TPM Cafe: Opinion

Why Gov. Jay Nixon’s Anti-Abortion Bill Veto Matters

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AP Photo / Julie Smith

Nixon has been one of the weaker governors when it comes to the battle over a person’s bodily autonomy. He seldom goes as far as to actually cosign onto the agenda of the anti-abortion majority in the legislature, but he has a habit of pocket vetoing bills – allowing them to still go onto the books without signing them, which provided him with cover to claim he did not actually support them. These moves were a source of growing frustration for many who wanted a firmer stance on keeping birth control and abortion accessible in Missouri.

Vetoing the 72-hour ban, however, is an announcement that moderate politicians no longer see opposing an extremist anti-abortion and birth control agenda as politically damaging. For Missouri, a politically purple state with a predominately red state legislature, it’s a message that was learned in 2012 when Republican senate candidate Todd Akin lost what was considered to be an easy win over sitting Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill. Akin’s astounding loss came at the hands of voters who recognized his agenda to outlaw abortion under absolutely all circumstances, and that he would be likely to extend that ban to hormonal birth control as well.

Nixon won’t be running for governor again, and his current term isn’t be ending until 2016 (that is, so long as House Republican efforts to impeach him really are just a publicity stunt). What he will be doing, however, according to many, is hoping for a vice presidential nod. To make that happen he has to show he can appeal not just to the vast majority of voters in Missouri, but to the majority across the country, as well.

It’s with this agenda in mind that both his decision to officially oppose the abortion restriction – as well as his deliberately scathing veto message – signal clearly that defending the right to an abortion is no longer considered a politically liability on the path to a higher office.

Nixon first states, “I cannot condone the absence of an exception for rape and incest,” which he calls “an omission” that is “wholly insensitive to women,” as part of his decision to veto the bill, repeatedly referring to it as “paternalistic” to mandate victims of sexual assault must continue to think about their abortion as if they had no idea what ending a pregnancy really entailed.

But his issue with the bill isn’t just its lack of exceptions. “Lengthening the [waiting period] mandate to ‘at least’ 72 hours serves no demonstrable purpose other than to create emotional and financial hardships for women…” Nixon continued. “[E]xpanding the mandatory waiting period presupposes that women are unable to make up their own minds without further government intervention. This is insulting to women, particularly in light of what the law already requires.”

This is a clear shift for Nixon, who allowed a number of restrictions to become law in the state of Missouri during his first six years in office, all without his official signature. Changes in access to medication abortion, a ban on later in gestation abortions, and mandatory ultrasounds all became law with the governor’s silent refusal to sign or veto the bills. In fact, the only reproductive rights based legislation Nixon did veto before the 72-hour wait period was a bill that allowed employers to drop an employee’s birth control coverage from their company insurance plans for moral reasons, a bill echoed in the current Hobby Lobby situation, and that veto was overridden by the legislature.

Nixon could potentially have vetoed a 72-hour wait just on the grounds of its lack of exceptions for those who became pregnant after sexual assault, and still would have had not only the grateful thanks of pro-choice supporters, but also the understanding even of a vast majority of those who consider themselves pro-life but believe that abortion restrictions should not apply when the pregnant person did not have sex of her own free will. The fact that the governor decided to oppose it on the grounds that all women, not just those who didn’t consent to sex, should be trusted with their abortion decisions, and not second-guessed, is a rare departure for a governor of a more conservative Midwestern state. Especially from one who rarely pushes for or endorses pro-abortion rights policies within his own agenda.

In essence, what Governor Nixon said is that we should trust women, and it has been a long time since we have heard that from any of the governors of the purple states.

Now that Nixon has taken a firm stance on the 72-hour wait, it is the legislature’s turn to decide how invested it is in eroding access to abortion. With only one clinic in the state, a Planned Parenthood located in St. Louis, and with a clinic just across the river in Illinois where there is no waiting period prior to the procedure, overriding the veto and forcing the three-day wait into law over the governor’s objections could be a tempting option for lawmakers. Enforcing the law could potentially cause last clinic to shutter if patients sought quicker terminations elsewhere, leaving the state the first in the nation to be officially abortion-free. On the other hand, after the statement Nixon released, an override is little more than an admission that each lawmaker voting for the mandatory wait is “paternalistic” and also “insulting women.”

With election day just months away, that’s a statement a number of Missouri legislators may not want to highlight at the moment.

While Nixon’s veto is a great victory for Missouri, it’s also a reminder going into the midterms that reproductive rights and access to abortion and birth control should no longer be viewed as political liabilities or topics even to avoid, but issues to champion. With the recent Supreme Court rulings on contraception, birth control access has somehow gone from a settled issue to a politically volatile one, despite the fact that the vast majority of voters support contraception. Abortion rights, too, have become something that politicians can once more support, now that four years of extreme, no-exceptions abortion restrictions have pushed the laws so far to the right that in some states abortion is legal but almost inaccessible.

Nixon’s veto is groundbreaking not just because he finally said he would simply stand back and allow another restriction to go into effect, but instead would unequivocally oppose a bill that had no rationale but to hinder and harm pregnant people for seeking terminations. It is also groundbreaking because he openly and succinctly defined the anti-abortion agenda for what it really is: paternalistic, malicious, harmful and insulting to women. It signals that now, finally, moderate lawmakers can oppose abortion restrictions for the sole reason that they are sexist, gendered attacks, and that there is no political capital to be lost by simply saying, “I trust women.”

Robin Marty is a freelance writer, speaker and activist, and the author of Crow After Roe: How Women's Health Is the New Separate But Equal and How to Change That. Robin's articles have appeared at Rolling Stone, Bitch Magazine, Ms. Magazine, In These Times, Truth Out, AlterNet, RH Reality Check and other publications.