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Missouri Attorney General: Anti-abortion activist?


Missouri Attorney General: Anti-abortion activist?

Mar 21, 2023 | 7:30 am ET
By Jamie Corley
Missouri Attorney General: Anti-abortion activist?
Does the attorney general have the jurisdiction to arrest and prosecute a woman for getting an abortion in Missouri? (Getty Images)

Will you use taxpayer money to prosecute a woman for getting an abortion?

That’s the question attorneys general candidates across the United States, and especially in Missouri, will have to answer in the lead up to 2024.

Missouri is a unique case study for the role a state’s top prosecutor can play in the abortion access battle.

Of the 10 states with attorneys general races on the ballot in 2024, Missouri is the only state with a near-total abortion ban without exceptions for rape or incest. It’s also a state where the current law has been highly scrutinized for its vagueness and ambiguity, most notably around whether women can be prosecuted directly, and for an unusual carveout giving the attorney general original, concurrent jurisdiction over abortion cases.

The Missouri state legislature in 2017 granted the attorney general supercharged special privileges in prosecuting criminal abortion violations.

It’s anything but a liability to be pro-life in the Show-Me-State. Just last year, voters overwhelmingly sent Eric Schmitt, the former attorney general whose signature ushered in the near-total ban on abortion, to the United States Senate.

But while a senator or governor or member of Congress can come into one’s bedroom proverbially, the attorney general, as the chief law enforcement officer in the state, can do so literally. He’s not a policymaker; he’s a prosecutor. He’s not charged with crafting legislation and reaching consensus; he’s charged with enforcing the laws, when and if he wants. He can investigate drug trafficking, coordinate sting operations and subpoena data from a cellphone app.

The old conservative adage that government stops at the front door does not apply here: An attorney general with probable cause can knock it down.

Abortion is now illegal in Missouri in wake of U.S. Supreme Court ruling

A point of contention in the Missouri law surrounds whether women can be held criminally liable for abortion care. The current statue is exceptionally muddled on this matter, making it all the more important for voters to know how potential candidates define their role.

Unlike in Texas, where it’s clear the law does not apply to a pregnant female on whom an abortion is performed, induced or attempted, Missouri law states pregnant women “shall not be prosecuted for a conspiracy to violate” the law. Women in Missouri are protected against conspiracy but not direct penalty.

The authors of this law were perhaps only concerned with surgical abortion, when of course a woman could not perform the procedure on herself and therefore conspiracy would be the only realistic charge. As one cannot logically conspire with one’s self, what then protects a woman who self-administers abortion medication?

When the college sophomore induces her own abortion in her dorm room on Missouri land, she is arguably engaging in an arrestable offense, punishable by years in prison. How will the attorney general respond when her roommate reports her to the authorities?

And think of the 12-year-old girl whose parents file a police report after a rape results in pregnancy. Can the attorney general ban them from traveling to Kansas or Illinois for abortion care? Voters deserve clarity.

When criminalization is an option, a state’s attorney general’s interpretation of the abortion law would have broad implications for all pregnant women, not just those seeking abortions.

If an attorney general believes a woman can be prosecuted, women may also be subject to investigation over miscarriage care or life of the mother exceptions. What happens when a woman seeks medical care for a miscarriage and a nosy religious receptionist decides to report her under suspicion of terminating her own pregnancy? The specter that police could show up at the bedside of a grieving mother is chilling.

Conservative candidates are in a tough spot. Clarify that you do not see the attorney general playing a role in prosecuting women for self-inducing abortion and you essentially gut Missouri’s abortion law, soften your own power and potentially alienate the powerful pro-life lobby. Take a hard-lined anti-abortion activist stance and you double down on a risky, extreme stance on reproductive rights.

We’re beyond conjecture and hypotheticals in the Show-Me-State.

Voters in Missouri deserve to know where all current and future candidates stand on this question: Does the attorney general have the jurisdiction to arrest and prosecute a woman for getting an abortion in Missouri, yay or nay?