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Republican group pushes for exceptions to Missouri's abortion ban

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

When the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to an abortion, it triggered a Missouri law into effect. That law is one of the strictest abortion bans in the nation. It made abortions legal only in the case of medical emergency. Abortion rights advocates are pushing to give voters the chance to repeal it next year. Joining them is a Republican-led organization that's hoping to enshrine at least some abortion protections in the state. St. Louis Public Radio's Jason Rosenbaum has more.

JASON ROSENBAUM, BYLINE: Jamie Corley may not seem like the most likely person to try to scale back Missouri's abortion ban. She's a longtime Republican and spent years on Capitol Hill and D.C. working for GOP lawmakers. But she says fighting against Missouri's strict abortion ban isn't partisan.

JAMIE CORLEY: This is not a Republican or Democrat initiative. People, whether they say they're pro-life, whether they say they're pro-choice, can get behind what we're doing.

ROSENBAUM: Corley formed the Missouri Women and Family Research Fund, which submitted six proposed ballot initiatives that would establish abortion exceptions in the case of fatal fetal abnormalities, incest or rape if someone calls into a crisis hotline. Some iterations would allow abortions up to 12 weeks of pregnancy. In Missouri, submitting ballot initiatives is the first step in allowing voters to amend their state constitution by a simple majority vote. Corley argues Missouri's law is so extreme that voters who typically vote for Republican candidates will support her initiatives.

CORLEY: We are seeing stories of women faced with just unbelievable medical complications because they weren't able to get the care that they needed. I think most Republicans do not want to see a total ban on abortion.

ROSENBAUM: Christine Matthews, a public opinion pollster, says there's data to back that up.

CHRISTINE MATTHEWS: Voters, including Republicans, think that the current law in place is too strict. And they would be willing to support a ballot initiative that includes exceptions.

ROSENBAUM: Matthews has talked with Corley but hasn't been paid yet by her organization. She conducted a poll in nine states with strict bans, including Missouri, and found that voters overwhelmingly support exceptions.

MATTHEWS: The state legislators who do not support exceptions for rape and incest are very much out of step with constituents in the state of Missouri. Seventy percent say abortion should be legal in cases of rape and incest.

ROSENBAUM: But Corley's proposals aren't being embraced by abortion rights opponents, especially state lawmakers like GOP Senator Bill Eigel, who voted for the current abortion ban.

BILL EIGEL: The fundamental belief of the pro-life movement is that all life is precious. And if we get away from that very foundational, fundamental belief, then we are no longer the pro-life state that we talk about being.

ROSENBAUM: And supporters of abortion rights have been even more critical. They say Corley's initiatives are too modest.

COLLEEN MCNICHOLAS: Yes, most folks are accessing abortion early in pregnancy, but there are a whole host of reasons why folks might need abortion access after 12 weeks of pregnancy.

ROSENBAUM: That's Colleen McNicholas, Planned Parenthood's chief medical officer for the St. Louis region. She says since any abortion initiative is going to be attacked by conservatives, backers of abortion rights should push for a more expansive ballot initiative.

MCNICHOLAS: Clear-cut, bottom line, the government should not be the one who's making a decision about when somebody should be able to continue or not a pregnancy.

ROSENBAUM: Corley says she will likely decide later this year which of the six initiatives to move forward with based on which one is most likely to pass. But getting one of these measures on the ballot in 2024 isn't a sure thing. Missouri Republicans have already prompted time-consuming legal action against other abortion initiatives to try and slow down groups from gathering signatures. Abortion rights proponents have cried foul, but Republicans like State Senator Andrew Koenig don't see a problem.

ANDREW KOENIG: I fully support gumming up the process because I do not want any measure going to a vote of the people specifically when it comes to abortion because that life has an interest in being protected by this state.

ROSENBAUM: Procedural hurdles aside, Matthews, the pollster, says national trends show that when it's put up to voters, abortion rights tend to prevail.

MATTHEWS: What we're finding is in red states, when the abortion question is on an initiative as a standalone - and this happens last cycle in Kentucky, Montana and others - voters sided with the reproductive rights position.

ROSENBAUM: Abortion rights supporters want to add Missouri to that list next year. To get there, they may have to decide just how far to go to soften the ban.

For NPR News, I'm Jason Rosenbaum in Saint Louis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Jason Rosenbaum
Since entering the world of professional journalism in 2006, Jason Rosenbaum dove head first into the world of politics, policy and even rock and roll music. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, Rosenbaum spent more than four years in the Missouri State Capitol writing for the Columbia Daily Tribune, Missouri Lawyers Media and the St. Louis Beacon. Since moving to St. Louis in 2010, Rosenbaum's work appeared in Missouri Lawyers Media, the St. Louis Business Journal and the Riverfront Times' music section. He also served on staff at the St. Louis Beacon as a politics reporter. Rosenbaum lives in Richmond Heights with with his wife Lauren and their two sons.