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Missouri's 72-hour abortion wait time bill likely to pass this session

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The issue of abortion in Missouri seems like old news. But it's an issue that remains very much at the forefront of Missouri politics this year.  In this year's legislative session, there are over thirty pieces of legislation touching the issue.

Is this year different than others?  The Guttmacher Institute, a national reproductive rights advocacy organization, said there is a greater legislative focus on regulating abortion in the Missouri general assembly than ever before.  At least one of these bills seems likely to pass.  It is a bill requiring women who seek abortions to wait 72 hours instead of the current 24 hours before the procedure. If it passes, Missouri will be one of three states to have the most restrictive wait time in the nation.

Missouri is one of the most restrictive states for abortion services in the country.  Missouri only has one clinic that offers abortion services in St. Louis, after Planned Parenthood lost the doctor, who could perform abortions at their Columbia, Mid-Missouri location in 2011.

It's hard to keep track of all the abortion-related legislation in Missouri right now. In fact, some people whose job is to do it, have stopped counting.  Ryann Summerford, lobbyist for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Missouri, said there are so many bills up for debate that are anti-abortion, she's stopped counting them all.

I found her on the third floor rotunda of the state capitol last week, strategizing with her partners about how to combat the more than 30 bills in legislature right now, that, as she puts it, "coerce and shame women from having an abortion."

“I’m going to go out on a limb here as I am scrolling through all these bills I don’t think there is one bill that hasn’t moved somewhere, " Summerford said. "These aren’t just bills that are ceremonious and are filed and don’t go anywhere."

Increased numbers of bills related to abortion is status quo in Missouri, especially in the period before an election.  This is an issue legislators hope will connect with the conservative voter base.  But this year there is one bill is rising above the fray for abortion opponents and supporters.  It's a bill that would increase the time a woman must wait for an abortion from 24 to 72 hours.  

"I don't see how to negotiate on this," said Missouri's Senate minority leader, Jolie Justus, who has been labeled a champion by abortion rights advocates.  

Her strategy as senator for the past eight years has been to negotiate legislation to make them less harmful to what she says is the important "doctor patient relationship." And she's had successes in past years.   But on the issue of wait times, however, Justus says it might be impossible to find a compromise.

“I’ve been told by the Republican majority in the Senate that the 72-hour waiting period is a bill that they will pass this year," said Justus. " I have been told that this is something that even if they have to use extraordinary measures to stop our filibusters that they are going to get that bill this year."

Justus still holds out hope for a veto from Governor Nixon, if the bill does pass, even as a Senate veto override is possible.  If that's the case, she said opponents will have to try to look for unconstitutionality, arguing the 72-hour wait time places on an "undue burden" on women.   

Missouri Representative Tim Jones (R-Eureka) is Speaker of the House. He’s the co-sponsor of a bill called the “conscience bill”, HB 1430, that indirectly affects abortion services. 

“This bill is intended to get more health care workers to participate in our health care industry, but give them the protections that they deserve so they don’t to check their religious beliefs or their conscience rights at the door.”

His view on what he calls "protecting life," runs all the way to the federal government.

"Time and time again show that states can reasonably protect life and the reason for that is that were to choose the opposite and we were to choose the opposite extreme and the state were not to choose to protect life well eventually the state would run out of citizens, it would run out of tax payers and the state would cease to exist."

On the issue of 72 hour wait times, Jones agrees it is a priority for him and fellow supporters.

“I don’t think 72 hours, 3 days is too much time to bring another life into this world or not."

Recently a Missouri state representative made headlines when he compared getting an abortion to buying a car, arguing that if one can wait three days to research the purchase of a car, then it's not too much to ask for an abortion, too. 

Elizabeth Nash, state issues manager of the Guttmacher Institute, a national advocacy organization that tracks these topics by state, disagrees.

"This really burdens women.  We know that a woman has made up her mind before she even picks up the phone for the appointment," said Nash in a phone interview.

Nash said the 72 hour wait legislation could be crippling for women seeking abortion services in Missouri. Women may have to drive great distances and figure out how to stay in St. Louis in order to undergo the procedure.  Nash and other opponents of the legislation argue that increased wait time in a state that only has one abortion provider, like in Missouri, creates a logistical burden for women seeking an abortion. 

"By including a waiting period to 72 hours, that is probably not going to sway a woman or affect her decision-making, but it can impact her ability to access abortion care entirely. And by that I mean it can affect her ability to arrange the logistics for getting to the abortion clinic for abortion counseling and then getting back to the clinic for the abortion itself. "

Women seeking an abortion have to navigate the logistical hurdles of taking off work, getting to the center, staying at the location, and if the bill passes, finding a way back in three days.  Nash and other opponents of the bill say that this impacts poorer women, who don't necessarily have the means to take off work, pay for all the surrounding costs in addition to the procedure, which Nash estimates is about $500. Nash argues this sort of wait time is out of line with other out-patient medical procedures.

Senator Justus says she will keep working on negotiating the issue, but she also recognizes that she is in the “deep minority,” of folks, as several democrats in the Missouri Senate are abortion opponents.  

Jones says he hopes Missouri's restrictive policies on abortion will be a model for the nation.

The 72-hour wait time legislation has passed out of Senate committee after House approval in March.   This legislative session ends May 16.

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