Just six weeks remain before Missouri lawmakers adjourn for the year, and Planned Parenthood is squarely in the crosshairs of the Republican supermajority.
The Missouri Senate is considering holding a St. Louis Planned Parenthood official in contempt for refusing to provide documents to a committee investigating the organization.
And the Missouri House approved a $27 billion state budget that includes language aimed at blocking Planned Parenthood and any other clinic that counsels women to have abortions from receiving any money through Medicaid.
Missouri already has some of the strictest abortion laws in the nation, and currently a Planned Parenthood facility in St. Louis is the only clinic in the state offering the procedure.
But now lawmakers’ targeting of Planned Parenthood is steering into largely uncharted legal waters.
The Senate has never before tried to hold someone in contempt, a charge that could result in a $300 fine, 10 days in jail or both. And federal courts have blocked other attempts to defund Planned Parenthood.
In a session that was already nearly derailed over contentious social issues, debate over Planned Parenthood and access to abortion promises to inflame passions on both sides of the issue.
“This is all politics,” said Bonyen Lee-Gilmore, director of communications for Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri. “It’s about scoring political points during an election year, and it’s going to cut off thousands from critical health care. ”
Rep. Diane Franklin, a Camden County Republican, said the issue is abortion, not health care.
“Planned Parenthood’s specialty is abortion,” she said. “Everything else is used to attract women in and make it more palatable that they have a clinic in the center of town.”
The animus between Planned Parenthood and Missouri conservatives is nothing new. In 2003, lawmakers voted to cut all state funding for family planning services, a move seen as a way to cut off a funding stream for Planned Parenthood.
The conflict kicked into overdrive last summer when undercover videos emerged alleging Planned Parenthood officials were selling fetal tissue for profit.
Planned Parenthood vehemently denied the accusations, and Attorney General Chris Koster, a Democrat, said his office found no evidence of wrongdoing in Missouri.
Eleven other states conducted investigations that similarly found no wrongdoing, and in Texas a grand jury cleared Planned Parenthood and instead indicted two anti-abortion advocates involved in making the videos.
Committees in the Missouri House and Senate continued investigating the videos, however, and in November subpoenas were issued by the Senate for documents pertaining to the handling of fetal tissue.
Planned Parenthood says the Senate issued a broad subpoena without specifying how the requested documents relate to a legitimate legislative inquiry. The organization says the requested documents would violate patient confidentiality laws, and therefore they refused to provide the documents.
That led Sen. Kurt Schaefer, a Columbia Republican leading the investigation, to file a pair of resolutions Wednesday demanding that the president of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri and the owner of a pathology lab that reviews tissue from Planned Parenthood appear before the Senate at 10 a.m. April 18 to explain why they have not complied with the subpoena.
Schaefer, who is running in the Republican primary for Missouri attorney general, said the resolution was the first step toward potentially holding the pair in contempt of the Missouri Senate.
“There are consequences for ignoring a subpoena from the Missouri Senate,” Schaefer said, noting that the state constitution gives the chamber the authority to issue subpoenas and to punish someone for contempt.
Mary Kogut, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, said her organization has offered to discuss the document request but Schaefer hasn’t responded to their offer.
“It is deeply, deeply concerning that in 2016 we are talking about jailing women’s health care providers for protecting their patients’ privacy,” Kogut said. “These baseless threats to our health care professionals and providers are disturbing.”
Federal law prohibits any Medicaid funding for abortion unless the woman’s life is in danger or the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.
Last year, Planned Parenthood’s 14 clinics around the state received nearly $380,000 in state and federal Medicaid funds to pay for services such as pregnancy tests, treatment for sexually transmitted diseases and other health services.
But Republican lawmakers in the House questioned whether any taxpayer money should go to the organization, amending the state’s budget to block low-income patients from using Medicaid for any health care service provided by Planned Parenthood.
They shifted the state’s portion of the funding, roughly $55,000, to K-12 education.
Schaefer, who also is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said last month that he agrees with the idea of defunding Planned Parenthood and that his committee will look at all possible methods for doing so. His committee will take up the notion next week.
“I think that what (the House) did is appropriate,” he said. “The question is, is the way they did it the best way to do it? That’s something that we’re going to look at.”
Over the past year, more than a dozen states have sought to halt or reduce public funding for Planned Parenthood. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback announced in January that Planned Parenthood would be barred from receiving Medicaid reimbursements, but two months later The Associated Press reported change had not transpired.
Federal courts have blocked attempts to cut off Medicaid funding for the organization in Arkansas, Louisiana, Utah, Arizona and Indiana. And the federal government has warned states that these efforts may be illegal because federal law entitles Medicaid beneficiaries to receive care from any qualified provider they choose.
Republican argue that health care needs such as cancer screenings or treatment for sexually transmitted diseases now being provided by Planned Parenthood can instead be met by other providers who are less controversial.
Gilmore-Lee said that’s simply not the case.
“Other health care providers cannot readily absorb the volume of low-income patients that Planned Parenthood serves,” she said. “Many of our patients would be left without care.”