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Missouri abortion rights supporters sue secretary of state after failed initiative petition

Missouri abortion rights supporters sue secretary of state after failed initiative petition

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Abortion rights rally results in arrests downtown

Abortion rights rally attendees hear speakers during a rally in Luther Ely Smith Park to support Planned Parenthood on Thursday, May 30, 2019. Photo by Robert Cohen,

JEFFERSON CITY — A coalition of abortion rights supporters sued Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft on Thursday, saying he used an unconstitutional set of laws to scuttle the coalition’s effort to repeal a new law that further restricts abortions in Missouri.

The abortion law is scheduled to take effect Wednesday.

Missouri allows residents to collect signatures, prior to a law taking effect, to trigger a public vote. Ashcroft, a Republican, approved the referendum effort last week, meaning supporters had just two weeks to turn in 100,000 signatures.

The lawsuit against Ashcroft is the latest twist in a fight over abortion rights in Missouri that began during the legislative session and has continued through summer. Since Gov. Mike Parson signed the law in May, abortion rights activists have attempted to launch their ill-fated petition drive and their attorneys have challenged the law in federal court.

At the same time, the state Department of Health and Senior Services has attempted to pull the abortion license of Planned Parenthood in St. Louis, the only abortion clinic in the state, because of a list of deficiencies the department has cited.

That fight is playing out in the state Administrative Hearing Commission. A hearing is set for Oct. 28 in St. Louis.

The law Parson signed bans abortions at eight weeks of pregnancy, except in medical emergencies. There are no exceptions for rape or incest.

After Parson signed the bill, the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri formed the No Bans on Choice Committee, which sought to repeal the law through a referendum.

Ashcroft, a Republican, initially rejected the effort, saying that because part of the law had taken effect immediately, the rest of the pending law could not be put to a vote.

He lost that argument in court, but Ashcroft was not forced to allow signature collection right away. Last Wednesday, he issued ballot language, giving the coalition roughly two weeks to turn in 100,000 signatures — an “impossible” task, the activists said.

“He has effectively prevented voters from defeating the extreme eight-week abortion ban at the ballot box. It is outrageous that Secretary Ashcroft, Missouri’s chief elections officer, ran out the clock and blocked the people’s right to a citizen veto,” Robin Utz, treasurer of the No Bans on Choice committee, said in a statement last week.

The lawsuit filed Thursday in Cole County Circuit Court challenges the state statutes that prevented signature collection while Ashcroft reviewed the petition’s language, said Tony Rothert, legal director for the ACLU of Missouri.

A spokeswoman for the secretary of state’s office said Thursday the office had not received a copy of the lawsuit. His office has said officials were just following petition approval timelines allowed by law.

Rothert said such timetables subvert citizens’ right to challenge laws that the Legislature approves.

In a second case, a Kansas City judge has scheduled a hearing Monday in a challenge to the new law’s constitutionality. The federal judge could temporarily block the law from taking effect as that lawsuit moves through the appeals process.

Meanwhile, political money raised to repeal the law is sitting idle in two campaign accounts.

The No Bans on Choice political action committee has reported raising $16,125, including: $7,500 from NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri and a $7,525 in-kind contribution from the ACLU of Missouri.

The Committee to Protect the Rights of Victims of Rape & Incest, a PAC launched by GOP mega-donor David Humphreys, had $956,634 on hand as of June 30, after Humphreys dropped a $1 million check into the committee’s coffers on June 6.

Mary Jenkins, treasurer for the Humphreys group, said all options are on the table when asked about its plans. Though Humphreys is opposed to the law, he has not operated in lockstep with other abortion rights supporters.

“We continue to monitor all activities related to HB 126, including legal actions by all parties,” Jenkins said.

The legislation is House Bill 126.

Jack Suntrup • 573-556-6184 @JackSuntrup on Twitter

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