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St. Louis aldermen endorse $1M fund to help women get out-of-state abortions

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St. Louis City Hall

The Tucker Boulevard entrance to St. Louis City Hall.

ST. LOUIS — A $1 million fund to help St. Louis women get abortions in Illinois and other states where the practice remains legal won first-round approval Friday from the city’s Board of Aldermen.

“We have an incredible opportunity ... to really show the rest of our state and the nation what a response can look like in this moment” following the recent Supreme Court reversal of the Roe v. Wade ruling, said Alderman Christine Ingrassia, 6th Ward, one supporter of the measure.

The bill, endorsed on a 15-8 vote, will come up for final passage next week.

The measure would allocate federal American Rescue Plan Act funds for transportation, child care and other logistical help for women getting abortions outside Missouri, where a state ban was activated by the Supreme Court ruling.

The sponsor, Alderman Annie Rice, 8th Ward, said “we’re not going quietly here. We’re going to do everything within our power to make sure they have the health care access that they need.”

An opponent, Alderman Joe Vaccaro, 23rd Ward, called the bill “nothing more than a political stunt” that will tie up some of the city’s federal pandemic aid funds in a lengthy court fight.

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt already has said he will file suit to try to block the bill.

Alderman Marlene Davis, 19th Ward, complained that the court battle over the abortion-related money would delay and perhaps jeopardize other ARPA health allocations also in the bill.

To avoid that, she said, Rice and others who initiated the bill should have put the abortion-related funds in separate legislation.

“We’re playing politics with people’s lives,” said Davis, who voted “present” on the bill.

The abortion access money would go to a new Reproductive Equity Fund in the city Health Department, which would contract with private organizations to spend the funds.

The bill also allocates $500,000 to the same fund for other reproductive health services such as access to doulas and lactation support and $250,000 for administrative oversight and evaluation.

The measure also includes $1.64 million for additional COVID testing, treatment and vaccination at local health clinics and $500,000 for a new round of $100 gift cards to be used as an incentive to getting COVID shots.

Rice said after the reproductive health care part of the bill was put together, the health department asked that the other money be added.

If it appears that the latter amounts will be significantly delayed by the court case, she said, the money could be put in another bill to be passed later.

Schmitt, the attorney general, has said the proposed St. Louis ordinance would violate a state law barring public money from being used “for the purpose of performing or assisting an abortion” not needed to save the life of the mother.

Supporters of the bill note that the bill specifies that the money would only be used to provide “access to abortion” and wouldn’t fund or assist abortion procedures or encourage or counsel individuals to get an abortion.

Mayor Tishaura O. Jones, a Democrat, supports the legislation and has traded sharply worded comments on the issue on social media with Schmitt, a Republican and a U.S. Senate candidate in the Aug. 2 primary.

All board members on both sides of the issue are Democrats. Among those voting in favor of the bill were the two declared candidates for aldermanic president in a special primary election Sept. 13 — Megan Green, 15th Ward, and Jack Coatar, 7th Ward.

The acting board president, Joe Vollmer of the 10th Ward, was among those voting “no.”

Pro-Choice Missouri, a leading abortion rights group, worked with Rice on the bill. A representative of the group said at a hearing that the measure addresses a “concurrent crisis of maternal mortality and abortion access” in the state by supporting “all pregnancy outcomes.”

A leader in an anti-abortion group, Missouri Lawyers for Life, has said it’s a shame that city officials are getting involved in the abortion issue when St. Louis faces so many challenges such as crime and trash collection.

The St. Louis County Council is considering using $1 million of the county’s ARPA allotment for a similar abortion access plan, which Schmitt also has said he would fight in court.

Other ARPA money

City aldermen on Friday also gave preliminary approval to separate legislation allocating $3.6 million in ARPA money for youth programs in the summer and year-round and $10 million to expand violence prevention programs in the city.

The anti-violence efforts would be overseen by a new Office of Violence Prevention in the city’s Department of Public Safety.

Updated at 5:30 p.m. Friday, July 8.

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