Republican Kehoe open to amending Missouri abortion ban to add exceptions if elected governor

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Missouri Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe is open to amending the state’s near-total abortion ban to include exceptions for rape and incest if elected governor in 2024.

“As governor and the father of three daughters, Kehoe would consider approving legislation brought forward by the General Assembly that contains exceptions for rape, incest, and life of the mother,” Derek Coats, the Republican’s campaign manager, said in an email to The Star this week.

Kehoe’s willingness to add exceptions to the law comes as House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, a Springfield Democrat, has embarked on a campaign for governor highlighting her strong opposition to the ban, which does not include exceptions for rape and incest.

The lieutenant governor’s stance also contrasts with Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, a Republican who jumped into the race in April.

Jason Cabel Roe, an Ashcroft campaign spokesperson, said this week that Ashcroft supports the abortion ban as it’s written. Asked to clarify whether he would support additional changes to the law allowing exceptions for rape and incest, Roe reiterated that Ashcroft “supports the existing law.”

Last week, Missouri Right to Life, the state’s leading anti-abortion group, endorsed Ashcroft over Kehoe. Dave Plemmons, chair of the group’s political action committee, said in his endorsement that Ashcroft has “strongly defended the Right to Life when called to do so.”

While both Republican campaigns said they support the current law, their differing takes on the ban may play a major role in the 2024 election, as abortion rights supporters rail against the ban’s lack of exceptions for rape and incest and the confusion and fear it has stoked among women and doctors. Along with the governor’s race, voters may also see a ballot measure that seeks to repeal the ban.

Kehoe, according to the statement from this campaign, “supports the current law as written and would be strongly against any ballot initiatives that change Missouri’s current abortion laws.” His campaign also touted his anti-abortion stances, saying that the Republican “will always protect the fundamental right to life.”

But the conflicting statements about the law’s lack of exceptions from two anti-abortion candidates illustrate differing views, even among Republicans, about the wording of Missouri’s strict ban.

On top of the lack of exceptions for rape and incest, abortion rights advocates worry that a single exception allowing abortions in medical emergencies is too vague and has caused medical providers to deny life-saving care.

While several states with abortion bans, such as Mississippi, have exceptions that allow abortions in certain circumstances, such as sexual assault, few of the qualifications actually work in practice, an investigation by The New York Times found earlier this year. Instead, the newspaper found, women are traveling to states where abortion is legal or obtaining abortion pills at home “because the requirements to qualify for exceptions are too steep.”

An August 2022 poll by Saint Louis University and British pollster YouGov found that that 75% of respondents agreed that a women should be able to get an abortion in cases of rape, while 14% disagreed. And 79% agreed that abortion should be legal in cases of incest while 11% disagreed.

The poll also found that 48% of those surveyed supported reversing the state’s abortion ban, while 40% would vote to continue the ban.

Abortion rights supporters are likely to attack both Ashcroft and Kehoe’s anti-abortion stances, painting them as out of step with the views of Missouri voters and medical providers. Quade’s campaign on Wednesday said the two Republicans’ “approaches are effectively one in the same. The Republicans in Jefferson City decided they know better than Missourians and their doctors.”

“They wanted no exceptions for rape or incest, and they have made it so even when the ‘life of the mother’ may be at risk, doctors are terrified of prosecution when they simply want to do their jobs,” the statement said. “Republicans need to get out of the way and let Missourians decide what they want for our state and stop playing political games with people’s lives.”

Mallory Schwarz, the executive director of Abortion Action Missouri, an abortion rights advocacy group, in an email late Thursday criticized Kehoe’s stance as an “anti- abortion political strategy to increase support for, and falsely signal compassion in, banning abortion.”

“Abortion should be legal, locally accessible, and stigma-free. No restriction on abortion access is just, compassionate, or acceptable,” she said, also pointing to the low number of people who typically are able to access care though exemptions.

State Sen. Bill Eigel, a Weldon Spring Republican who is also eyeing a run for governor, said in an email Thursday that he would not support any additional exceptions to the abortion ban. Eigel went on to attack Kehoe for his stance.

“Republicans defend life,” the email said. “Mike Kehoe has illustrated time and time again that he will join the Democrat Party in expanding the practice of abortion in Missouri.”

Meanwhile, Ashcroft, who is running a campaign that seeks to appeal to the staunch anti-abortion right wing of the Missouri Republican Party, will try to cast himself as a stronger abortion opponent than Kehoe.

In his role as secretary of state, Ashcroft has been accused of crafting a misleading ballot summary for a proposed initiative petition to restore abortion rights with the goal of encouraging Missourians to vote against the measure.

The proposed ballot summary would, in part, ask voters to “allow for dangerous, unregulated, and unrestricted abortions.”

Two videos posted on social media this week show Pam Fichter, the former president of Missouri Right to Life, informing anti-abortion activists on the anniversary of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade that Republicans were attempting to delay abortion rights supporters from collecting signatures for the ballot measure to restore abortion rights.

In the video, Fichter describes how Ashcroft was going to write incendiary language for the ballot measure and that the language would be held up in court. She said she did not want to see her comments on “the evening news. We don’t really want to tell the other side all of the strategies that we’re involved in.”

“We have a very pro-life secretary of state and he’s not going to write good language with it. He’s basically gonna say that what they’re trying to do is to overturn all the pro-life laws and put at risk mothers and children,” Fichter said in the video. “We hope to delay as long as possible their ability to gather signatures.”

This story was updated to include a comment from state Sen. Bill Eigel, who is exploring a run for governor.