With sights set on Supreme Court, Missouri latest US state to restrict abortion

New law bans procedure from around 8 weeks of pregnancy, including in cases of rape or incest; doctors who carry out operation could face 15 years in prison

Protesters march through the halls of the Missouri Capitol outside the House chamber on May 17, 2019, in Jefferson City, Missouri, in opposition to legislation prohibiting abortions at eight weeks of pregnancy. (AP Photo/David A. Lieb)
Protesters march through the halls of the Missouri Capitol outside the House chamber on May 17, 2019, in Jefferson City, Missouri, in opposition to legislation prohibiting abortions at eight weeks of pregnancy. (AP Photo/David A. Lieb)

WASHINGTON (AFP) — The Missouri House of Representatives passed a bill on Friday banning abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected, making it the latest US state to pass tough restrictions on terminating a pregnancy.

The bill, overwhelmingly approved by the Republican-led legislature and expected to be signed by the Midwestern state’s Republican governor, would ban abortions from about eight weeks of pregnancy.

Doctors who perform abortions could be subject to prison sentences of between five and 15 years. Women who undergo the procedure would not be prosecuted.

Republican-led legislatures in several US states have recently passed bills restricting abortion access in a bid to eventually challenge the 1973 US Supreme Court ruling legalizing the practice.

Abortion opponents are hoping the moves will prompt the nation’s highest court, which now has a conservative majority, to overturn its landmark decision in the case known as Roe vs Wade.

The Republican-dominated legislature in the southern state of Alabama passed a bill this week that places a near-total ban on ending a pregnancy, even in cases of rape and incest.

The Missouri bill also does not allow exceptions for rape or incest — only in cases where the mother’s life is in danger.

All of the state bans have either been blocked by a judge or are headed for the courts, and some of their backers have said they want the issue to go all the way to the nine-member Supreme Court.

An anti-abortion activist waves to passing cars in front of the Alabama Women’s Wellness Center, May 17, 2019 in Huntsville, Alabama. (AP Photo/Eric Schultz)

The Republican bid to force a showdown over Roe vs Wade comes as President Donald Trump is ramping up for a 2020 re-election campaign with abortion as a hot-button issue.

The Supreme Court has previously reaffirmed a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion, but some anti-abortion activists believe the time may have come to turn the tables.

Since taking office, Trump has appointed two conservative justices — Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh — and liberal members of the top court are now outnumbered five to four.

Conservative-leaning Chief Justice John Roberts is seen as the potential swing vote if the constitutionality of abortion eventually comes before the court.

Mary Ziegler, a law professor at Florida State University, said the court may shy away from addressing the bitterly divisive issue for the moment.

“The court may not have an interest in addressing abortion at all for now,” Ziegler said. “The court might be, at least temporarily, trying to stay out of it altogether.”

Lawrence Gostin, a law professor at Georgetown University, also said he believed the Supreme Court was in no hurry to take up the subject.

“I really don’t believe all the hype that the Supreme Court is going to overturn Roe,” Gostin said.

Anti-abortion protesters rally near a Planned Parenthood clinic in Philadelphia, Friday, May 10, 2019. The demonstration was spurred by the actions of a Democratic state lawmaker who recorded himself berating an anti-abortion demonstrator at length outside the clinic. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

“Several members of the court, particularly Justice Roberts, believe in the integrity of the court, and understand that if the court was to overturn Roe it would make it look like a partisan, political entity,” he added. “It would take away its legitimacy.”

Gostin said what he sees happening instead is the continued trend of conservative states restricting access to abortion.

“They are not going to outlaw it but they will make it so difficult to get, it will be inaccessible, unaffordable,” he said.

This, he said, would affect women of color and poor, uneducated or rural women in particular.

“A woman of means will always be able to get an abortion in the US,” Gostin added.

“They will be able to travel to California, New York, DC.”

Georgia, Ohio, Mississippi, Kentucky, Iowa and North Dakota have enacted laws banning an abortion from the moment a fetal heartbeat is detected. Electoral powerhouses Florida and Texas are considering following suit.

The moves to restrict abortion have drawn a firestorm of criticism from Democrats.

“Access to safe, legal abortion is a constitutional right and Congress can protect it,” said Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who is one of 23 Democrats seeking the party’s 2020 presidential nomination.

“We’re going to fight every right-wing lawmaker’s attempt to overturn Roe vs Wade,” Warren said.

California Senator Kamala Harris, another Democratic 2020 hopeful, said people needed to fight back to protect Roe vs Wade as it is under attack.

“Protect a women’s right to make her own health care decisions,” she said, urging supporters to donate to groups backing abortion rights.

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