JEFFERSON CITY — Efforts to repeal Missouri's new eight-week abortion ban with a public vote hit a roadblock Thursday, the latest development in a fight over abortion rights that's playing out on multiple fronts in the state.
Republican Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft told reporters that he rejected two referendum petitions aimed at repealing the sweeping abortion law — one backed by the ACLU of Missouri and the other backed by businessman David Humphreys, a wealthy GOP donor. Ashcroft cited a provision in the Missouri Constitution that prohibits referendums on legislation that has already taken effect.
Most new laws in Missouri automatically take effect on Aug. 28 of each year, as the ban on abortions at eight weeks of pregnancy will. The law includes an exception only for medical emergencies, not rape or incest.
The Republican-led Legislature, though, voted to make a section of the bill that changed parental consent laws for minors seeking abortions take effect as soon as Republican Gov. Mike Parson signed it into law.
Ashcroft, the state's top election official, said that effectively blocked two efforts to repeal the law through a public vote. He cited a provision in the constitution that prohibits referendums on "laws necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health or safety."
The new law requires a parent or guardian giving written consent for a minor to get an abortion to first notify the other custodial parent, unless the other parent has been convicted of a violent or sexual crime, is subject to a protection order or is "habitually in an intoxicated or drugged condition."
The law's "emergency clause" states that enacting the parental-consent portion is vital "because of the need to protect the health and safety of women and their children, both unborn and born."
"Because of that declaration by the Legislature, we have no other avenue but to reject Referendum 1 and Referendum 2 for failure to comply with the requirements of the Missouri Constitution," Ashcroft said.
The ACLU of Missouri sued Ashcroft on Thursday, and the attorney who filed the other rejected petition also said he will sue to force the secretary of state to approve that referendum.
"This move is so predictable, we've already assembled our suit to require the Secretary of State to put aside his anti-abortion agenda and do his job by certifying the referendum," the ACLU of Missouri's acting executive director, Tony Rothert, said in a statement.
Ashcroft said his office is still reviewing a third and slightly different referendum petition that was filed by attorney Lowell Pearson, who said he represents the Committee to Protect the Rights of Victims of Rape and Incest. That group is also supported by Humphreys, who last week called the eight-week abortion ban "bad public policy" because it lacks exceptions for pregnancies caused by rape and incest.
Pearson said the final pending referendum petition does not seek to force a vote on provisions in the legislation that are already in effect. It's unclear whether that would satisfy Ashcroft, who said he aims to make a decision on the petition's constitutionality by the end of next week.
A similar repeal tactic was used in 2017, when opponents of a law limiting union powers submitted enough signatures to block it from taking effect. Missouri voters overwhelmingly rejected that anti-union law in 2018.
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.
The health department last week declined to renew the St. Louis Planned Parenthood clinic's license to perform abortions, saying March inspections at the clinic uncovered deficiencies. The agency cited "at least one incident in which patient safety was gravely compromised." It also cited what it called "failed surgical abortions in which women remained pregnant," and alleged that the clinic had failed to obtain "informed consent."
Clinic leaders say the allegations are part of an effort by an anti-abortion administration to eliminate the procedure in the state. Planned Parenthood pre-emptively sued to ensure continued abortion services.
Circuit Judge Michael Stelzer last week issued a ruling allowing the clinic to continue performing abortions as the court challenge plays out. During a Wednesday hearing, he did not indicate when he might rule on Planned Parenthood's request for a preliminary injunction to allow abortions to continue.