JEFFERSON CITY — The new group calls itself "Missourians United for Life." But its name underlies a divide in Missouri's self-described pro-life community.
Missouri Right to Life has long been a leader among the powerful and effective majority in the Capitol against abortion rights.
But some Missouri lawmakers who consider themselves against abortion rights — particularly Republicans — have increasingly become frustrated with the criteria Missouri Right to Life uses to rate lawmakers and make endorsements. As a result, the group's Capitol influence has waned.
On Wednesday, the startup group Missourians United for Life commanded a House committee room full of curious anti-abortion activists as it outlined its vision and its plans to make endorsements and financial contributions in the 2008 elections.
In that regard, it's essentially setting itself up as a rival to Missouri Right to Life.
"We're going to fight for real pro-life candidates," said Ed Martin, a former chief of staff for Republican Gov. Matt Blunt who organized the new group.
Martin has a long history as an anti-abortion activist, including working as an attorney for Americans United for Life, which he said is not connected to his new group.
Among those looking on as Martin hosted a panel discussion Wednesday were many of the state's top anti-abortion lobbyists, representing Campaign Life Missouri, the Missouri Catholic Conference, the Missouri Baptist Convention and the Missouri Family Network.
Not on hand was anyone representing Missouri Right to Life.
Patty Skain, executive director of Missouri Right to Life, said she didn't think it was necessary to go to another group's meeting. But she said the new group could provide a disservice to anti-abortion voters by issuing its own endorsements.
"It's going to be very complicated and very confusing to the public; it already has been," Skain said.
The division within Missouri's anti-abortion community has its roots in embryonic stem cell research.
Missouri Right to Life and most other anti-abortion lobbying groups opposed a state constitutional amendment narrowly approved by voters in 2006 that creates a right to conduct stem cell research. Covered by that is an embryonic cloning procedure that opponents say creates and destroys human life at its earliest stages.
Some Republicans, including Blunt, supported the ballot measure.
When endorsing candidates, Missouri Right to Life took into account a variety of votes made on spending bills and on Blunt's college construction initiative that it said could have allowed state money to benefit life sciences research, and those potentially doing embryonic cloning. Some within the Republican Party disagreed with those assertions.
Nevertheless, some lawmakers who considered themselves opposed to abortion got less-than-desirable ratings from Missouri Right to Life.
Among them was state Rep. Bob Onder, of Lake St. Louis, who lost the Aug. 5 Republican primary for the 9th Congressional District to former Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, of St. Elizabeth.
Missouri Right to Life gave Luetkemeyer a "pro-life" endorsement while it gave Onder a "mixed" review — weighing his votes affecting the life sciences against his sponsorship of anti-abortion legislation and his role in opposing the 2006 ballot measure.
Missourians United for Life endorsed both Onder and Luetkemeyer.
"Another group to tabulate and ascertain who is pro-life is good, especially at this point in our political history," said Onder, who was among the panelists for Wednesday's event.
Missouri Right to Life President Pam Fichter issued a statement defending the group's endorsement process and noting the divisions within the Republican Party over embryonic stem cell research.
"Unfortunately, many in the legislature voted to open the doors to taxpayer funding of human cloning and embryonic stem cell research," she said. "The voting records of these legislators did not allow MRL to consider them for endorsement. It's not surprising that they're seeking another avenue to be endorsed."