Pro-life movement divided on endorsements, strategy

Mike Bernskoetter
Mike Bernskoetter

A new pro-life group has entered Missouri's political realm, generating confusion among conservative voters as well as some of the lawmakers endorsed by the new group.

Republican state Sen. Mike Bernksoetter, of Jefferson City, had been endorsed by Missouri Right to Life during every election cycle for the past decade.

That ended this year.

Missouri Right to Life, the state's largest pro-life advocacy group, withdrew its endorsement from candidates who the organization said supported public funding for Planned Parenthood, previously Missouri's only abortion provider.

The organization backed at least five challengers running against Senate Republican incumbents, including Bernskoetter and Sen. Mike Cierpiot, R-Lee's Summit.

Bernskoetter, and other state elected officials who lost the endorsement, said the legislative changes Missouri Right to Life was pushing for would have put federal funds and vulnerable populations in jeopardy.

"It's kind of like the thing that Ronald Reagan said, you know, 'If you agree with somebody 80 percent of the time, you're a friend, not a 20 percent traitor,'" said Bernskoetter, who maintains his pro-life stance hasn't changed.

A new group, Missouri Pro Life, stepped in to offer endorsements to the candidates Missouri Right to Life skipped -- as did several other anti-abortion groups -- signaling a division within the movement. Critics have called Missouri Pro Life a shell organization created to counterract Missouri Right to Life's non-endorsements.

Samuel Lee, a longtime pro-life advocate at the Capitol and director of Campaign Life Missouri, said while "every group has a right to have their own criteria, I would say that amongst some pro-life people I've spoken to, there is confusion."

From 2016-20, Missouri Right to Life endorsed between 145 and 182 primary candidates running for a General Assembly seat. This year, it endorsed 102.

Missouri Right to Life's list of Senate primary endorsements this year is almost the complete opposite of those endorsed by Missouri Pro Life as the two organizations endorsed the same candidate only once. The two organizations endorsed opposite Republican candidates in 10 of the 17 Missouri Senate races with a primary, and Missouri Pro Life endorsed in four races Missouri Right to Life didn't. Missouri Right to Life endorsed in one race Missouri Pro Life didn't.

Missouri Right to Life and Missouri Pro Life could not be reached for comment.

An endorsement-worthy vote

In a June endorsement letter to Cierpiot's primary opponent, Missouri Right to Life said it didn't endorse the incumbent "due to his votes to fund Planned Parenthood."

The vote was over an amendment to an amendment to a Senate bill proposed during the 2021 special session focused on renewing the Federal Reimbursement Allowance -- a tax on healthcare providers that largely funds Missouri's Medicaid budget.

The amendment would have changed state statute to prevent Medicaid funds from going to abortion providers and their affiliates, a move members of Senate's now disbanded Conservative Caucus had pushed the previous regular session.

But the amendment ultimately failed.

Twelve Republicans voted in favor of the measure, but 11 sided with the chamber's 10 Democrats to strike it down.

Bernskoetter, Cierpiot, Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, Majority Floor Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, and Majority Caucus Secretary Jeanie Riddle, R-Mokane, were among those to vote down the amendment in the Senate.

Although Missouri Right to Life cited the vote on barring funds to Planned Parenthood as the reason for lost endorsements, the organization also stripped Sen. Sandy Crawford, R-Buffalo, and Sen. Cindy O'Laughlin, R-Shelbina, of endorsements despite their votes in favor of the amendment.

It didn't endorse any candidates in the race for Senate District 28, and Crawford won the three-way primary race with 63 percent of the vote. O'Laughlin didn't face any primary challengers in August, but still didn't receive the endorsement. Both state senators were endorsed by Missouri Pro Life.

"The amendment was introduced and while I voted for it, the measure failed," O'Laughlin wrote in an opinion to the Missouri Times published June 27. "I believe this was because Senators were unwilling to risk vulnerable populations and had not seen any legal interpretation which would protect them. Hours later the FRA was extended, and I voted for it. MRL apparently wanted that extension to be voted down thus jeopardizing our nursing homes, sheltered workshops, etc. I didn't feel it would be very pro-life for me to endanger Missourians dependent on this federal money."

During the most recent legislative session, lawmakers zeroed out funding for abortion providers and their associates through the state budget and barred Planned Parenthood from being reimbursed through the state's Medicaid program. Planned Parenthood then sued the state in March.

Missouri Right to Life's eagerness to support candidates who are willing to disregard federal law to defund Planned Parenthood indicates a strategy of having a higher court review and potentially strike down the federal law, Lee said.

The lost endorsement

Cierpiot said the language Missouri Right to Life was pushing for would have put the state out of compliance with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the federal agency administering those programs. He said Missouri lawmakers were unsure of what the punishment would be if the federal agency found the state out of compliance.

"Effectively, we've done what they wanted, we just didn't do it the way they wanted to do it and that's what the entire fight's been about," Cierpiot said. "And it's ridiculous.

"We've been hoping to be where we are today for 50 years, and we're here, and we're fighting. It's ridiculous."

Bernskoetter also said he thought it was "ridiculous" Missouri Right to Life didn't endorse candidates who have a long history of advocating for anti-abortion legislation, like himself. It's especially troubling because the issue has been settled, he continued, as no abortion providers operate in the state.

Bernskoetter also noted the FRA provides funding for about 23,000 seniors in nursing homes, which would have been risked if the state was out of compliance.

"Is that pro-life when we take funding away from people in nursing homes?" he asked. "That doesn't seem like it's pro-life to me to put all those people out on the street."

State Rep. Rudy Veit, R-Wardsville, was among the state lawmakers to buck his party in the House to vote down a measure prohibiting state funds from going to Planned Parenthood.

Veit said the vote Missouri Right to Life based its endorsement on was already settled because courts decided in 2020 that the state needed to include all providers in its Medicaid expansion or risk federal funding for hospitals and healthcare systems. He said the funding was critical to keep rural hospitals and health care systems operational.

"Now what we did do, though, was put it in the budget so there's no money going toward abortions," Veit said. "But that didn't meet their criteria."

Veit said he's unsure if the loss of the Missouri Right to Life endorsement, and gaining of the Missouri Pro Life endorsement, had any effect on voters. Veit won his August primary with more than 60 percent of the vote.

He said his constituents understand his values and see him at pro-life events in the community.

"I think those that know me, it's not a factor," he said.

Cierpiot said he's unsure what the change of endorsements meant for voters, but supporters know he's been involved with the pro-life movement for 40 years. He said the Missouri Pro Life endorsement didn't change anything about the way he campaigned.

Cierpiot, who had been endorsed by Missouri Right to Life since 2010, said the group may have used the Medicaid funding issue to drum up controversy among its ranks and fund raise.

"It really does show how shallow their look at the Missouri Right to Life legislators are," he said. "We've got the most pro-life state in the nation, and yet we're fighting with Missouri Right to Life about this silly thing."

Bernskoetter, who survived his primary with 55 percent of the vote, said he doesn't know what effect the change in endorsements might have had on his campaign. Most voters might assume any pro-life endorsement means the candidate is pro-life, he said.

Bernskoetter said the anti-abortion policies Republicans have championed over the past 12 years he's been in the General Assembly have been effective.

A new pro life endorsement

Most of the Republican candidates endorsed by Missouri Pro Life said they had limited contact and little knowledge of the group.

Veit said he hasn't been in direct contact with the organization and doesn't know who started it. He said he doesn't know what the organization based its endorsement on.

"I know they just told me there's some organization out there, pro-life, that's looking at all the areas you can vote on, and not just one issue," he said.

Before the primary, George Bacon, Veit's challenger in the primary, called the endorsement from Missouri Pro Life fake.

"By-the-way, creating a fake organization (MISSOURIPRO.LIFE) and claiming that they have endorsed you is not just desperate, it's PATHETIC!" Bacon wrote on Facebook July 29. "I guess if you can't get endorsed by Missouri Right to Life, you make up a fake organization to fool people into believing you have been endorsed by MRL. MissouriPro.Life is a 'reserved' name registered with the Sect. of State from July 11, 2022 until September 9, 2022."

Veit said he didn't file a request seeking the Missouri Right to Life endorsement.

"I cannot vote just the way somebody tells me to every time," he said.

Cierpiot wasn't endorsed by Missouri Right to Life this year but was endorsed by Missouri Pro Life and Campaign Life Missouri, directed by Lee.

Lee doesn't see the rift between the groups as ideological, though.

"It's a matter of perceived or real fairness for them," he said. "If you have two Republican primary candidates with pretty equal voting records on abortion issues, why shouldn't they both get an endorsement as opposed to just one person getting it," he asked.

Cierpiot described Missouri Pro Life as a political action committee (PAC) that started "just recently."

"To tell you the truth, I haven't talked to them, I just know they endorsed me," he said, adding he was more interested in the endorsement from Lee.

Cierpiot said the endorsement was based on his history of being pro-life, which Missouri Right to Life didn't take into account this year.

"Missouri Right to Life this time decided to draw a line in the sand over doing something about Medicaid which I thought was dangerous for our disabled population," he said. "I agree with what they're trying to do, I just disagree with the way they were doing it, and I wasn't willing to throw the dice and hope it turned out well."

Bernskoetter also said he didn't have much knowledge of Missouri Pro Life or its founding.

"I think there were some pro-life groups that were upset about Missouri Right to Life and how they handled the situation," he said, specifically pointing to Lee's Campaign Life Missouri and Missouri Pro Life.

"So they endorsed some of the senators that didn't get the Missouri Right to Life endorsement," he continued.

Bernskoetter said he likely learned about the endorsement via a letter or an email, but he was "running around like a chicken with my head cut off campaigning."

PathGuide Law, based out of Kansas City, filed a temporary name reservation for "Missouri Pro Life" with the Missouri Secretary of State's Office on July 11, which expires Sept. 9. Kevin Corlew, the law firm's principal attorney and founding member and a Republican state representative from 2015-18, is listed on the name reservation application.

The group also filed a statement of committee organization with the Missouri Ethics Commission on July 18, creating the Missouri Pro Life PAC. The PAC remains active but hasn't filed any reports and doesn't have any officers reported, besides Amy Corlew, Kevin's wife.

Amy Corlew is also listed as the treasurer on the group's website. There are no other individuals listed on the website or MEC filings.

In an email to the News Tribune, Kevin Corlew said he is not directly affiliated with Missouri Pro Life, but provided legal counsel in the group's formation.

"It is a grassroots pro-life organization whose mission is to educate pro-life voters, elect pro-life legislators and support pro-life legislation," he wrote in the email.

The rest of the Missouri Pro Life website is almost barren aside from tabs to view 2022 endorsements, submit contact information, fill out a message box and take a survey. The website is missing information clarifying the group's mission, identity and history.

Corlew said the group's endorsements are based on candidate surveys listed on the website, pro-life positions and legislative voting records.

"Missouri Pro Life is not in competition with any other pro-life organization but is an additional voice to protect innocent life in this state," he wrote.

JoDonn Chaney, a spokesperson for the secretary of state's office, said the group's filing holds the name for the potential creation of an entity and kicks off a 120-day period (with renewals) to file an application creating the business entity.

An application to create an entity with the Missouri Pro Life name has not yet been filed, he said, and what kind of business entity the group is can remain undefined during the 120-day period.

Where does anti-abortion advocacy go from here?

Cierpiot said he doesn't understand why Missouri Right to Life is needed anymore after the U.S. Supreme Court court overturned Roe v. Wade and Missouri banned abortion.

Bernskoetter agreed.

He said he doesn't see an effective future for Missouri Right to Life, particularly with the pro-life Republicans it failed to endorse.

There's really no need for the group if it continues to behave as it did this year, Bernskoetter said. It's losing political clout.

"We're going to be pro-life no matter if we get their endorsement or not," Bernskoetter said. "So I don't see the point of them being there."

Bernskoetter said the future of abortion legislation will likely include both people wanting to make the state more restrictive and people wanting more exceptions to the law. He said he doesn't need an endorsement from Missouri Right to Life to know he's pro-life.

With abortion outlawed in Missouri, Veit said he wants Missouri Right to Life to turn more attention to supporting women who have unplanned pregnancies, such as improving the adoption system.

"We have to be more than just saving a child, which is the number one priority, we also have to make arrangements to try to help people adopt them," Veit said. "I want to work with the public health agencies and take care of our kids, and sometimes these agencies have different opinions on how it ought to be done. You can't keep all of them happy."

Cierpiot said the Senate is also looking at ways to make adoption easier.

Lee said Campaign Life will look to support bills that fund and support Missouri's pregrancy resource centers and maternity homes. It is also still looking at bills that would limit accessibility to mail order abortion pills, one of which made it to a House committee last session but never made it across the finish line.

"I will definitely say that will be back," Lee said.

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