Missouri’s Wrongheaded Abortion Bill

As the Missouri General Assembly headed toward adjournment last week, Gov. Mike Parson sent out a disturbing message on Twitter:

“It’s time to make Missouri the most Pro-Life state in the country! Thanks to leaders in the House and Senate, we are one vote away from passing one of the strongest #ProLife bills in the country — standing for life, protecting women’s health and advocating for the unborn.”

Legislators obliged, of course, sending the overly restrictive bill to Parson on the last day of the session. With the signature of the governor, women in Missouri would be banned from obtaining an abortion after eight weeks of pregnancy.

 The wrongheaded legislation — titled the “Missouri Stands for the Unborn Act” — was sponsored by Rep. Nick Schroer, an O’Fallon Republican. It includes no exception if the pregnancy results from rape, incest or human trafficking. A fetus that might have severe birth defects could not be aborted, and anyone who performed an abortion in cases that are not specifically exempt by the bill could face a felony conviction and prison sentence.

Finally, the bill also calls for a ban on abortion in Missouri, except in a medical emergency, if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns its landmark decision in Roe v. Wade from 1973. 

Of course, with an apparent anti-abortion majority on the court and with backing from the White House, such a reversal is what several states, including Missouri, are pushing for in their stepped-up battle against a woman’s right to choose a safe, legal abortion. Reversal of Roe v. Wade, or at least a serious rollback of its protections, may be far off, but the damage that the anti-abortion legislation can do is immediate and serious.

Yet no one should assume that abortion will simply disappear because of the passage of bills like the one in Missouri or other Draconian measures such as a new law in Georgia that outlaws abortions six weeks after conception —  before some women would even know they are pregnant. Medical means to end a pregnancy will still exist, as will cooperative physicians who don’t want women to have to risk the kinds of dangerous procedures they were forced to endure before abortion became legal. 

Besides, as Parson bragged about in another of his anti-abortion tweets, fewer Missouri women are choosing abortion these days. The latest figures show that the state recently hit what the governor hailed as “an ALL-TIME low,” about 3,000 annually from more than 20,000 at its peak. New numbers from the state said that since last year, when Missouri required pelvic exams before pill abortions could be performed, the number of such procedures dropped to 359 from at least 982 the year before.

So the new anti-abortion push isn’t responding to any medical need. It’s purely political. And like almost everything else in Washington these days, the fight isn’t going to go away quickly. At least a dozen lawsuits have been filed across the country against the new regulations that are accurately known as TRAP laws: targeted restrictions on abortion providers.

In Missouri, as supporters of the bill cheered their victory, opponents pointed out, correctly, that a state that truly considers itself pro-life needs to do more for children than simply block abortions. It needs to care for children once they are born. The state’s record on education, child health and other issues that affect young lives is hardly one to brag about.

Where does Jewish law fit into this? Typically, there is no simple, single answer [read Rabbi Seth D. Gordon’s commentary on the opposite page about Jewish law and abortion]. As a recent story in the Forward pointed out, the debate has “led to attempts to shoehorn halakhah (Jewish law) into the typical ‘pro-life’ or ‘pro-choice’ position and, more importantly, to oversimplifications and distortions of what halakhah has to say about abortion.”

As opposed to the simplistic arguments in forums like Twitter, the article discusses nuances ranging from saving the life of the mother to saving a fetus on Shabbat to the possibility that a child may be born with a disease such as Tay-Sachs. 

While data from the Pew Research Center last year showed that 83 percent of adult Jews believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, many Orthodox Jews have the opposite view. Yet that stance doesn’t mean they are linked to absolutist Christian anti-abortion groups. As Rabbi Mark Dratch, the executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest Orthodox rabbinical association, told the Forward, Orthodox Jews “feel that abortion is not just permissible, but in some cases necessary.”

The Missouri bill, when it becomes law, as well as the other overly restrictive laws being enacted elsewhere, is certain to end up in court, and those cases are likely to make their way to the high court in Washington. With its tenuous balance, Chief Justice John Roberts is likely to be the swing vote on the future of Roe, and his demonstrated respect for precedent could carry the day. 

Let’s hope that the attempt by extremists to play politics with the issue of abortion doesn’t take away the right of women to control one of the most difficult and most personal decisions she would ever have to make.