Missouri abortion ballot effort raises more than $1 million in first day of launch

A campaign to legalize abortion in Missouri raised more than $1.1 million in donations on the first day it launched.

The campaign, a coalition organized under a political action committee called Missourians for Constitutional Freedom, announced Thursday it was launching a campaign to move forward with a ballot initiative that would legalize abortion up until the point of fetal viability.

With the exception of medical emergencies, all abortions are illegal in Missouri.

The campaign has the support of Abortion Action Missouri, the ACLU of Missouri and Planned Parenthood affiliates in Kansas City and St. Louis.

Among the largest contributions include $100,000 from Abortion Action Missouri, $100,000 from the ACLU of Missouri, $75,000 from Planned Parenthood Great Plains and $30,000 from Access Missouri, according to reports filed to the Missouri Ethics Commission.

But the largest donation so far was a $500,000 check from the Fairness Project, a 501 (c)4 nonprofit that does not have to disclose its donors. The organization helps bankroll ballot measures across the country, including Missouri's successful 2020 Medicaid expansion initiative petition.

After months of internal debate, abortion-rights organizations settled on a proposed constitutional amendment to allow the Legislature to "regulate the provision of abortion after fetal viability provided that under no circumstance shall the government deny, interfere with, delay or otherwise restrict an abortion that in the good faith judgment of a treating health care professional is needed to protect the life or physical or mental health of the pregnant person."

While many say they see a clear path to victory for the amendment if it makes it to the ballot, the coalition still faces a tight timeline. The group estimates it will need to raise $5 million to successfully gather the more than 171,000 signatures needed by May 5 in order to appear on the statewide ballot.

"We are so proud to have launched this campaign with such a broad coalition and are excited to continue engaging Missourians in every corner of the state to come together and end Missouri's abortion ban," Mallory Schwarz, executive director of Abortion Action Missouri, said in a statement Thursday on behalf of the coalition.

A competing ballot campaign launched in November, led by longtime GOP congressional staffer Jamie Corley, would enshrine abortion rights in the Constitution up to 12 weeks of pregnancy and allow exceptions for rape and incest.

Corley on Thursday declined to give an update on her campaign status, but said having two initiatives on the ballot would be "less than ideal in terms of moving forward."

"We all agree that the current abortion ban is too extreme and needs to change," Corley said. "And we'll keep assessing day by day what our role is in changing the abortion ban and making sure we restore access."

Anti-abortion advocates lead new opposition campaign

The campaign to enshrine abortion rights up to fetal viability has been endorsed by numerous high-profile Democrats, including state Rep. Crystal Quade, who is running as a Democrat for governor on a platform that includes restoring abortion access.

"Since Missouri became the first state to enact a total abortion ban, women and families have suffered, doctors have fled the state, and our rights have been stripped away," Quade wrote on social media. "Sign the petition, gather signatures, and let's return reproductive freedom to Missouri."

While the major abortion advocacy organizations are lining up behind the measure, anti-abortion activists have launched their own campaign in opposition.

A political action committee, whose president is veteran anti-abortion activist Sam Lee, was formed last week to "push back against the Big Abortion Industry," according to a news release. As of Thursday evening, the group had received a donation of just over $5,000, from the Missouri Catholic Conference and two $10,000 donations from the Missouri Senate Campaign Committee and the House Republican Campaign Committee.

The group, called Missouri Stands with Women, aims to fight any initiative petitions seeking to put abortion rights on the ballot, including the viability ban.

"When it really comes down to it, this measure is actually going to allow unregulated taxpayer funded abortions up to the moment of birth," said Stephanie Bell, a spokeswoman for the committee. "Essentially what it's saying is that as long as the individual has a health care professional that says the abortion is needed not only for the life of the mother, but for physical and mental health, that abortion will be available up until the moment of birth."

"Our coalition is united and aligned, and we didn't just come together yesterday," Bell said. "We are prepared to educate voters and let them know what's really in the initiative."

Popularity of viability language in ballot initiatives

Erika Christensen, with Patient Forward, a group that advocates for abortion care later in pregnancy, said Thursday's announcement to include a viability limit wasn't surprising, considering many states have taken similar approaches since Roe was overturned, including Arizona, Florida, Nebraska and Nevada. Last fall, Ohioans voted to legalize abortion up to the point of viability.

Viability can be difficult to define, she said, though it's usually determined to be between 20 and 25 weeks gestation.

The Missouri petition defines fetal viability as the point in pregnancy when "there is a significant likelihood of the fetus's sustained survival outside the uterus without the application of extraordinary medical measures."

Christensen said while arguments are often made that a middle ground is needed to restore abortion access in states dominated by Republicans, those states are also where abortion advocates need to demand greater access.

"There's still a lot of later abortion stigma in the reproductive-rights field," Christensen said. "There are just different goals within the reproductive rights field, and I think we're seeing that now finally play out after many years of arguments behind doors."

Viability language has been criticized by some organizations, including members of the Missouri coalition like Planned Parenthood. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has dissuaded the use of viability limits in legislation, as there is no single clinical definition of viability.

Less than a year ago, Advocates of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region & Southwest Missouri published a letter titled "abortion restrictions under the guise of protections" that reads "viability standard tried and failed to balance state and personal interests, and it did not work."

On Thursday, the same organization announced its support of the ballot initiative.

Veteran pro-abortion advocates want to eliminate bans

While the state's major abortion-rights organizations support the initiative petition launched Thursday, criticism of the viability standard remains among veterans of Missouri's reproductive health care movement.

Bonyen Lee-Gilmore, a spokesperson with the National Institute for Reproductive Health who previously worked for Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, said attempts to amend state constitutions are near-permanent, and should be treated with a higher standard.

"We as a movement have been talking the talk for decades, and now it's time to walk the walk," she said. "We can't both say Roe is the floor only to permanently reinstate the floor."

The coalition initially filed 11 different initiative petitions. Some versions sought to make abortion legal up to 24 weeks of pregnancy and one would have removed all gestational limits on abortion.

Schwarz, with Abortion Action Missouri, previously told the Independent the coalition believes viability language meets most Missourians where they are.

"Many members of our coalition are out talking about abortion with Missourians every day, and we know that Missourians often have complex or nuanced positions on abortion, but there is one thing that they are aligned in, and it's that they want to end the abortion ban," Schwarz said. "That they do not support the abortion ban we are living under today, and we are confident this is our best path forward."

Some see the language as a compromise not all abortion advocates are willing to make.

Robin Utz, who had an abortion in Missouri at 21 weeks when her unborn daughter was diagnosed with a fatal fetal condition, had hoped the coalition would choose a version without viability limits.

"It will be better at getting people abortions," Utz said of the ballot measure. "It will hurt getting the government out of pregnancy."

She added: "They are lacking imagination and courage to do the right thing."

Pamela Merritt, who, like Utz, previously sat at the coalition table when abortion-rights groups were grappling with how to roll back abortion restrictions in Missouri, has long said she won't support a petition that includes a fetal viability limit.

"I look forward to hearing the coalition articulate their strategy," said Merritt, the executive director of Medical Students for Choice. "Not just through November of 2024, but for the next several years."

The Missouri Independent, www.missouriindependent.com, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization covering state government and its impact on Missourians.