Missouri abortion initiative attacked from all sides

Friday, March 27, 2009 | 6:07 p.m. CDT; updated 10:30 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, May 20, 2009

JEFFERSON CITY — Abortion opponents claim Secretary of State Robin Carnahan has biased potential voters against their proposed ballot initiative barring public money from going to abortions or certain kinds of human embryonic stem cell research.

Abortion-rights supporters claim Carnahan hasn't gone far enough in explaining that the ballot measure could bar abortions at public hospitals and put the state in conflict with federal Medicaid requirements.

Although at odds with each other in court Friday, attorneys representing both sides of the abortion debate attacked the ballot summary approved by Carnahan for a potential 2010 initiative asking voters to amend the Missouri Constitution. They each urged a judge to rewrite the ballot summary, although they suggested differing solutions.

Meanwhile, an attorney for stem cell research supporters urged Cole County Judge Patricia Joyce to toss out the ballot initiative on grounds that it doesn't follow the proper format under the Missouri Constitution.

Joyce took the competing requests under consideration after listening to several hours of arguments.

The courtroom battle illustrated how complicated it has become to pursue ballot initiatives in Missouri.

After supporters submit their proposals, the secretary of state writes a summary and approves the initiatives to be circulated for petition signatures. But before any signatures are gathered, supporters and opponents increasingly are suing in an attempt to get a ballot summary most favorable to their cause.

In court Friday, an attorney for the Missouri Roundtable for Life contended that Carnahan's ballot summary for the group's proposal was insufficient or unfair in 10 different ways.

To back up his claim that Carnahan used prejudicial words, attorney Steve Clark of St. Louis sought to present evidence from a public opinion poll that compared the reaction of potential voters on the wording used by Carnahan versus the wording preferred by initiative supporters. But Joyce barred all evidentiary testimony on the ballot summary, instead allowing only legal arguments.

Clark claimed Carnahan, a Democrat running for the U.S. Senate in 2010, chose wording intended to prevent the measure from making it to the ballot, "because this measure would create pro-life voter turnout, which would be detrimental to Secretary of State Carnahan's bid to take over the place of Sen. (Kit) Bond." Bond is not seeking re-election.

Carnahan spokeswoman Laura Egerdal said the Senate race and ballot summary are "absolutely unrelated."

"When the language is written, the choices are made entirely on what will let the people of Missouri understand the effect of the ballot measure — that's it," Egerdal said in an interview.

One of the many wording choices in dispute in Carnahan's ballot summary is the statement that the measure would make it illegal for public funds to go toward abortion services, "including those necessary to save the life of the mother."

Clark argued that statement was incorrect and designed to turn voters against the measure.

Jennifer Sandman, a Planned Parenthood attorney from New York, argued that the ballot proposal would, in fact, prevent public money from going toward an abortion that saves a woman's life, and thus would conflict with federal Medicaid standards requiring such funding.

Sandman argued that Carnahan's ballot summary was flawed for failing to mention the alleged conflict with federal requirements and for failing to state that it could ban all abortions at hospitals run by public entities.

Part of the reason for the confusion about the extent of the initiative's abortion restrictions is due to the fact that it references a statute passed by the legislature in 2003. And that statute, in turn, references an abortion definition in a separate part of state law.

Alex Bartlett, an attorney for the Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures, argued that the proposed ballot initiative should be tossed out because of its reference to statutory citations.

Bartlett said the Missouri Constitution requires initiative petitions to contain "the full text of the measure," which he argued to mean that measures should spell out the definitions of various terms instead of referring to an existing section of state law.


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