COLUMBIA – On a typical Thursday, young and middle-aged women from across mid-Missouri line up outside Planned Parenthood’s one-story, tan building on North Providence Road.
They wait, some shuffling their feet, as a security officer checks their names off a list. There are strict rules for who can enter the building on days when abortions are performed.
On the sidewalk yards away, abortion-rights opponents pray for the women and assign names to the fetuses. Some of the women in line hunch their shoulders, while others keep their faces turned away.
This Thursday, there were no pregnant women, no prayer groups and none of the palpable tension – only a quiet parking lot.
The clinic’s abortion services have been suspended for the last two weeks because of “scheduling issues,” said Peter Brownlie, president of Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri.
Brownlie said the suspension of abortions will not be “lengthy.” But in the meantime, the process of getting an abortion in Missouri has changed. Starting this week women seeking an abortion in Missouri will:
- Be asked if they want to hear the fetus’s heartbeat.
- Be told that fetuses may feel pain, and they will be offered anesthesia for the fetus.
- Receive a pamphlet with the words, “The life of each human being begins at conception. Abortion will terminate the life of a separate, unique, living human being.”
All of the above is required by a new law that took effect Saturday.
The new law also requires clinics to ask if women want to see an ultrasound, something Brownlie said Planned Parenthood already does.
The biggest impact arguably will come from the provision requiring women to meet in person with a qualified professional at least a day before the abortion, Brownlie said. With only one fully functioning clinic in the state right now – in St. Louis – it will mean two long trips instead of one for many women seeking an abortion in Missouri.
Pamela Sumners, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri, called it “another obstacle to throw at rural women, and poor women and working women. It makes abortion far more difficult to access.”
But supporters of the measure say it’s hardly too much to require an in-person meeting when a decision like abortion hangs in the balance.
“I think anyone who goes through a surgical procedure would like to meet with a doctor face to face,” said the law’s sponsor, Sen. Rob Mayer, R-Dexter. “I think it’s the right thing, to talk to the lady face to face.”
The new law has also spurred debate over what stage of development a fetus can feel pain. It requires clinics to tell women that by the 22nd week, a fetus has all the anatomical structures to feel pain. This is contested by Sumners and other abortion-rights supporters, who point to studies that say a fetus is not developed enough to feel pain until a later stage. Brownlie said Planned Parenthood does not do abortions after the 22nd week of pregnancy.
When it comes to abortion, just about every “fact” is hotly debated, even things that seem as if they should be medically objective.
But there is one thing that is generally agreed upon: the scales tip toward abortion- rights opponents in Missouri. NARAL Pro-Choice rates Missouri’s abortion environment as an "F," to the delight of anti-abortion groups.
“That’s an ‘F’ you can love," said Missouri Right to Life President Pam Fichter.
There is also a sense among some that a certain tipping point has been reached. The number of abortion-rights opponents overtook abortion-rights supporters in a 2009 nationwide Gallup Poll for the first time since Gallup began asking the question "With respect to the abortion issue, would you consider yourself to be pro-choice or pro-life?" in 1995.
Missouri’s abortion regulations also have been getting stricter in recent years.
Under a 2007 law that requires all abortion clinics to meet the standards of “ambulatory surgical centers,” Planned Parenthood’s St. Louis clinic is the only one currently licensed for abortions, said Kit Wagar, spokesman for the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.
When the 2007 law was enacted, Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri sued, saying the law would require expensive renovations that would put all clinics but one out of business. A federal judge blocked the law and allowed Planned Parenthood and the health department to come up with modified rules.
The settlement allows three clinics, including Columbia’s center, to continue operating as they make changes over the next 16 months, Brownlie said.
Missouri previously had a third clinic in Springfield that provided abortions, but it closed in 2005.
Brownlie said he does not believe measures like the most recent law will change the minds of women who want an abortion.
“It’s a difficult decision for many people to grapple with, but once people have made that decision, they’ll typically follow through,” he said.
But there are also women who have not made the decision yet, who can be persuaded not to have an abortion, said Charity Quinn, executive director of the My Life Clinic right across the street from Columbia’s Planned Parenthood.
“My experience is most women don’t want to have an abortion,” she said. “But having a baby would be a huge interruption, so they think an abortion is their only choice.”
Quinn said women have come to her clinic from Planned Parenthood, after having a change of heart.
Both abortion-rights supporters and opponents agree that it is important that women make informed decisions. But what that decision should be differs, depending on whom you ask.
For Mayer, the sponsor of the new law, the answer is clear.
“I want to make certain that women have the information to make a decision, an informed decision, about abortion,” Mayer says. “And hopefully after they have this information, they’ll decide to carry the children to term.”