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Missouri voters could restore abortion rights in 2024

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Missouri voters could decide on whether to restore abortion rights in the state if constitutional amendments made public Thursday make it to the 2024 ballot.

The proposals would amend Missouri's Constitution to protect abortion rights and pregnant women, as well as access to birth control.

Currently, most abortions are outlawed in the state. There are exceptions for medical emergencies, but not for cases of rape or incest.

The Missouri proposals are backed by a new group called Missourians for Constitutional Freedom, which has hired at least one Missouri Democratic strategist. The group and its treasurer did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.

Missouri's Republican-led Legislature crafted a law, signed by Republican Gov. Mike Parson in 2019, to ban most abortions, in case the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. The law took effect last year, following the court's decision to end constitutional protections for abortion.

Several coalitions of lawmakers, including a top Republican donor, tried to put the law to a public vote in 2019. But Republican Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, widely considered a top candidate for Missouri governor in 2024, initially rejected the petitions until a court forced him to approve them.

Advocates ultimately gave up on efforts to put the law to a public vote, accusing Ashcroft of dragging his feet in handling the proposals and leaving them with the impossible task of collecting the roughly 100,000 voter signatures needed in just two weeks.

Ashcroft also will play a role in the fate of Missouri's pending constitutional amendments. His office is in charge of writing summaries of the proposals, which are used as voter guides.

Once Ashcroft and other elected officials finish the summary and a fiscal analysis, advocates can start collecting the voter signatures required to get the proposal on the ballot.

Abortion-rights supporters in Missouri are the latest to go directly to voters in hopes of restoring rights that were lost after Roe fell.

Kansas voters in August sent a resounding message about their desire to protect abortion rights by rejecting a ballot measure to add language to the Kansas Constitution stating that it does not grant the right to abortion.

Abortion-rights supporters won in the four states where access was on the ballot in November, as voters enshrined it into the state constitution in battleground Michigan as well as blue California and Vermont — and dealt a defeat to an anti-abortion measure in deep-red Kentucky.

Ohio advocates submitted ballot proposals in February to establish “a fundamental right to reproductive freedom” with “reasonable limits.”

Missouri's proposed constitutional amendments would allow the Republican-led Legislature and state agencies to put some restrictions on abortion.

But limits on abortion would only be allowed “if it is for the limited purpose and has the limited effect of improving or maintaining the health of a person seeking care, is consistent with widely accepted clinical standards of practice and evidence-based medicine, and does not infringe on that person’s autonomous decision-making,” the amendment states.

Penalties for both patients seeking reproductive-related care and medical providers would be outlawed.

Meanwhile, Republican state lawmakers this year are focused on raising the bar to amend the state Constitution from a simple majority vote to at least 60%, which could make it harder to pass the abortion-rights proposals.

Republican lawmakers have been trying for years to crack down on initiative petitions, which have been used to enact policies that the Republican-led Legislature either avoided dealing with or opposed. For example, a 2020 citizen-led ballot initiative forced the state to expand Medicaid coverage, despite years of resistance from Republicans.

Other efforts by abortion-rights advocates to lift Missouri’s ban on the procedure include a lawsuit filed in January by religious leaders who support abortion rights. They argue that lawmakers openly invoked their religious beliefs while drafting the measure and thereby imposed those beliefs on others who don’t share them. The lawsuit is pending.