Missouri abortion clinics will face new mandates to offer women ultrasound images and heartbeats of their fetuses as a result of legislation allowed to become law Wednesday by Gov. Jay Nixon.
The Democratic governor, facing his first decision on an abortion bill, sidestepped a direct endorsement of the new requirements by citing a Missouri constitutional provision allowing bills to become law without the governor's signature.
The legislation is part of a national trend among abortion opponents to encourage women to reconsider their decisions through the use of modern medical technology.
A Planned Parenthood official said legal challenges to other states' laws offering ultrasounds generally have been unsuccessful, and its Missouri clinics are preparing to comply with the law when it takes effect Aug. 28.
But "there are various aspects of this law that are troubling, difficult and are really just intended to make it harder for women to get safe legal abortions," said Paula Gianino, president and chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region.
Missouri law already requires a woman to be told of the physical and psychological risks at least 24 hours before undergoing an abortion. The new law will require consultation in person instead of over the phone and mandate that women receive a description of the "anatomical and physiological characteristics of the unborn child."
It also requires abortion providers to offer women the chance to view an ultrasound and listen to the heartbeat of the fetus. And they will have to supply a state-produced brochure proclaiming: "The life of each human being begins at conception. Abortion will terminate the life of a separate, unique, living human being."
"We're hoping with that type of information, coupled with a 24-hour waiting period, that fewer women will have abortions in Missouri," said Sam Lee of Campaign Life Missouri.
About 7,400 abortions were performed in Missouri in 2008 at nine clinics or hospitals, according to the latest annual figures available from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. That's up slightly from the previous year but barely one-third of the number performed about 25 years ago. Those figures don't include Missourians who get abortions at clinics in neighboring states.
Gianino said one of every five patients at the St. Louis Planned Parenthood clinic travels more than 100 miles. Requiring an in-person consultation could force women to stay overnight at a hotel and take more time off work or school, she said. The organization's clinics already offer ultrasounds, but not always 24 hours in advance of abortions.
Nixon spokesman Scott Holste declined to say whether the governor personally supports or opposes the abortion bill.
"Gov. Nixon believes that that given the legislative deliberations ... the appropriate action is to allow the bill to go into effect," Holste said.
Nineteen states already require women to receive either an ultrasound or information about how they can get one before abortions are performed, according to Americans United for Life.
The NARAL Pro-Choice America Foundation rates Missouri's existing laws as the fourth most restrictive on "women's reproductive rights," behind only Louisiana, North Dakota and Mississippi. But the new Missouri law doesn't go as far as those in some states.
Oklahoma this year enacted seven bills restricting abortion, including one requiring women to have an ultrasound before an abortion and listen to a doctor describe the image to her. That law is being challenged in court.
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed a bill that would have required women seeking a first-trimester abortion to pay for an ultrasound exam and, with few exceptions, compelled women to view the image or have the doctor describe it to them.
The Missouri legislation also responds to the new federal health care law by expanding the state's insurance restrictions on abortion. Missouri is one of five states that prohibit abortion coverage in basic policies, instead requiring the payment of an additional premium. The other states are Idaho, Kentucky, North Dakota and Oklahoma.
Federal law allows people to buy health insurance through new state-based purchasing pools called exchanges. The new Missouri law will ban any health insurance exchange from offering policies covering elective abortions -- even if women are willing to pay an extra premium for the coverage.
Abortion bill is SB793.