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Annual inspections of abortion clinics, pre-empting St. Louis ordinance part of House proposal

Annual inspections of abortion clinics, pre-empting St. Louis ordinance part of House proposal

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Missouri special session

Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens addresses the crowd during an anti abortion rally in the Statehouse in Jefferson City on Wednesday, June 14, 2017. Lawmakers were called back to special session by Gov. Greitens with the intent of modifying abortion laws in Missouri. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

JEFFERSON CITY • Abortion restrictions at the center of a second special session called by Gov. Eric Greitens are one step closer to his desk, but they could still face significant hurdles in the Senate.

The Missouri House on Tuesday passed a stricter, more comprehensive proposal than the one senators passed last week. House members acted days after the governor’s top policy adviser called on them to “substantially improve” the Senate’s version.

The underlying bill pre-empts a St. Louis ordinance that bans employers and landlords from discriminating against women who have had an abortion, use contraceptives or are pregnant. Abortion rights opponents have argued, despite religious exemptions in the bill, that it could infringe on the free speech rights of facilities that counsel pregnant women against abortion.

Additionally, the measure mandates annual inspections of abortion clinics and tougher regulations for submitting fetal tissue to pathologists.

The House plan goes further to answer the governor’s call, banning abortion clinic staffers from requesting that ambulances responding to medical emergencies at their facilities avoid using sirens or flashing lights. It also gives Missouri’s attorney general the ability to prosecute violations of abortion laws without notifying local prosecutors, and requires doctors to inform women of the medical risks of an abortion 72 hours before the procedure.

Amending the bill all but guarantees the special session — costing taxpayers roughly $20,000 each day — will stretch into a third week next week so the Senate can consider the changes.

There, its future is less certain. Senate leaders have admitted their chamber’s more lenient proposal only made it through after intense, behind-the-scenes negotiations, with lawmakers from both sides of the aisle arguing the issue didn’t warrant an extraordinary session and was instead a tactic to bolster Greitens’ conservative credentials.

“This feels like a political stunt to many of us,” said Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis, on Tuesday. “It’s being sold as an effort to show how pro-life the governor is.”

House Speaker Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, disputed that notion.

“The fact that we’ve got a governor who is willing to engage and work on these issues has been positive and helpful,” Richardson said.

The arguments surrounding the proposed restrictions are familiar ones.

Republicans have long insisted regulations on abortion providers protect the health of women by ensuring the procedure is performed in safe, clean facilities. Democrats contend that restrictions in Missouri have become so stringent that few providers can meet them, with the Planned Parenthood clinic in St. Louis currently the only facility providing abortion in Missouri.

The GOP-led Missouri Legislature routinely writes laws limiting access to abortions, two of which were struck down by a federal judge in April. Citing a landmark decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, U.S. District Judge Howard Sachs blocked Missouri requirements for the state’s abortion clinics to meet standards for surgical centers and for their doctors to have hospital privileges.

That ruling was one inspiration for Greitens to call a second special session in his first year serving as Missouri’s chief executive.

Richardson said he was confident the state would prevail if the current bill becomes law and was challenged. But Democrats said they expected a court to eventually overrule the new restrictions, too, should they make it across the finish line this summer.

“The same thing will happen with this bill,” said Rep. Stacey Newman, D-St. Louis. “You already know this is going straight to litigation.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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St. Louis Post-Dispatch political reporter.

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