By RUDI KELLER
Two bills aimed at making abortions illegal in Missouri were filed by state Sen. Jason Crowell Wednesday. They are meant to eventually spur a reversal in Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that protects a woman's decision to abort a pregnancy.
Crowell's legislation, similar to that in South Dakota and Mississippi, would make an exception for pregnancies that put a mother's life at risk. Otherwise, doctors could be charged for a class B felony for performing abortions, even in cases of rape and incest.
Crowell's proposals drew immediate criticism from pro-choice groups and a caution from one pro-life group that the legislation may be premature.
The recent changes on the high court -- new Chief Justice John Roberts and associate justice Samuel Alito -- make the time ripe for the proposals, Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, said. "I am pro-life and this is my attempt to put the issue forward to once and for all put an end to bad constitutional law," he said.
One of Crowell's bills would make it a Class B felony for any doctor to perform an abortion except to save the mother's life. The other measure, a proposed constitutional amendment, is a policy statement that Missouri protects "the life of an unborn child from conception until birth."
Neither measure provides an exception for cases where the child was conceived as a result of rape or incest. Both measures call for statewide votes in November.
"This decision should be made by the voters of Missouri," Crowell said. "It is a serious enough issue that it should not just be made by 34 senators and 163 representatives."
Similar measures are pending in South Dakota, where it has passed the legislature and awaits the governor's signature, and in Mississippi, where it is in the middle of the legislative process.
The leader of a prominent pro-choice group, Pamela Sumners of NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri, said Crowell's bill is part of a pattern of threats to women's ability to control their own bodies. She noted that Crowell has also filed legislation that would allow pharmacies to refuse to fill prescriptions when the pharmacist has a conscientious objection to the drug being purchased.
"Crowell wants them to pass laws providing for felony terms for abortion and for people to not even have access to contraceptive prescriptions," Sumners said. "That is a pretty broad agenda he's got."
Putting the issue on the ballot is an effort to increase the turnout of single-issue, right-wing voters, Sumners said. "Clearly it is a standard right-wing tactic to throw in as many wedge issues in an election as they can to mobilize pockets of voters around social issues."
From the pro-life side, the executive director of the Missouri Catholic Conference, Larry Weber, said he agrees with Crowell's motives, but said now probably isn't the most opportune time.
We appreciate that he is trying to protect human life, but we think it's probably premature to go forward with this type of legislation," Weber said.
Judicial and political observers say there are probably at best only four justices in favor of over-ruling Roe v. Wade, Weber said. So if the law gets to the Supreme Court, there is little hope of it passing muster, he said.
"We don't want to lose this case, is what it is," Weber said. "We're not sure if the votes are there yet on the court. We realize that at some point it will go back to the court, but it's premature until there is anything shift on the court."
Local religious leaders differ on the merits of such legislation.
The Rev. Paul Kabo Jr. of the First Presbyterian Church in Cape Girardeau said he would not be in favor of legislation making abortions illegal, which is consistent with the official position of the Presbyterian Church.
"I affirm our denomination's position," he said. "Our denomination is on record as a pro-choice denomination."
The official church's position talks about abortion as a "woman's decision in her faith journey," Kabo said. "It's up to her to decide how she wishes to respond to that pregnancy and each person is accountable to God for that decision. That puts you in the pro-choice camp."
The Rev. Ron Watts, pastor at La Croix United Methodist Church, said he is in favor of reducing or eliminating abortions, though he said he hasn't seen Crowell's legislation to comment directly on it.
"I think anything we can do as a country to encourage women to keep their children is a good thing," Watts said. "The role of government is to protect the innocent. I can't think of any more innocent and defenseless class of people than the unborn."
Despite the misgivings of some about the likelihood of success at the Supreme Court, Crowell said the current members of the court should be ready to look again at Roe v. Wade. And additional justices could be appointed by the time a Missouri case makes it to the high court, he said.
"Who knows what the court will look like in two to six years," Crowell said. "I am hopeful that Bush will get at least one more appointment."
The lack of a rape or incest exception is a glaring omission, said Alison Gee, political director for Planned Parenthood of Missouri. A woman impregnated during a rape or as a result of incest, she said, "would have no choice but to carry to term and we have to assume that the rapist would have some sort of parental rights over the child."
Exceptions for rape and incest were left out, Crowell said, because the means of conception should determine whether the pregnancy can legally be terminated.
"That life -- which is created and is still an innocent life -- didn't do anything wrong," Crowell said. A change to include such exceptions wouldn't force him to kill the bill, Crowell added.
Preventing the bill's passage if sufficient momentum begins to build won't be easy and probably isn't possible, Gee said. "We certainly know that the majority of legislators have voting records that are anti-choice. Whether they will vote for a total ban, that will be interesting to see."