(Reuters) - A move to authorize a referendum over Missouri's recently enacted ban on abortions after the eighth week of pregnancy hit a roadblock on Thursday when the secretary of state rejected petitions filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri and others to get the issue to the ballot.
The rejection of the petitions by Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft was immediately challenged by abortion rights advocates, who sued Ashcroft on Thursday for "trying to deprive Missourians of their right to weigh in on the abortion question with a vote," said Tony Rothert, executive director of the ACLU.
Missouri's constitution gives citizens the right to veto a newly enacted laws by referendum.
The ACLU filed its lawsuit against Ashcroft in Cole County Circuit Court in Jefferson City, the state capital.
In announcing his decision, Ashcroft said, "there are certain limits to the people's right to a referendum."
On May 17, the legislature passed the so-called "Heartbeat Bill." Governor Mike Parson, a Republican, then signed the bill into law, making Missouri one of eight states that have passed anti-abortion legislation this year.
Anti-abortion activists say the restrictive abortion laws are designed to be challenged in court. Eventually, they say, the newly installed conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court could use one of the laws to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that established a woman's right to terminate her pregnancy.
"This cowardly move by the Secretary of State proves that Missouri's anti-abortion zealots understand that they're acting against the wishes of the majority," Rothert said in a statement. "They hope to short-circuit the people's vote because they know they will lose if the people get their say."
Ashcroft's announcement came as the state awaits a ruling on whether Missouri will become the first U.S. state with no abortion clinics.
A legal fight is underway over Missouri's refusal to renew the license of Reproductive Health Services of Planned Parenthood in St. Louis, the only clinic in the state that performs abortions.
The license was to expire on Friday, but a judge issued a temporary order to freeze it until he rules.
(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg in New York; Editing by Frank McGurty and Dan Grebler)