JEFFERSON CITY — The biggest majority in the Missouri General Assembly is neither Republican nor Democrat, neither rural nor urban.
In fact, its members include most Republicans and rural lawmakers, many Democrats and some city lawmakers.
Missouri’s powerful anti-abortion majority has overridden vetoes of governors to enact abortion restrictions. It has held up budget bills and waged court battles to try to prevent state family-planning money from going to abortion providers.
After gains in November’s elections, Missouri Right to Life counts 128 of the 163 House members in its majority, and 28 of the 34 senators, said the group’s legislative liaison, Susan Klein. The majority also includes new Republican Gov. Matt Blunt — in stark contrast to 12 years of previous Democratic governors.
But just when it appeared Missouri’s anti-abortion movement was poised for huge success, division has developed — to the point that its main legislative priorities are in jeopardy entering the final week of the session.
Missouri Right to Life is accusing legislative leaders — people it has counted among its supportive majority — of trying to “eviscerate” and “kill” an anti-abortion bill. It is accusing Blunt of urging lawmakers to scale back the legislation.
And in a letter sent last week to all lawmakers, Missouri Right to Life threatened that anyone who supports a scaled-back version of the abortion legislation would be considered to have cast “an anti-life vote.” That’s a big threat, because the group’s endorsements can carry significant weight with some voters.
House Speaker Rod Jetton — one of the targets of the anti-abortion group’s gripes — said he intends to push forward with the slimmed-down abortion bill, calling Missouri Right to Life’s opposition both ironic and confusing.
“I’m probably as strong a pro-lifer as you’re ever going to get,” insisted Jetton, R-Marble Hill.
Blunt spokesman Spence Jackson said Missouri Right to Life’s tactics are starting to discredit the group’s leadership.
“They have been very heavy-handed and over the top, with both our office and the leadership of the House and Senate,” Jackson said. “I believe it does hurt their reputation with pro-life Missourians across the state.”
The division in the anti-abortion movement stems from legislation backed by Missouri Right to Life that sought to ban a certain type of early stem cell research, known as therapeutic cloning. Some in the anti-abortion movement believe it results in the destruction of human life, while others — including Blunt — contend it does not.
After an emotional debate that pitted self-described “pro-life” lawmakers against one another, the Senate set aside the bill in early April and has never returned to it. Jetton, who has expressed uncertainty about his own position on the issue, has refused to assign the House version of the legislation to a committee.
Now that division is affecting another priority of abortion opponents.
The Senate two weeks ago passed a multifaceted anti-abortion bill backed by Missouri Right to Life. It would allow lawsuits against people who help minors get out-of-state abortions to avoid Missouri’s parental consent law.
It also imposes various restrictions on abortion providers, creates a tax credit for donations to groups that promote alternatives to abortions and even creates an official “Respect Life” vehicle license plate.
Included in the bill is a subtle wording change to the state’s current policy of recognizing the right to life of “all humans, born and unborn.” The bill would change that to “all humans, whether in utero or not.”
The general counsel for the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City, which conducts stem cell research, has raised concerns about the new language.
When a House committee meets today to consider the Senate-passed bill, it is expected to remove the language, as well as all of the anti-abortion provisions besides the part about the parental consent law.
Blunt’s spokesman said the bill had stalled and had to be narrowed to ensure it could pass and withstand legal challenges.
But Missouri Right to Life is urging House members to defeat anything other than the bill originally passed by the Senate.
“Any gutting of the Senate bill at any stage is an anti-life vote,” Klein said.
That puts rank-and-file lawmakers in a quandary over whether to stand by their Republican majority leaders or the lobbyist leadership of the anti-abortion majority.
Sponsoring Sen. John Loudon, R-Ballwin, said he agreed to trim back the bill at the urging of legislative leaders and the governor’s office. Loudon admits he’s a bit frustrated but not yet discouraged.
“We had higher expectations than what we’ve been able to achieve,” he said. “But that’s far different than setbacks.”