Missouri Gov. Mike Parson has found himself in a strange and uncomfortable position for a politician with his record on abortion: on the wrong side of anti-abortion activists.
Only two years ago, he signed a ban on ending pregnancies after 8 weeks, one of the nation’s most restrictive abortion laws, which remains blocked by a federal court. He was endorsed last year by Missouri Right to Life, a leading anti-abortion group.
But the staunchly anti-abortion Republican is now pleading with lawmakers to break ranks with Right to Life over the renewal of a hospital tax that provides $4 billion a year for Missouri’s Medicaid program.
On the radio Friday, the former senator sounded stunned and surprised at his predicament.
“There’s just so many things going on right now with this, it’s just kind of unbelievable it’s happening,” Parson told 97.1 FM in St. Louis.
Abortion has plummeted during Parson’s time in state government. His first year in the House, 2005, Missouri recorded nearly 8,000 abortions. By 2019, the number had dropped to fewer than 1,500. The decline occurred as lawmakers, including Parson, tightened restrictions and the number of abortion providers dwindled.
Yet despite his achievements and past experience in the Senate, where he served for six years, Parson is now at risk of being outmaneuvered by anti-abortion activists and the chamber’s most conservative senators.
Right to Life and a group of hard-right senators are demanding the hospital tax extension be paired with a ban on Planned Parenthood, which operates Missouri’s sole abortion clinic, receiving any Medicaid dollars. Federal law already prohibits Medicaid from paying for abortions, though Planned Parenthood also provides cancer screenings, sexually-transmitted infection screenings and other services.
Parson called the General Assembly into a special session this week to renew the tax, known as the Federal Reimbursement Allowance or FRA, and promised steep budget cuts on July 1 if lawmakers fail. The governor and some GOP senators have negotiated an agreement that restricts Medicaid coverage of birth control and blocks Planned Parenthood from receiving any reimbursements through the Uninsured Women’s Health Program (UWHP), a state-funded initiative administered by Medicaid.
Anti-abortion critics of the deal say it doesn’t go far enough because Planned Parenthood already doesn’t receive reimbursements from the UWHP. Missouri Right to Life’s executive director, Susan Klein, told senators during a Thursday hearing that their votes would be part of their legislative scorecards.
“Susan Klein was up there yesterday telling legislators we’re going to rate your votes if you don’t vote on this in a committee hearing. I’ve just never seen anything like this,” Parson said in the radio interview. “We’re leading the nation in fighting abortion and it’s like we’re almost looking for a problem to create.”
Klein and other opponents of the GOP compromise, including Lake St. Louis Republican Sen. Bob Onder, contend the danger is real and must be dealt with now. They fear Medicaid could potentially cover abortions if the Hyde Amendment, the federal prohibition on spending tax dollars for abortion, expires. President Joe Biden didn’t include the provision in his budget proposal, although Congress has approved it continuously for decades.
During debate on Friday, Onder proposed an amendment with the more expansive Planned Parenthood language favored by anti-abortion activists. Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, an Independence Democrat, raised a parliamentary objection, arguing the amendment falls outside the scope of Parson’s special session call.
The Senate soon recessed without a decision on the objection, as senators huddled in private. As of Friday evening, the fate of Onder’s amendment and the bill remained uncertain. Any legislation passed by the Senate will also have to be passed by the House before going to Parson for his signature.
Klein said she appreciates Parson including “pro-life protections” in his special session call. Still, “I don’t think we’re there yet,” she said of the compromise between Parson and Republicans.
“Missouri Right to Life has concerns about the language,” Klein said.
Onder, a one-time Senate colleague, was scorching in his criticism of the governor.
In an interview with KCUR on Wednesday, he said Parson was “doing exactly what a pro-abortion Democrat would want to do, which is keep the money flowing to Planned Parenthood.” He has since softened his comments, suggesting the governor is being misled by his administration.
“Unfortunately, the governor’s getting some bad advice from the Jefferson City swamp,” Onder told 97.1 on Friday.
The questioning of Parson’s anti-abortion credentials has infuriated his allies. Sen. Mike Cierpiot, a Lee’s Summit Republican, defended his record and said the “purity test we keep having is just off the charts.”
“If we keep subdividing, eventually we will lose it all,” Cierpiot said.
Parson said in the radio interview that he’s been “pro-life all my life.” He said he believes just as much in protecting unborn children as newborn children, a possible reference to Medicaid’s coverage of some infants.
“But this is just kind of a bizarre situation that’s going on so hopefully level heads are going to come about and try to deal with this issue,” Parson said.
Onder has accused Parson of taking a “bullying tone” with senators in recent weeks. In public, the governor has taken a hardline stance during the FRA debate.
While the tax doesn’t expire until Sept. 30, Parson has promised sharp budget cuts on July 1 if it isn’t renewed, fueling an atmosphere of urgency in the Capitol. He had also indicated he wouldn’t call a special session without a compromise on the tax’s renewal.
Parson at first glance would appear well-situated to navigate the current crisis. A senator from 2011 until January 2017, he is familiar with the complex politics of the Senate.
But through term limits and elections, just five of Parson’s one-time Senate colleagues, including Onder, remain in office.
Onder said he reached out repeatedly to the governor’s office in the final two weeks of the regular session in an effort to head off the need for a special session. He said he spoke with members of the governor’s staff but not Parson himself.
Parson on Friday confirmed the two hadn’t spoken, though he appeared under the impression the senator was claiming to have met with the governor.
“Sen. Onder, I’ve been a colleague of his,” Parson said. “He’s telling the media we’ve been having conversations at the last two weeks of the session about this issue. It literally never happened.”