Where The Real Action Is...

For all the debate in Washington, the battle over abortion is actually in the states, which are imposing more limits than ever. MISSOURI is a case study

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PRO-ROE: Advocates in St. Louis mark the 33rd anniversary of the decision

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Missouri's new restriction concerning minors is already having an impact. Missouri has become the first state to extend its parental-notification law beyond its state line, a move aimed across the Mississippi River at the Hope Clinic, a low-slung building that sits amid a vast industrial park in Granite City, Ill. A recent morning found a security guard posted out front and a waiting room filled with anxious-looking young women, along with a few boyfriends, husbands and children. Because Illinois has no parental-notification law, Hope Clinic had been the easiest option for Missouri teens seeking to get an abortion without telling their parents. But the new Missouri law that makes it possible to sue anyone who provides an abortion to a Missouri resident under age 18 without written consent of a parent has Hope demanding proof of age of all prospective patients.

Hope counselor Zoila Rendon-Ochoa recently received a call from a St. Louis woman who spoke only Spanish and identified herself as an illegal Mexican immigrant working as a dishwasher in a restaurant kitchen. In her ninth week of pregnancy, she had left Mexico with no birth certificate; she had no driver's license or other identification. "I can't have this baby," she pleaded. Recalls Rendon-Ochoa: "Before the law, we could have given her an abortion. She kept saying to me, 'You can trust me. I'm 24,' but we couldn't prove it. She asked me, 'Where do I go now?' I couldn't tell her. I would guess that she carried the baby to term."

In another case at Hope, a 17-year-old high school student from St. Louis appeared with her boyfriend. She said she did not know where her mother or father was. She was told to get a judge's order that would allow the abortion without parental consent. Another 17-year-old who was turned away said she would return after her birthday in several weeks, thus increasing the risk and expense of the procedure.

Some abortion-rights foes say that if they want to win the political battle in the long run, they will have to prove that there are alternatives to abortion and that they can work. In 1997, for instance, Missouri passed a tax credit for donations to maternity homes. These activists also acknowledge that they bear a special burden to help women trying to raise babies they can't afford. Larry Weber, executive director of the Missouri Catholic Conference, notes that the year after abortion-rights opponents helped rally support in 1993 to make more people eligible for Medicaid, the abortion rate dropped sharply.

It's impossible to say precisely what caused the drop, and the rate was up again slightly two years later. Meanwhile, those on the other side say that reducing the number of abortions is not the only measure of success. "You have to look at the long-term social effects," says Pamela Sumners, Missouri executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice, the abortion-rights advocacy group. "There's a greater likelihood that teenage mothers in particular and their children will wind up on public assistance, drop out of high school, end up in low-wage jobs--all things that are not good for society."

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