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Missouri Supreme Court won’t hear Jay Ashcroft’s appeal of abortion ballot summaries

By: - November 20, 2023 8:29 pm

The Supreme Court of Missouri in Jefferson City, as photographed on May 24, 2023 (Annelise Hanshaw/Missouri Independent).

The Missouri Supreme Court has denied Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft’s atrempt to appeal rulings against his ballot summary for initiative petitions seeking to enshrine the right to abortion in the state constitution. 

The court also rejected an appeal seeking to reject cost estimates crafted by Auditor Scott Fitzpatrick. 

The decisions came down Monday evening, less than a week after Ashcroft asked the state’s highest court to take up the case. 

Ashcroft is attempting to keep the wording of a ballot summary he crafted for several abortion-rights initiative petitions stating they would  “allow for dangerous, unregulated, and unrestricted abortions.” 

The ballot initiatives were filed in March by St. Louis physician Anna Fitz-James, who proposed 11 different wordings for possible constitutional amendments to  legalize abortion in Missouri. Fitz-James filed the proposals on behalf of Missourians for Constitutional Freedom, a political action committee.

As secretary of state, Ashcroft was required to write short neutral summaries for each of the 11 ballot proposals to appear on the ballot before voters on Election Day. 

Abortion rights won big on the ballot in Ohio. But in Missouri, advocates remain divided

Fitz-James, supported by the ACLU of Missouri, challenged Ashcroft’s language on six of the 11 ballot initiatives. Those who support the initiatives have not yet announced which version they will move forward with in collecting signatures, but each version includes language saying there must be a “compelling government interest” for abortion restrictions to be in place. 

Some versions would make abortion legal up until 24 weeks gestation; others would legalize abortion until “fetal viability.”

Ashcroft wrote summaries declaring that the amendments would “nullify longstanding Missouri law protecting the right to life, including but not limited to partial-birth abortion.”

On Oct. 31, a state appeals court called Ashcroft’s summaries “replete with politically partisan language.”

“The use of the term ‘right to life’ is simply not an impartial term,” Judge Thomas Chapman wrote in the court’s unanimous opinion upholding a Cole County judge’s initial decision in favor of the ACLU and Fitz-James.

Ashcroft has said he stands by his summary language, which he argues “fairly and accurately reflects the scope and magnitude of each petition.”

A separate attempt to get abortion on the 2024 ballot has also been filed by longtime GOP operative Jamie Corey. On Friday, her group, called the Missouri Women and Family Research Fund, launched a political action committee and started collecting signatures for an initiative petition that would add some exceptions to the state’s abortion ban, including in cases or rape or incest. It would also legalize abortion prior to 12 weeks gestation.

Corley also sued Ashcroft over the ballot summary he wrote for her original initiative petitions. That  lawsuit is ongoing. 

In order for any of the abortion amendments to end up on the 2024 ballot, proponents must collect more than 170,000 signatures from registered voters by May.

Abortion has been illegal in Missouri since June 2022. A trigger law went into effect immediately after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that recognized abortion as a constitutional right.

Right now, abortion is only legal in Missouri in emergencies where it is necessary to save the mother’s life or when there is “a serious risk of substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function.”

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Anna Spoerre
Anna Spoerre

Anna Spoerre covers reproductive health care for The Missouri Independent. A graduate of Southern Illinois University, she most recently worked at the Kansas City Star where she focused on storytelling that put people at the center of wider issues. Before that she was a courts reporter for the Des Moines Register.