Missouri’s abortion law in federal court; focus on Down syndrome diagnosis

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ST. LOUIS – Missouri could join Texas with one of the strictest abortion laws in the country if a federal court of appeals rules in the state’s favor.

Back in 2019, the Missouri General Assembly passed a bill banning abortions after eight weeks or if the mother receives a prenatal Down syndrome diagnosis. A day before the law was set to go into effect, a federal judge blocked the measure, and it has been an ongoing legal fight since. A rare move Tuesday as all 11 members of a federal court of appeals heard the case.

“Today, we argued that every single life matters,” Attorney General Eric Schmitt said. “We are hopeful that we are on the right side of this issue, and we are going to continue to fight for those most vulnerable among us.”

Just days after lawmakers passed the legislation, Gov. Mike Parson signed the bill which does not allow exemptions for rape or incest survivors. But the focus in Tuesday’s hearing wasn’t how long a woman has to get an abortion. Instead, it was about a mother receiving a Down syndrome diagnosis.

“People who are pregnant, regardless of why they are choosing to have an abortion should be able to have that care here in the state of Missouri,” Chief Medical Officer for Reproductive Health Services of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region Dr. Colleen McNicholas said. “Pregnant folks who are facing an abortion in the context of having a diagnosis of a fetal anomaly, a genetic diagnosis, whether it’s Down syndrome or any other diagnosis, are facing a real traumatic decision.”

Earlier this summer, a three-judge panel from the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals blocked the law, but after the June decision, the court made a rare move and decided in July to re-hear the case before all the judges.

Schmitt said the focus was on the Down syndrome piece because that’s a relatively new issue for the courts.

“I think that every individual deserves the right to live their life and pursue happiness including those with Down syndrome,” Schmitt said. “This is modern-day eugenics, this is discriminating to the most extreme level of the elimination of an entire class of people because of a trait.”

During a press conference after the hearing, Schmitt, citing a 2019 dissent from Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas (Box v. Planned Parenthood of Indiana & Kentucky, Inc.), claimed roughly 70% of babies in the U.S. are aborted due to a Down syndrome diagnosis.

A few weeks ago, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to block a law in Texas that bans abortions as early as six weeks, allowing private citizens to sue abortion providers and anyone who participates. This law makes Texas the most restrictive state in the country for abortions.

“I would say that Missouri is on the list of many states who are on the verge of losing access to abortion and so last week Texas, this week, Missouri,” McNicholas said.

McNicholas said it’s not a decision the state should make for women who are pregnant.

“Anti-abortion groups and legislators have longed tried to find wedge issues to push people to anti-abortion stances but our stance, my stance, the stance of the patients I care for, everyone has a unique situation,” McNicholas said.

Planned Parenthood in the Central West End in St. Louis is Missouri’s only abortion clinic. The Show-Me State is one of five states across the country that only has one clinic. McNicholas said whatever the ruling is, they won’t close their doors.

“This is a public health matter, it is basic healthcare and we will continue to fight for people to have access to that,” McNicholas said.

Under the Missouri law passed back in 2019, physicians who perform abortions after eight weeks could face anywhere from five to 15 years in prison but the woman who made the decision to have the abortion would not be charged. Anyone who participates in an abortion after the knowledge of a prenatal Down syndrome diagnosis could be charged with civil penalties which could include the loss of a medical license.

Currently in Missouri, a woman can have an abortion up to 22 weeks. The number of abortions in Missouri per year has decreased significantly over the years in the past decade. According to the Department of Health and Senior Services, the state recorded 6,163 abortions in 2010, but only 46 in 2020.

Here is the list of abortions per year in the last decade:

2010 – 6,163
2011 – 5,772
2012 – 5,624
2013 – 5,416
2014 – 5,060
2015 – 4,765
2016 – 4,562
2017 – 3,903
2018 – 2,911
2019 – 1,368
2020 – 46

Schmitt said he does not know when the court will rule but is hoping for a quick decision.

The hearing in St. Louis comes less than three months before the country’s highest court is expected to hear arguments for a Mississippi law that challenges the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which establishes abortion as a protected right.

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