Missouri abortion rights supporters have faced a grueling road over the past couple of years.

Minutes after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the constitutional right to abortion in 2022, Missouri GOP officials triggered a near total ban on the procedure — with no exceptions for rape or incest, only some medical emergencies.

Abortion rights activists mobilized across the country, launching efforts to take the issue of abortion directly to voters via ballot initiatives.

Efforts to get a ballot initiative off the ground in Missouri faced a torrent of obstacles.

Proponents battled with the state's attorney general and secretary of state over the description of the ballot measure and faced a competing proposal from a GOP political operative who was pushing for a more modest initiative. Abortion rights advocates also got into a public, and at times bitter, disagreement over whether the measure should allow the legislature to ban abortion after fetal viability or include a gestational limit.

But once the final proposal by Missourians for Constitutional Freedom was unveiled in January, the troubles quickly dispersed and the attention shifted to getting the over 171,000 signatures required to go before voters later this year.

"It would return health care to women and their doctors, where it fundamentally belongs," said Enola Proctor at a music venue in St. Louis, where hundreds of people flocked not to hear a band play, but to sign the petition. Proctor was in her twenties when the Supreme Court declared a constitutional right to abortion in 1973.

"I had college friends who had sought abortions, very unsafe ones," Proctor said. "I worried about the immediate damage to their bodies, and their future ability to give birth. And so I felt [after the ruling] that women were safe. And it pains me to know that women are no longer safe."

The proposed amendment would bar the legislature from restricting or banning abortion up until fetal viability, which is usually considered to be 24 weeks and is defined in the amendment as the point in pregnancy when there is a significant likelihood of the fetus' sustained survival outside the uterus without the application of extraordinary medical measures.

"We're not telling you to feel one way or another on abortion. We're saying that the government should not have the ability to infringe on that very personal decision that you make for yourself and your family and in alignment with your doctor's guidance," said Tori Schafer of the ACLU of Missouri, who is helping with the ballot campaign. "That's what this amendment does."

Missourians for Constitutional Freedom's campaign account has raised more than $4 million in donations of $5,000 or more since mid-January. Even with a campaign account that's flush with cash and enthusiasm from volunteers, abortion rights supporters in Missouri are encountering at least one more potential barrier before any statewide vote — Republicans in the General Assembly who want to make any abortion measure much more difficult to pass.

'Gloves are off': GOP lawmakers want to make it harder to change the state constitution

The biggest legislative battle of the 2024 General Assembly session has been an effort to place an earlier ballot measure before voters that would make it more difficult to amend the state's constitution.

GOP proponents of that move like State Sen. Rick Brattin have made no secret that the plan is aimed to make it more difficult to pass the abortion legalization measure.

"At this point, where there's so much at stake, gloves are off — and we're willing to do whatever it takes to protect and ensure that our constitution is protected," Brattin told reporters at a news conference.

A similar move to try to make it more difficult to change the state constitution ahead of a measure protecting abortion rights crashed and burned last year in Ohio, paving the way for voters to enshrine abortion protections.

While GOP lawmakers are trying to attach other items on the initiative that could sweeten the deal for voters, like barring non-citizens from voting, their plan faces robust opposition — including from Republicans who don't want to alter the initiative petition process.

"Republicans and reformers for the entire history of state government have used the citizens' petition to get things done," said Republican political consultant David Barklage, who has worked on a number of ballot initiative campaigns. "It is shortsighted by this group that is in there now who don't have a historical perspective to argue to get rid of this critical constitution balance and check."

Race to gather signatures

In Missouri, any group that wants to put something on the ballot must gather around 171,000 signatures. And they can't just get them in one part of the state: they need at least 8 percent of the number of voters who cast a ballot in a gubernatorial election in 2020 in six out of eight congressional districts.

Missouri's abortion rights foes organized a group called Missouri Stands with Women to oppose the ballot initiative, and have received some money from the state's Catholic Conference.

Stephanie Bell, a spokeswoman for the group, said it's not a sure thing that proponents of the ballot measure will get enough signatures by early May.

"We are confident that we will have the resources and the grassroots necessary to fight back against this extreme measure," Bell said.

Abortion rights proponents are getting a late start to the signature gathering process, but they say they have a big advantage: thousands of volunteer signature gatherers like Lisa Williams.

"Missourians don't agree with this ban," Williams said. "And they want to take it into their own hands, because the politicians have not listened to their will."

Most organizations who try to get a ballot measure before voters usually hire paid canvassers to gather signatures, and Missourians For Constitutional Freedom is no exception. But Schafer, of the ACLU of Missouri, said the amount of volunteers is striking, comparing only to the successful effort in 2018 to repeal Missouri's "right to work" law.

"[Missourians] were calling our offices nonstop saying: 'Hey, we want to do that thing that Ohio, and Michigan did.' And they saw the win over in Kansas," she said. "And you know, Missourians are really competitive with our neighbors over there. So we knew they were going to be excited. And we're amazed by the amount of support that we've seen from across the state."

Months after Roe v. Wade was overturned, Kansas voters rejected a proposed state constitutional amendment that would have said there is no right to an abortion in the state.

Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia, says red states like Kansas and Kentucky, which rejected an anti-abortion rights amendment in 2022, show it's possible for voters to back GOP candidates — and still want abortion protections.

"You could see Republicans winning Missouri by 20 points for president, and this abortion issue could very well end up passing — particularly because the current law on the books is so far away from what the average opinion is on abortion rights," Kondik said.

Recent polling of Missouri voters from Emerson College found only 10 percent of respondents said abortion should be completely banned – with close to 45 percent saying it should be allowed as a matter of personal choice.

But Susan Klein of Missouri Right to Life said Missourians have showcased their opposition to abortion rights time and time again by electing Republicans to the legislature and statewide offices.

"Missouri's a pro-life state. You see that in our supermajorities. You see that with our statewide officeholders," Klein said. "Every life matters. And we're going to be there to fight in this battle."

If the petition gets enough signatures, it will likely go before voters during the November general election.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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