Missouri AG sues to block St. Louis from using public money to ensure abortion access

Schmitt argues the bill that allocates federal relief dollars violates state laws prohibiting public funds toward going to assisting abortions

By: - July 21, 2022 4:26 pm

Kendyl Underwood, a 20-year-old Saint Louis University student, sits outside of the Planned Parenthood clinic in St. Louis on June 24, 2022 after the release of the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade (Tessa Weinberg/Missouri Independent).

Hours after St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones signed a bill Thursday that would direct $1 million in federal relief funds to support access to abortions, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt filed suit to block the new law.

Schmitt’s lawsuit and motion for preliminary injunction argue that Board Bill 61 violates state laws that prohibit public funds, employees and facilities from being used to assist or encourage access to abortions and “fails to account for the impact on unborn children.”

Passed by the St. Louis Board of Aldermen last week, the bill established a Reproductive Equity Fund that will give the St. Louis Department of Health the authority to dole out $1 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds to organizations providing logistical support, like to cover costs of travel or childcare, for those accessing abortions out-of-state.

An additional $500,000 is slated to go to organizations bolstering access to reproductive health care, like doulas and lactation support, and an additional $250,000 was allocated to cover administrative costs.

The bill was unveiled the day Roe v. Wade was overturned and nearly all abortions became illegal in Missouri. Planned Parenthood in St. Louis, which had been the state’s sole remaining abortion provider, ceased providing abortions that day.

“While the legislature pulls the welcome sign down, it’s up to us to put it back up and show St. Louis is innovative, forward thinking and dedicated to protecting the health of our residents,” Jones said at a press conference at Thursday’s signing.

Before the bill’s signing, Schmitt had already vowed to file suit. Jones said Schmitt, who is running for the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate, was more concerned “about chasing clout, than care.”

“I believe abortion is health care. And that health care is a human right. He does not,” Jones said. “I believe, and a majority of Missourians believe, that reproductive decisions should stay between St. Louisans, their God and their doctor. The attorney general does not.”

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In a statement Thursday, Schmitt said the bill was “blatantly illegal.”

“The move by the City of St. Louis to use taxpayer dollars to help push out-of-state abortions plainly and clearly violates Missouri law,” Schmitt said in a statement.

Schmitt’s lawsuit, which names the city, treasurer, comptroller and director of health as defendants, notes that public funds are defined broadly in state law, and encompass funds not only controlled by the state, but also political subdivisions and funding that comes from federal sources.

“The city’s use of public funds, public employees, and public facilities to encourage and assist abortion violates the Missouri General Assembly’s determination ‘that the state and all of its political subdivisions are a ‘sanctuary of life’ that protects pregnant women and their unborn children,’” the lawsuit read.

In the wake of Missouri’s near-total ban on abortions, the Kansas City Council also passed a resolution to reimburse city employees for travel expenses to access health care out-of-state — although the resolution states money will not come from taxpayer funds. A similar proposal was voted down in St. Louis County.

Questions have swirled about the impact Missouri’s trigger law — that includes no exceptions for rape or incest — will have on issues like contraception and ectopic pregnancies.

Leading Democrat legislative leaders have urged Gov. Mike Parson to call a special session on the issue and for Schmitt to issue a formal opinion clarifying the scope of the law and his office’s enforcement. On Monday, House Minority Leader Crystal Quade re-upped her request for Schmitt to issue an opinion. A spokesman for Schmitt did not respond to a request for comment on whether Schmitt plans to issue one.

Parson also said last week he would not be calling a special session on the topic, and that “bureaucrats and attorneys don’t need to be the ones deciding on what is life-threatening.

“Doctors need to have a seat at that table, and frankly they’re more qualified to be able to make that decision (than) anybody else is,” he told reporters.

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Physicians told The Independent they’re fearful that patients with high-risk pregnancies will face delayed care in life-threatening situations because doctors fear prosecution. Missouri’s abortion ban only permits the procedures in instances to save the life of the patient or to avoid substantial and irreversible physical harm.

A frequently asked questions document issued by the state health department earlier this month provided little clarity on the circumstances of a medical emergency, and noted enforcement of criminal prosecutions would be left to law enforcement. 

Heidi Geisbuhler Sutherland, director of government relations for the Missouri State Medical Association, said the document “just puts into writing what we already knew — it’s ultimately not up to a state agency to determine the legality of medical procedures” and that greater clarity would be helpful. However, the organization hasn’t pushed for a special session out of concern more restrictions rather than clarity would be gained.

“Our concern with a special session,” she said, “is that the legislature might approve statutory changes that would put physicians in an even more difficult or restrictive position as they treat their patients, instead of offering clearer guidance on Missouri’s abortion law.”

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Tessa Weinberg
Tessa Weinberg

Tessa Weinberg covers education, health care and the legislature. She previously covered the Missouri statehouse for The Kansas City Star and The Columbia Missourian, where her reporting into social media use by the governor prompted an investigation by the Attorney General’s office. She most recently covered state government in Texas for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

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