Missouri Law: Catchall for Abortion Foes
The men who drafted the Missouri anti-abortion law now being tested by the U.S. Supreme Court call it the “kitchen sink bill.”
“That’s because everything is in it except the kitchen sink,” said Samuel Lee, an anti-abortion lobbyist who co-authored the bill.
The statute, the most significant challenge yet to the landmark Roe vs. Wade ruling that in 1973 established a woman’s constitutional right to have an abortion, begins with the bold assertion that “life . . . begins at conception.”
It goes on to ban the use of public funds and facilities to perform abortions and to prohibit public employees from counseling a woman to have the procedure performed except in life-threatening circumstances.
And in a section that could be construed as permitting truck drivers to refuse to make deliveries to abortion clinics, it protects the right of virtually anyone to refuse to “participate in abortion.”
It was a law that was bound to wind up before the Supreme Court.
“We didn’t draft it as a direct challenge to Roe,” said Lee, “but as another means of chipping away at Roe vs. Wade.”
Both pro-choice and anti-abortion forces involved with the case here anticipate that those who crafted the bill will have achieved their goal when the court issues its ruling on the case, possibly as early as this week.
“I think the court will uphold some if not all of the statute, but it won’t overturn Roe,” said Judith Widdicombe, founder of Reproductive Health Services, the St. Louis abortion clinic that challenged the statute in a class-action lawsuit along with Planned Parenthood of Greater Kansas City and medical personnel and social workers employed by publicly financed institutions.
At the clinic Widdicombe founded, the board of directors is so sure that the ruling will be unfavorable to them that they met last week to prepare for it. Part of the preparation was emotional.
“We were so busy trying to help shape public opinion that we didn’t have time to grieve,” B. J. Isaacson-Jones, executive director of the clinic, said softly during a break from the meeting. “Now we’re grieving.”
Sparks Intense Emotions
The abortion issue, of course, has sparked intense emotions all across the country, but nowhere more than in Missouri.
Webster vs. Reproductive Health Services, as the case is named, is the fourth abortion challenge to reach the Supreme Court from the state, which is home both to some of the country’s most well-organized abortion foes as well as to Reproductive Health Services, one of the nation’s largest abortion clinics.
The strength of the anti-abortion forces here is attributed to a strong religious fundamentalist presence in this Bible Belt state, the strength of the Roman Catholic Church in St. Louis and to the fact that groups opposed to abortion began organizing soon after the Roe vs. Wade decision.
Lee, state legislative chairman for Missouri Citizens for Life, said that work on the bill now before the Supreme Court began in 1983.
He was serving a 314-day jail sentence at the time for defying court injunctions prohibiting him from demonstrating at abortion clinics. One day, while out of jail on a work release program, he visited Andrew Puzder, a St. Louis attorney who had volunteered to represent him and other protesters in court. Puzder showed him a draft of a bill he had written.
Bill Skirts Issue
The bill, in seeming defiance of the Roe vs. Wade ruling, declared that human life begins at the moment of conception. But Puzder’s bill stopped there. The Supreme Court had ruled that states could not adopt one theory of when life began to justify regulation of abortion. Puzder’s bill skirted the issue by making no mention of abortion.
“I thought it was brilliant,” Lee said.
Lee said that the idea was to get similar laws passed in a number of states. It would be argued that the bills were intended not to influence abortion issues but to protect the rights of the unborn in matters such as personal-injury claims or inheritance.
Sooner or later, though, Puzder and Lee figured that the laws would wind up before the Supreme Court in a case dealing with abortion. When that happened, they thought--perhaps years later after the composition of the court had changed--the laws might be allowed to stand, thereby effectively outlawing abortion.
“It was a long-term strategy,” Lee said.
Now 31, Lee had been actively involved in the anti-abortion movement since 1978, when he participated in his first anti-abortion sit-in.
Recalls Student Days
He was a young seminary student then. “This was at a point in time that I was studying, like a lot of young people, the issues of good and evil, war and peace, trying to decide how to respond to evil in the world,” he recalled.
He was spending a lot of time in the library at the Franciscan infirmary where he lived, reading about the life of Mohandas K. Gandhi. He was excited by the idea of applying Gandhi’s tactic of nonviolent protest to the abortion issue.
The anti-abortion movement in St. Louis has not been nonviolent, however. In 1986, one of two buildings where Reproductive Health Services performed abortions was damaged by arson. Although the case remains unsolved, Widdicombe and Isaacson-Jones believe that anti-abortionists set the blaze.
Jody Sova, director of counseling for the clinic, also complains of demonstrations in which the verbal taunts to women entering the building became “a form of violence.”
“That’s a verbal assault on people who don’t need to be assaulted,” she said.
‘Sense of Calm’
Lee, though, was “special,” said Isaacson-Jones. “I have tried to get through the hallway when it was crowded with demonstrators and I’ve been pressed up against him so close I could tell what kind of soap he used. People would be shouting all sorts of things all around me but there was a sense of calm from him. I didn’t feel threatened by him in any way.”
After Puzder’s bill was defeated in the Legislature in 1985, Lee proposed combining it with an idea of his own. He had been upset that a friend of his, a high school counselor, was being forced by the school district to discuss the option of abortion with pregnant students, Lee said.
Lee wanted the law to protect his friend’s right to refuse to discuss abortion. Later, Puzder’s and Lee’s ideas were combined with a bill drafted by Louis DeFeo, general counsel for the Missouri Catholic Conference, that prohibited the use of public funds or public facilities for all but medically life-saving abortions.
After some rewriting and some watering down, the bill was sponsored in the state Senate by Sen. John D. Schneider, a Democrat from St. Louis County.
Mary Bryant, a lobbyist for Planned Parenthood in Jefferson City, the state capital, blamed the complacency of pro-choice forces for passage of the controversial abortion bill, which breezed through the Legislature in 1986 after initially having a tough time in committee.
Thought Passage Impossible
“It was very difficult to rouse the pro-choice community around the state,” she said. “Many people believed that it simply was impossible that the Legislature would pass such legislation.”
In retrospect, Lee said he realizes that the bill was a gamble because it was so comprehensive. It easily could have been defeated. Instead, he said, its broad scope helped.
“In some ways there was so much in here that the opponents of the bill couldn’t focus on any one thing,” he said.
It was also helped by timing. Several abortion bills had been defeated the previous year. Anti-abortionists form a powerful political force in Missouri. There was a feeling in the Legislature that to vote against the new bill would be political suicide, he said.
A number of legislators told her later, Bryant said, that they voted for the measure even though they considered it unconstitutional.
“They thought they could play both sides of the fence,” she said. “They could keep the anti-abortion people off their backs (by voting for it), but many thought the courts would never go for it and it would be thrown out.”
Key sections of the law were declared unconstitutional in July by the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld a lower court decision. U.S. District Judge Scott O. Wright had struck down the section declaring that life begins at conception and sections banning the use of public facilities for abortions, banning public employees from providing abortion counseling and requiring that abortions after 16 weeks or more of pregnancy be performed in a hospital.