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2019 - Abortion rights protest in state capitol

Demonstrators protest outside the Missouri House of Representatives chamber in the state capitol on Friday, May 17, 2019, as the Missouri House of Representatives voted to pass a new bill that would virtually ban all abortions in the state. The chamber acted on the final day of the legislative session in Jefferson City. Gov. Mike Parson is expected to sign the bill. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

KANSAS CITY — An appellate court panel ruled Monday that the American Civil Liberties Union can soon begin collecting signatures that would put a new Missouri law banning abortions at eight weeks of pregnancy to a public vote.

A three-judge panel of the state’s Court of Appeals found that Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft was “without authority” to reject petitions on constitutional grounds. The 31-page ruling was issued just hours after the panel heard oral arguments in the case.

ACLU of Missouri acting executive director Tony Rothert had argued that time was of the essence. Most of the new law, including the eight-week abortion ban, takes effect Aug. 28. The ACLU needs to collect more than 100,000 signatures by then to put the law on hold until a public vote in 2020. Rothert had argued that the signature gathering should begin by July 18.

“We are pleased with the ruling,” Rothert said. “We think the secretary of state was wrong and quite clearly trying to derail the referendum effort. We are happy that the court is going to get it back on track.”

The Secretary of State’s office didn’t immediately have a comment. Chris Nuelle, spokesman for the attorney general’s office, which defended the state in the case, said the office was “currently reviewing the decision closely and will decide on next steps shortly.”

At issue is how the Republican-led Legislature voted to classify a section of the bill that changed the law to make both parents consent to abortions for minors in most cases. Because lawmakers made it an “emergency clause,” it took effect as soon as Republican Gov. Mike Parson signed it into law.

Under Missouri law, there is no right for a referendum when the law is addressing an emergency. The ACLU argued that parental consent isn’t actually an emergency, while the law said it is “because of the need to protect the health and safety of women and their children, both unborn and born.”

The emergency issue is what led Ashcroft to reject the petitions from the ACLU and prominent Republican donor David Humphreys, who has cited the lack of exceptions for rape and incest in his opposition to the policy, which does include exceptions for medical emergencies.

Humphreys’ attorney, Lowell Pearson, said in an email that “No decision has been made as of yet” about how to proceed. The two cases were not lumped together.

The legal dispute over the abortion law comes as the state’s only abortion clinic fights its own court battle to continue providing the service, despite a licensing dispute with the state health department.

On Sunday, the ACLU held organizational meetings at six locations across the state, including one at the Legacy Bar & Grill in the Academy neighborhood, in an effort to find volunteers to help with signature-gathering.

Missouri’s anti-abortion law, signed by Parson in May, bans abortions at eight weeks of pregnancy, except when the life of the mother is threatened. There are no exceptions for rape, incest or human trafficking.

In addition to the language requiring parental or guardian notification before a minor can get an abortion, the legislation also bans a woman from aborting a fetus that might have Down syndrome.

The measure says anyone “who knowingly performs or induces an abortion” in cases that are not exempted by the legislation would be guilty of a Class B felony, which carries a minimum five-year prison sentence.

If the Supreme Court overturns Roe vs. Wade, “in whole or in part,” the legislation states that all abortions would be made illegal except in cases of a medical emergency.

Missouri already has some of the toughest abortion regulations in the country.

In 2017, lawmakers approved, and then-Gov. Eric Greitens signed into law, a round of abortion regulations that proponents said would protect the health and safety of women.

It requires that doctors explain the risks of abortion to women 72 hours before an abortion is performed. The law added annual inspections of clinics and new whistleblower protections for employees of clinics, and boosted requirements for pathologists who provide services to abortion facilities.

With less than eight weeks before the new abortion law goes into effect, Missouri’s only clinic providing abortion services remains locked in a battle with the state over its license.

In May, Planned Parenthood sued the Department of Health and Senior Services, when it became apparent the state would not renew its license. A St. Louis circuit court judge ordered the state to formally approve or deny the license. After the state denied the license on June 21, Planned Parenthood filed an appeal to the state’s Administrative Hearing Commission.

A state administrative hearing commissioner last week postponed a hearing on the license matter until late fall, allowing Planned Parenthood to continue providing abortions in St. Louis.