Missouri's Ballot Measure Battles
Republican interference, 'viability' language, & 'compromise' amendments
This is a special edition/addition of Abortion, Every Day. The regular daily report will be in your inbox later today.
Missouri needed its own newsletter today—there’s just too much going on to squish the state into the daily report.
If you’ve been reading for a while, you know that there are a bunch of different proposed abortion-rights ballot measures in Missouri—and that pro-choice activists haven’t thrown their weight behind one, in particular. As The Kansas City Star pointed out yesterday, we’re cutting it a little close to the wire. From Emily Wales, president of Planned Parenthood Great Plains:
“That timeline is going to be really, really tough. Missourians will have access restored. I don’t know that it will be possible for them to vote on this in 2024.”
The most important thing to remember is that Missouri Republicans stopped pro-choice activists from moving forward for months. That is the primary reason for the delay. (Background here.)
The two other big hold-ups are: 1) disagreement about language on ‘viability’ and 2) a handful of measures proposed by a Republican strategist who says she’s seeking a compromise on abortion.
The ‘viability’ issue is one we’re seeing in multiple states, but it’s playing out the most publicly in Missouri: Essentially, a group called Missourians for Constitutional Freedom proposed eleven versions of a pro-choice measure—some protect abortion rights until ‘viability’, and others have no such limit. Abortion rights groups in the state are mixed on which version to support.
There’s a desire, of course, to prevent as much harm as possible by getting at least some abortion rights restored. Some pro-choice groups are also worried that pushing an amendment without a ‘viability’ standard will give conservatives the ammunition they need to attack the measure as legalizing abortion ‘up until birth’. It’s the same reason that some versions of the amendment also state that the measure wouldn’t revoke parental consent laws—the idea is to preempt the kinds of attacks we saw from anti-choice groups in Ohio.
But here’s the thing: Republicans are going to make those claims no matter what a pro-choice ballot measure says. After all, Issue 1 in Ohio contained a ‘viability’ standard and anti-abortion groups still attacked the measure as supporting abortion ‘up until birth’. I’m not above quoting myself, so here’s a few words from a column I wrote back in April:
“Conservatives and anti-abortion activists will always find a way to call us murdering extremists, no matter what kind of policy we propose…So why would we ever base our policies on the constantly-moving, bad-faith attacks of those who want to ban abortion entirely? Especially when abortion wins every single time it’s put to voters?
We will never win with politeness. We will never stop widespread suffering with concessions. And the truth is that Republicans aren’t losing because of their messaging or political strategies—they’re losing because of the very real consequences of their laws.”
Some abortion rights groups in Missouri feel similarly, and have made as much clear. Missouri Abortion Fund, for example, released a statement last month saying, “The inclusion of viability language, which will set legal standards for decades, is not in line with our values as an abortion fund.”
And Pamela Merritt, Executive Director of Medical Students for Choice (and my former Feministing colleague!), told The Kansas City Star that the language “is essentially restrictive,” and she’s worried about not having a strategy that goes beyond a ballot measure.
“[T]hese ballot measures at their best might protect abortion access to people who are already able to access some abortion care as opposed to centering the people most impacted by the ban…I’m a little concerned that there might be a push to advance a version that has restrictions because people are convinced that we have to do it now and they’re making assumptions about the electorate that haven’t been tested.”
That last bit is a vital point: Polls show that voters are increasingly understanding that pregnancy is too complicated to legislate. I wrote a short polling explainer last month that gets into this, but the short version is that support for abortion throughout pregnancy increased by nearly ten points since 2018. For women and young voters, that jump was even greater: In 2018, just 11% of women thought abortion should be legal throughout pregnancy; now it’s 25%. And 33% of voters ages 18-34 believe abortion should be legal throughout pregnancy, up from 14% in 2018.
We even have data specifically about ‘viability’ language in ballot measures: A PerryUndem poll showed that voters were 15 percentage points more likely to support a hypothetical ballot measure when it didn’t include a ‘viability’ restriction: 45% said they’d vote ‘yes’ on a measure with no restrictions, while 30% said they’d support a version with restrictions.
Tresa Undem, co-founder of the polling group, said that while even five years ago people supported a viability mandate, today, “People are saying, ‘I don’t want the government involved in this at all.’”
Obviously, voters are different in every state—but with abortion winning every time it’s on the ballot, it seems as good a time as any to fight for the policies we actually want. Why would we limit ourselves to what is essentially conservative framing on abortion rights?
For background on why ‘viability’ is an arbitrary standard, WNYC’s “More Perfect” podcast covered the issue in a two-part series. Listen to Part I below:
The second hurdle for Missouri pro-choice activists are the six versions of a ‘compromise’ amendment proposed by Republican strategist Jamie Corley. Corley says that her measures, some of which would protect abortion only up to 12 weeks of pregnancy, are “the only way that we are going to expand abortion rights in our state.” But as Dr. Colleen McNicholas, chief medical officer of the local Planned Parenthood told told NPR in October, “there are a whole host of reasons why folks might need abortion access after 12 weeks of pregnancy.”
Mallory Schwarz, executive director of Abortion Action Missouri, tells The Kansas City Star that Corley’s proposed amendments are “misleading”—and that they wouldn’t really allow doctors to provide abortions. “She very clearly didn’t consult with the providers of abortion care in our state or regionally to understand what abortion care looks like in practice,” Schwarz said.
Corley’s amendments are also being criticized for their ‘exceptions’ for rape victims, which would mandate that survivors report their attack to a crisis hotline. And Missouri lawyer Bridgette Dunlap outlined the legal and practical issues with the measures, finding that they’re “unlikely to create the conditions for someone to actually access legal abortion care even in the narrow circumstances where Corley thinks abortion should be permissible.”
Let’s be real, when a ‘pro-choice’ measure is indistinguishable from a 12-week ban, maybe it’s not so pro-choice after all. (One Missouri activist I spoke to even called Corley “a plant” to disrupt legitimate abortion rights efforts.)
All of which is to say: Missouri abortion rights activists have a lot on their plate!
Again, all of these disagreements and hurdles are coming in the wake of a months-long campaign by Republicans to hold up the democratic process. Those GOP-led attacks on Missouri voters are the primary reason that time is running out for pro-choice activists.
So as always, the first priority has to be stopping Republican attacks on democracy. If the GOP is successful in keeping voters from having a direct say, nothing else really matters. But we know that fights like this over ‘viability’ and ‘compromises’ are not going anywhere. They’re going to come up again and again across the country—not just in terms of ballot measures, but around policy and abortion rights activism more broadly.
Part of getting off the defensive means addressing these issues head on, and fighting for the future that we want. Not just the one we think we might be able to get.
A note from Jessica:
If you’re like me, you probably have a million subscriptions and the last thing you want to do is sign up for another one. But if you’ve made it this far, I’m betting that you rely on Abortion, Every Day for your repro rights news—and that you care about this issue as much as I do.
The newsletter is only able to publish because of reader support, full stop. And I need your help to keep going and growing. In addition to supporting independent feminist media, becoming a paying subscriber also gets you access to the audio version of the newsletter, the fantastic community in comments, and other subscriber-only content like livestream AMAs with me and more.
So if you’ve been holding off on joining up, consider making today the day! Either way, thanks for being here and supporting AED by reading and sharing. -Jessica