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Lack of exceptions for rape or incest under Missouri abortion ban fuels anger from advocates

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When the Missouri House in 2019 debated the bill that became the state’s abortion ban, then-state Rep. Bryan Spencer quickly raised — and praised — the proposal’s lack of exceptions for victims of rape and incest.

Spencer, a Wentzville Republican and a high school teacher, recounted how he allowed his students to talk about issues, including abortion, in class. By his own account, he used to oppose abortion except in cases of rape or incest.

But Spencer said his view changed after an encounter with an upset student following on such classroom discussion of abortion. “‘My mother was raped by my uncle and I’m the baby,’” Spencer said the student told him.

“And from that point on, I changed my whole viewpoint on abortion,” Spencer told his fellow lawmakers during a February 2019 floor debate. “This girl was smart, pretty, dynamic, creative. Great student, great person.”

The Missouri General Assembly approved the bill without exceptions for rape or incest, making Missouri one of a dozen states with trigger laws that don’t allow abortions in those circumstances. Only a single exception, for medical emergencies, was included. Republican Gov. Mike Parson enthusiastically signed it.

Three years later, the abortion ban embedded in the bill is now in effect after the U.S. Supreme Court in June overturned the Roe v. Wade decision that had legalized abortion nationwide. While the ban itself has produced an immediate backlash among abortion rights supporters, the lack of exceptions within the law has been a particular source of anger in the nearly two weeks since the decision.

With virtually no legal path for an abortion within Missouri, women and girls who are raped and become pregnant must carry their pregnancies to term, or seek an abortion outside the state. Abortion rights advocates, as well as advocates for sexual assault victims, warn the law will compound the trauma suffered by those who have already survived horrific experiences.

“At this point, we’re talking about a child who now gets raped by their uncle who now has no choice whatsoever because that’s what they took away,” said state Rep. Emily Weber, a Kansas City Democrat.

“They took away rape and incest (exceptions). So we’re talking about rape and incest at this point.”

Rape, incest exemptions unlikely

Democrats are promising a broad push for abortion access, including for victims of rape and incest.

House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, a Springfield Democrat, promised an array of bills in the next session trying to undo the law “or make it a little bit more palatable, if possible.”

But the current political reality in Jefferson City means their efforts to expand access to abortion through the legislature are all but certain to fail, doomed by large anti-abortion Republican majorities in both the state House and Senate.

Without a realistic legislative path forward, Democrats and abortion rights supporters may turn to a ballot initiative to add the right to an abortion into the Missouri Constitution. But organizing a successful petition campaign can take years. And some Republican lawmakers want to advance their own amendment ensuring the constitution doesn’t include abortion rights.

In the meantime, Republicans are already signaling they don’t plan to take up additional exceptions. Any retreat from the current ban would be seen by some as a betrayal of the anti-abortion cause. Lawmakers spent decades restricting abortion access in Missouri, whittling down the number of clinics to just one before the ban went into effect.

Parson, who trumpeted his role in signing a proclamation that helped trigger the ban, is unlikely to sign legislation chipping away at the law — now one of his signature achievements. A spokeswoman for the governor didn’t respond to a request for comment.

“Fundamentally tied to the pro-life position is the idea that the baby in the womb is a human being and that human being — being innocent of any crime, innocent of any wrongdoing in what took place to bring about that child’s existence — that child’s life should be protected,” said state Rep. Doug Richey, an Excelsior Springs Republican.

Richey’s position is common among abortion opponents. Missouri Right to Life, the state’s leading anti-abortion group, says in its statement of policies that each “human being, regardless of how he or she is conceived, deserves protection under the law.” However, the organization says it will “sometimes be compelled to tolerate” exceptions for rape and incest to expand limits on abortion.

Abortion opponents no longer have to compromise, however, following the U.S. Supreme Court decision, which effectively gives states free reign to restrict or ban abortion. Richey, who is campaigning for House speaker, said he would “hold the line” on not including the exceptions but emphasized that he supports providing additional care to victims of rape and incest.

Precise statistics for how many abortions were performed in Missouri because of rape or incest don’t exist. A 2005 study by the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that supports abortion rights, found that nationally 1% of women surveyed in 2004 who had an abortion cited rape in their decision; less than 0.5% cited incest.

Even if such instances constituted a very small percentage of abortions overall, access to the procedure is important for women who are victims of rape or incest and become pregnant, advocates say. It offers survivors a choice in the wake of a profoundly traumatic and violent experience.

An often-cited 1998 study by the U.S. Department of Justice reports roughly one in six American women have been the victim of a rape or attempted rape in their lifetime. For individuals healing from sexual assault, options are critical, said Julie Donelon, president and CEO of the Kansas City-based Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault.

“They are going to be forced to carry a pregnancy to term after being impregnated by their rapist. And that’s going to be a daily reminder to those individuals of the trauma that they experienced,” Donelon said.

Beyond banning abortion itself, the Missouri law has caused deep concern among advocates for victims of sexual assault over fears the measure could be interpreted to extend to emergency contraception. Saint Luke’s Health System feared prosecution of its personnel enough that last week it briefly stopped offering Plan B.

Saint Luke’s resumed providing the medication after receiving public assurance from Parson and Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, a Republican running for U.S. Senate, that the law doesn’t target contraception. Democrats are still seeking a formal legal opinion from Schmitt.

Exceptions inaccessible

Anyone wanting an abortion, including victims of sexual violence, can still obtain one in Kansas or Illinois.

But while access to the procedure is secure in Illinois, its future is uncertain in Kansas.

Kansas voters will decide in August whether the state constitution should include the right to an abortion. If voters remove the constitutional protection for abortion, the Kansas Legislature would be free to ban the procedure.

Leaving Missouri for an abortion can be especially challenging to individuals living in rural areas or in the middle of the state, as well as those without the means to travel, according to Donelon.

“It makes that burden even greater for them,” Donelon said.

While abortion rights supporters say survivors of rape and incest should have access to abortion, some oppose focusing on securing specific exception to Missouri’s ban, warning that past compromises by lawmakers on abortion rights paved the way for its enactment. They say that exemptions are, for practical purposes, inaccessible.

“So-called exemptions for victims of sexual and domestic and incestual violence are bull—,” said Maggie Olivia, policy manager of Pro-Choice Missouri.

By their very nature, exemptions require victims in some way to disclose what happened to them. Olivia, who is herself a survivor of sexual violence, said many survivors don’t tell anyone. Others don’t want to enter the legal or law enforcement system — a requirement to access exceptions in some places.

Utah’s abortion ban includes an exception for rape, for instance, but it must be reported to law enforcement. At least one Utah state legislator is proposing to include physicians, crisis centers and domestic violence centers on the list of where rapes can be reported.

Any additional exceptions to Missouri’s abortion ban also would raise issues of enforcement and whether police and prosecutors would scrutinize physicians to ensure they aren’t misusing those provisions. In Missouri, local prosecutors and the state attorney general have the power to pursue violations of the ban.

Regardless of whether abortion bans have exceptions or not, providers in some areas will be pursued and prosecuted, said Leslie J. Reagan, a professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who has studied the history of abortion in the United States.

And those who have abortions will be the sources of evidence in those cases, Reagan said, just like before Roe v. Wade.

“She is evidence,” Reagan said. “They can do gynecological examinations and collect physical evidence. They can force her to speak, force her to speak in the courtroom.”

The Star’s Kacen Bayless and Natalie Wallington contributed reporting

 ©2022 The Kansas City Star. Visit kansascity.com 

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