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Lawsuit challenges summary, fiscal note of new Missouri abortion-rights petition

By: - October 27, 2023 7:41 am

The Cole County Courthouse in Jefferson City (Annelise Hanshaw/Missouri Independent).

A group seeking to add exceptions to the state’s abortion ban for rape and incest filed a lawsuit Thursday arguing the ballot summary and fiscal note are unfair and inaccurate. 

Filed in August by Republican political operative Jamie Corley with assistance from Democratic attorney Chuck Hatfield, the initiative petitions are being pitched as a middle ground between the ban currently in place and more expansive proposals filed earlier this year by abortion-rights supporters.

Last week, Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft released his summary of the proposals that will appear on the ballot, writing that the petitions would either “allow no excuse abortions” for up to 12 weeks or “nullify Missouri laws protecting the right to life.”

Additionally, the fiscal note drafted by Auditor Scott Fitzpatrick says the petitions would cost the state $21 million because Attorney General Andrew Bailey will refuse to defend them in court if approved by voters. 

Corley argues Ashcroft used “blatantly false information” in the summaries, as well as phrases like “until live birth,” making the summaries “intentionally argumentative, insufficient, and unfair.”

Ashcroft described certain provisions of the initiative petitions in “antagonistic and blatantly incorrect terms likely to prejudice voters against the measures,” the lawsuit states. 

“Voters should heed these political moves as a canary in the coal mine for the lengths some politicians will take to keep the government involved in a woman—or child’s—pregnancy, even if that pregnancy is a result of rape,” Corley said. 

In a statement released by his office, Ashcroft said Corley’s lawsuit is “another example of individuals trying to mask the truth to mislead voters. The secretary of state’s office will always fight to protect the right of Missourians to make their own decision on how to vote.”

Fitzpatrick said his office has been “consistent with our treatment of all initiative petitions as we’ve used a process that has worked for decades to produce accurate and unbiased cost estimates.

“While I understand both proponents and opponents would prefer a fiscal note that favors their position,” he said, “my commitment to the voters of Missouri will not be swayed by political pressure from either side. We will defend our work once again and will continue to produce fair fiscal notes and fiscal note summaries the voters can trust.”

Last month, a Cole County judge threw out Ashcroft’s summaries for a different abortion-rights initiative petition, calling his work misleading and unfair. That ruling has been appealed. 

All versions of the amendments Corley submitted enshrine “exceptions and immunity” clauses into Missouri’s abortion law, and three versions include language prohibiting the government from interfering with a woman’s access to an abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

The rape exception would only apply to victims who have reported the rape or sexual assault to a crisis hotline.

Three of the six initiative petitions would also legalize abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

Each version also states that the rights guaranteed in the amendment “are subject to strict scrutiny,” meaning any restrictions to abortion enacted by the legislature must further a “compelling governmental interest” and must be narrowly tailored to achieve that interest.

Anyone seeking an abortion outside of Missouri could not be subject to criminal prosecution or civil penalty. The same immunity applies to health professionals or anyone assisting in seeking an abortion.

Some versions also contain provisions prohibiting use of taxpayer funds to be used “in support of the provision of abortion in this state.” However, in those versions legislature would not be permitted to cut off funding for health care providers who perform abortions.

“When we go to court it provides an opportunity to remind Missourians that we have the most extreme, punitive abortion law in the country,” Corley said, “and it’s clear some politicians will do whatever they can to see that it stays on the books.”

CORRECTION: This story originally misstated the details of the provisions of the initiative petitions submitted by Jamie Corley. 

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Jason Hancock
Jason Hancock

Jason Hancock has spent two decades covering politics and policy for news organizations across the Midwest, with most of that time focused on the Missouri statehouse as a reporter for The Kansas City Star. A three-time National Headliner Award winner, he helped launch The Missouri Independent in October 2020.