JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Abortion-rights advocates beginning Wednesday can start collecting signatures to get a public vote on a new law restricting abortions, but they say a short deadline leaves them with an "impossible task."
Republican Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft on Wednesday certified a petition to put the law on the 2020 ballot.
That gives opponents of the law two weeks to gather the roughly 100,000 signatures needed to put it to a public vote. Most of the law, which bans abortions at and after eight weeks of pregnancy, takes effect Aug. 28.
Robin Utz, treasurer of the No Bans On Choice political committee, in a statement said Ashcroft didn't act quickly enough to certify the petition and consequently "ran out the clock and blocked the people's right to a citizen veto."
"He dragged his feet for 78 days before providing this ballot language, leaving Missourians with the impossible task of collecting 100,000 signatures in 14 days," Utz said. "He has effectively prevented voters from defeating the extreme eight-week abortion ban at the ballot box."
An Associated Press request for comment to Ashcroft's office was not immediately returned Wednesday.
Republican Gov. Mike Parson on May 24 signed the eight-week abortion ban, which includes exceptions for medical emergencies but not for rape or incest. Doctors who violate the eight-week cutoff could face five to 15 years in prison. Women who terminate their pregnancies cannot be prosecuted.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri filed a petition within days to put the law to a public vote in hopes of overturning it. The group has faced considerable challenges in doing so.
Ashcroft on May 6 announced he rejected the ACLU's petition, along with a similar petition backed by wealthy Republican donor David Humphreys, another critic of the law.
Ashcroft cited a provision in the Missouri Constitution that prohibits referendums on legislation that has already taken effect. Although most of the law is set to take effect Aug. 28, the Republican-led Legislature voted to make a section of the bill that changed parental consent laws for minors seeking abortions take effect immediately.
The ACLU sued against Ashcroft's decision, and ultimately won. A three-judge panel of the state's Court of Appeals on July 8 found that Ashcroft was "without authority" to reject petitions on constitutional grounds.
Despite that victory, the court battle cost valuable time for abortion-rights advocates to collect signatures. After the appellate court decision, they still needed to wait for Ashcroft's office to certify the petition.
If they fail to get the law on the ballot, Utz alluded to other options to block it, which include proposing a constitutional or statutory change after the law takes effect or fighting it in court.
"The referendum is one tool to protect the rights of the people," Utz said. "There are others, and we will evaluate the best route forward to ensure Missouri residents retain control over their bodies, their decisions, and their democracy."
Meanwhile, a federal judge on Tuesday struck down a Planned Parenthood lawsuit against another Missouri abortion regulation requiring clinics that provide abortions to have physicians with admitting privileges at a nearby hospital.
U.S. District Judge Brian Wimes dismissed the lawsuit after being asked to set it aside while the U.S. Supreme Court weighs a similar Louisiana lawsuit, the Columbia Daily Tribune reported. The lawsuit can be refiled at any time.