How a ‘perfect storm’ in Missouri dwindled abortion access down to virtually zero

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By Elizabeth Chuck

The battle this week in Missouri over whether the state’s only abortion clinic would remain open is the result of a decades long anti-abortion campaign, experts say.

Missouri has been on the forefront of anti-abortion regulation, starting with a 1986 landmark law that required doctors who provide abortion services to have admitting privileges at a hospital “in the community” — meaning within a 15-minute drive. It was the first state in the country to have such a requirement, and nearly a dozen others have followed suit.

Supporters of the law say it was meant to protect women in the event of an emergency during an abortion. Opponents argue it put unfair and often impossible restrictions on health care providers, effectively denying women the right to an abortion.

While particulars of the law have morphed over the years, it gave anti-abortion activists in Missouri a push for later laws that are among the strictest in the nation: a mandatory 72-hour waiting period to get an abortion, required parental consent for minors and tight limits on insurance coverage for the procedure.

“There’s satisfaction,” said Sam Lee, director of the anti-abortion lobbying organization Campaign Life Missouri and a longtime lobbyist who was instrumental in getting the 1986 law as well as many other anti-abortion laws passed. “I love my work. I have the best job in the world, even on a bad day.”

Samuel LeePortrait Innovations

Lee, 61, puts in up to 12 hours a day at the Missouri state Capitol, testifying at committee hearings or tracking down legislators so he can introduce himself or present research to them on various anti-abortion issues.

He and his wife co-founded two maternity homes — residential programs for homeless pregnant women — in 1982, and he says he has found success getting through to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle by framing his work not as an effort to make abortion unlawful, but to make it “unthinkable.”

“It’s not a matter of how do I stop you from getting an abortion. That is not the way we talk about it. It’s how we can help you and your baby, unborn or born, for however long it takes,” he said.

Lee has not won over many local reproductive rights advocates.

M’Evie Mead, director of policy and organizing at Planned Parenthood Advocates in Missouri, which supports the two Planned Parenthood providers in the state, said Lee’s group, as well as lawmakers like Gov. Mike Parson, have “taken this anti-reproductive health power to its extreme limits.” Parson, a Republican, signed one of the nation’s most restrictive abortion bills this month, bannings abortions on or beyond the eighth week of pregnancy without exceptions in cases of rape or incest.