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Missouri Supreme Court deals a blow to secretary of state's ballot language on abortion

The Missouri Supreme Court has turned away an appeal about how to word a ballot question on access to abortion in the state.

Missouri lawmakers have already banned abortion except in cases of medical emergency, but proponents of broader access to the procedure are seeking to put a question about it directly before voters next year. In all seven states where abortion has been on the ballot since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade last year, voters have either supported protecting abortion rights or rejected attempts to erode them.

In Missouri, officials and advocates on both sides are grappling with how to word the question that could go on the ballot. Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft has proposed asking voters whether they are in favor of allowing “dangerous and unregulated abortions until live birth.”

A state appeals court in October said the wording was politically partisan. Ashcroft appealed the decision, but on Monday the Missouri Supreme Court declined to hear his argument.

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Summaries are used on Missouri ballots to help voters understand sometimes lengthy and complex constitutional amendments and other ballot proposals. Ashcroft, who is running for governor in 2024, said his wording “fairly and accurately reflects the scope and magnitude" of each of the six proposed abortion rights ballot measures.

“My responsibility as secretary of state is to make sure the people of Missouri have ballot language that they can understand and trust," Ashcroft said in a news release. "If these petitions make it to the ballot, the people will decide. I will continue to do everything in my power to make sure Missourians know the truth.”

A statement from the ACLU of Missouri said the “repeated rejection of the Secretary of State’s arguments verify that his case has no legal bearing."

Ashcroft is the son of John Ashcroft, a former governor, U.S. senator and U.S. attorney general under President George W. Bush. Jay Ashcroft is among four Republicans who have announced their candidacies for governor next year.

Ashcroft’s original description of the proposed abortion amendments, which could go on the ballot in 2024 if supporters gather enough voter signatures, would have asked voters whether they want to “allow for dangerous, unregulated, and unrestricted abortions, from conception to live birth, without requiring a medical license or potentially being subject to medical malpractice.”

In October, an appeals court panel wrote that allowing unrestricted abortion “during all nine months of pregnancy is not a probable effect of initiatives.” The panel largely upheld summaries that were written by a lower court judge to be more impartial.

Those summaries would tell voters the amendments would “establish a right to make decisions about reproductive health care, including abortion and contraceptives” and “remove Missouri’s ban on abortion.”

Missouri's current law makes most abortion a felony punishable by five to 15 years in prison for anyone who performs or induces one. Medical professionals who do so also could lose their licenses. The law prohibits women who undergo abortions from being prosecuted.

Earlier this month, Ohio voters approved a constitutional amendment that ensures access to abortion and other forms of reproductive health care.

Measures to protect abortion access will be on 2024 ballots in Maryland and New York. Legislative efforts or petition drives are underway in a variety of other states. There are efforts to protect or expand access in Arizona, Florida, Nevada and South Dakota; and to restrict it in Iowa, Nebraska and Pennsylvania. Drives are on for both kinds of measures in Colorado.