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Missouri Organizers Have Put Abortion Rights on the Ballot

The measure guarantees a constitutional right to abortion in the first state to ban nearly all abortions post-“Roe”.

Giuliana Cangelosi, left, and her mother Nichole Cangelosi share a moment together while attending a protest opposing the Supreme Court's ruling, which overturned federal protections for abortion rights, on June 24, 2022, in Mill Creek Park at Country Club Plaza, in Kansas City, Missouri.

A coalition of abortion rights advocates in Missouri moved one step closer to putting abortion rights on the ballot despite legal challenges, delays and a grassroots “decline to sign” campaign waged by anti-abortion groups.

The coalition, Missourians for Constitutional Freedom, submitted over 380,000 signatures on Friday for a proposed constitutional amendment that would guarantee a right to abortion and other reproductive health care in deep-red Missouri, the first state to ban nearly all abortions after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June 2022.

The path to this moment has been marked by disagreements among abortion rights advocates, as well as lengthy court battles with Republican officials trying to block them from starting to gather signatures. More legal challenges loom, as Republican state lawmakers look to weaken the state’s long-standing tradition of giving the voters the power to directly amend their state constitution, and anti-abortion groups spin up new efforts to defeat the measure.

Missouri’s abortion ban, which threatens doctors with felony charges, has no exceptions for rape or incest. The proposed Right to Reproductive Freedom Amendment would enshrine a constitutional right to abortion to the point of fetal viability, which is determined by physicians but is usually around 22 to 25 weeks of pregnancy, and requires the state to use the “least restrictive means” in regulating abortion. The amendment would also guarantee a right to other reproductive health care, including pre and post-natal care, contraception and miscarriage management.

“Missourians are excited for the opportunity to end our state’s cruel abortion ban and put health care decisions back in the hands of patients and doctors,” Tori Schafer, deputy director of policy and campaigns at the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, which is backing the measure, said in a statement.

That effort has garnered vigorous resistance from anti-abortion groups and top officials in Missouri’s Republican-controlled state government.

Abortion opponents in Missouri argue the proposed amendment would go too far in allowing abortions later in pregnancy and could overturn the dozens of abortion restrictions passed by the state legislature. Anti-abortion groups including Missouri Right to Life and Missouri Stands With Women, a political action committee incorporated in January, led “decline to sign” campaigns discouraging voters from signing petitions to get the abortion measure on the ballot.

Some of the fiercest opposition has come from Republican Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, whose office waged a months-long legal fight with abortion rights advocates over the amendment’s summary language, delaying the start of signature gathering. Ashcroft, a candidate for governor, also suggested he’d refuse to do his job if voters passed the amendment.

Ashcroft ultimately lost in the state Supreme Court, but the coalition submitted more than double the signatures required in anticipation of his office possibly challenging their validity.

There’s also a chance state lawmakers could pass a bill that would ask voters in the November election or a special election to pass a constitutional amendment that would make it harder for citizen-led initiatives to get on the ballot and pass. An analysis from the news outlet The Missouri Independent found that under the proposal, as few as 1 in 5 voters in the state could reject a ballot measure. Its sponsor, Republican state Sen. Mary Elizabeth Coleman, has backed other anti-abortion bills.

Ohio voters resoundingly rejected a similar measure that Republican officials put on the ballot as they attempted to thwart the passage of an abortion rights constitutional amendment in 2023.

Kelly Hall, executive director of The Fairness Project, said Missouri is “a poster child for what can be achieved through direct democracy” with proper investment. The Fairness Project supports progressive ballot measure campaigns around the country, including current efforts to put abortion on the ballot in Missouri, Arizona, Florida and Montana in 2024.

Over the past decade, organizers in Missouri have led successful ballot measure campaigns to expand Medicaid, raise the state’s minimum wage, and legalize medical and recreational marijuana — all policies with little to no chance in the Republican-dominated state legislature.

Hall said Missouri organizers’ wealth of experience allowed them to raise significant funds and kickstart signature gathering despite months of delays. Missourians for Constitutional Freedom raised nearly $5 million in the first quarter of 2024, filings show. Over 1,800 volunteers collected signatures in all of Missouri’s 114 counties and knocked on over 40,000 doors, the coalition said Friday.

“As grateful as I am for the initiative petition, it’s a really unfortunate way to make law because it just means that we don’t have a representative legislature,” said Bridgette Dunlap, a St. Louis-based attorney and writer. Dunlap, who has a background in abortion rights litigation, assisted with an amicus brief the League of Women Voters of Missouri filed in the lawsuit over the initiative’s summary language.

“The only way things with bipartisan support get through in Missouri is through this arduous, expensive process,” she said.

Republicans are heavily favored to win the presidential, U.S. Senate and governor’s races in Missouri, which backed former President Donald Trump by 15 points in 2020. The abortion amendment could be among the most competitive contests on the November ballot.

A survey conducted by St. Louis University and YouGov in February found a plurality of Missourians, 44 percent, supported returning abortion rights to the standard under Roe v. Wade while 37 percent were opposed. The measure’s potential success lies with the 19 percent who said they were undecided.

Republicans backing the proposal to change the state’s citizen-led initiative process argue it would limit out-of-state influence in ballot measures and give rural voters a greater voice, making the outcomes of ballot measures more representative. But abortion rights advocates see it as a clear gambit to block citizens from directly voting on abortion.

“I just hope that they look at Ohio and see that that would be a huge waste of time and money,” said Dunlap. “And it just trains people to go out to vote.”

In the meantime, elected officials like Coleman and anti-abortion groups are deploying other tactics, some of which are relatively novel, to oppose the amendment.

In the summer of 2023, Attorney General Andrew Bailey, Coleman and another state lawmaker unsuccessfully disputed State Auditor Scott Fitzpatrick’s assessment that the measure would have little to no cost to the state, arguing that legalizing abortion would cost the state billions of dollars in lost tax revenue from citizens who would have otherwise been born. Research has consistently found a strong correlation between abortion bans and negative economic outcomes at the state level.

Another effort picked up their line of argument, aiming to block organizers from getting the signatures they needed to get the measure on the ballot. Missouri Right to Life’s “decline to sign” flyers, which also argued that legalized abortion would cost the state tax revenue, encouraged people to call a hotline and report where volunteers are gathering signatures for the abortion amendment.

Jess Piper, a progressive advocate and writer who serves as the executive director of Blue Missouri, reported that Coleman, the Republican state senator who is also a candidate for secretary of state, has personally attempted to discourage people from signing petitions.

In a post on her Substack blog, The View from Rural Missouri, Piper shared photographs and witness accounts from an April 20 signature-gathering event at a public library in Coleman’s district that Coleman attended to dissuade voters present from signing petitions. Coleman’s campaign did not return a request for comment about the event.

Missouri Stands With Women, an organization led by men with close ties to the anti-abortion movement, has raised over $84,000 and spent nearly $67,000 since January, in part to back the decline-to-sign effort, campaign finance filings show.

The leading image on the group’s website, depicting a group of smiling women in white T-shirts, is a stock photo also seen on a modeling agency website and in an Amazon listing for friendship bracelets. Samuel Lee, the group’s president, is a longtime anti-abortion activist and lobbyist in the state who proclaimed that the fight over abortion was “not over” after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health.

The organization has close ties to Republican officials who have tried to block the ballot measure. The organization’s treasurer, attorney Edward Greim, donated $2,825, the maximum allowed, to Ashcroft’s campaign in June. Shortly after, Ashcroft hired the law firm where Greim practices as a partner to represent his office in a lawsuit. In January, Ashcroft told state lawmakers he intended to pay the firm, Graves Garrett Greim, $1.2 million in taxpayer funds for legal services in the case. Greim also represented Missouri Senate Majority Leader Cindy O’Laughlin, who filed an amicus brief defending Ashcroft’s proposed ballot summary language for the abortion measure.

The organization has released a “decline to sign” flyer and several videos featuring Republican elected officials urging Missourians not to sign petitions. They’ve also reportedly sent text messages to voters claiming, without evidence, that a voter signing an initiative petition is vulnerable to having their identity stolen, an argument Coleman has also echoed.

On Tuesday, Piper tweeted out a screenshot of a text message she said some Missouri residents received that urged them to “decline to sign” to “protect yourself from fraud & theft.”

“Out of town strangers are trying to collect your sensitive personal data for extremist groups,” claimed the text message, which did not mention abortion or the ballot initiative.

A disclosure seen at the bottom of a graphic included in the message says it was paid for by Missouri Stands With Women. A representative for the group did not respond to a request for comment about the text message.

Voters signing initiative petitions provide information like their name and address necessary to verify their eligibility to vote, but not sensitive information like their Social Security number. Registered voters’ names, addresses, dates of birth, and contact information are publicly available information. Campaigns and PACs regularly use them in their voter outreach and targeting efforts.

“Anti-abortion extremists continue to lie and spread disinformation because they know Missourians are fired up and ready to turn out to support our campaign,” Schafer said.

Dunlap, the Missouri lawyer and writer, has been volunteering to collect signatures for the ballot measure in St. Louis and Columbia. She said that while decline-to-sign efforts could have an impact of generally “stigmatizing” the abortion ballot measure, she saw no evidence of them actually being effective.

To Hall, the success of the signature-gathering effort in Missouri highlights the importance of long-term investment in direct democracy where it exists.

“We can’t only think about these middle-of-the-country states when there happens to be a shiny object like abortion on the ballot,” Hall said. “It really pays off to do cycle-over-cycle, year-round work to make sure that this infrastructure exists — and it’s being put to exceptional use by the abortion measure coalition right now in Missouri.”