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The effort to legalize abortion in Missouri

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Minutes after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to an abortion, Missouri's Republican leaders triggered one of the strictest abortion bans in the country, outlawing the procedure with no exceptions for rape or incest. Missouri's abortion rights activists are now rallying to take the issue directly to voters. St. Louis Public Radio's Jason Rosenbaum reports.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: OK. Nice sign (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Thank you, Lois (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: All right. Thank you.

JASON ROSENBAUM, BYLINE: It's a weekday night at the Pageant music venue in St. Louis, and hundreds of people are gathered here not to watch a band perform but to sign a petition to legalize abortion in Missouri.

ENOLA PROCTOR: It would return healthcare to women and their doctors, where it fundamentally belongs.

ROSENBAUM: That's Enola Proctor. She was in her 20s in 1973, when the U.S. Supreme Court made abortion a constitutional right.

PROCTOR: I had college friends who had sought abortions, very unsafe ones. And so I felt then that women were safe. And it pains me to know that women are no longer safe.

ROSENBAUM: Missouri's law only allows abortion in the case of medical emergencies. If passed, the ballot measure would place language in the state constitution protecting abortion up until fetal viability, the point when a fetus could survive outside of the womb without extraordinary medical intervention. The group that spearheaded this initiative has raised millions of dollars and attracted thousands of volunteer signature gatherers like Lisa Williams.

LISA WILLIAMS: Missourians don't agree with this ban, and they want to take the matter into their own hands because the politicians have not listened to their will.

ROSENBAUM: Recent polling from Emerson College found that 44% of Missouri voters say abortion should be allowed as a personal choice. Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia, says abortion politics aren't as simple as red state-blue state.

KYLE KONDIK: You could see Republicans winning Missouri by 20 points for president. And yet this abortion issue could could very well end up passing particularly because the current law on the books is so far away from what your average person's opinion is on abortion rights.

ROSENBAUM: After Roe v. Wade was overturned in 2022, voters in deeply red states like Kansas and Kentucky rejected anti-abortion rights measures. But Susan Klein of Missouri Right to Life says it's more complicated, pointing out that Missourians have voted in Republican lawmakers that are starkly against abortion rights.

SUSAN KLEIN: Missouri is a pro-life state. You see that in our supermajorities. You see that in the statewide officeholders.

ROSENBAUM: Some of those officeholders are trying to put another hurdle before the ballot initiative. Missouri's Republican lawmakers are trying to place a measure on an earlier ballot that would make it harder to amend the state's constitution. Proponents like GOP State Senator Rick Brattin make no secret that the move is aimed at making the abortion initiative more unlikely to succeed.

RICK BRATTIN: At this point, where there's so much at stake, gloves are off - and we're willing to do whatever it takes to protect life and to ensure that our Constitution is protected.

ROSENBAUM: But efforts to make it harder to amend state constitutions failed in states like Arkansas and Ohio. Tori Schafer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri says she expects it will also fall flat here.

TORI SCHAFER: Regardless of what politicians in Jefferson City decide, Missourians are going to see right through it either way. They're going to see it as a trick and a tool to try and take their right to direct democracy away.

ROSENBAUM: If backers of the abortion legalization initiative get roughly 171,000 signatures by early May, their proposal could go before voters either in August or November. For NPR News, I'm Jason Rosenbaum in St. Louis.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAY-Z SONG, "COMING OF AGE (FEAT. MEMPHIS BLEEK)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Jason Rosenbaum
Since entering the world of professional journalism in 2006, Jason Rosenbaum dove head first into the world of politics, policy and even rock and roll music. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, Rosenbaum spent more than four years in the Missouri State Capitol writing for the Columbia Daily Tribune, Missouri Lawyers Media and the St. Louis Beacon. Since moving to St. Louis in 2010, Rosenbaum's work appeared in Missouri Lawyers Media, the St. Louis Business Journal and the Riverfront Times' music section. He also served on staff at the St. Louis Beacon as a politics reporter. Rosenbaum lives in Richmond Heights with with his wife Lauren and their two sons.