will be back,” Onder predicted. 

Following a short dinnertime recess, the Senate reconvened and took up a mining bill with a contentious eminent domain amendment.