Government & Politics

Planned Parenthood asks St. Louis judge to keep Missouri’s only abortion clinic open

Planned Parenthood advocates march in St. Louis, last abortion clinic in Missouri could close

Protesters opposed to Missouri's restrictive abortion law gathered at the St. Louis arch Thursday, May 30, 2019. Anti-abortion protesters maintain presence at the clinic.
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Protesters opposed to Missouri's restrictive abortion law gathered at the St. Louis arch Thursday, May 30, 2019. Anti-abortion protesters maintain presence at the clinic.

The future of Missouri’s only abortion clinic was in the hands of a St. Louis Circuit judge Thursday after attorneys for Planned Parenthood asked for a temporary restraining order to prevent its state license from expiring at midnight Friday.

Judge Michael Stelzer took the case under advisement after a one-hour morning hearing. If the state does not renew the clinic’s license, or Stelzer does not grant the restraining order before the Friday deadline, Missouri will become the first state in the country without an abortion provider since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973.

Stelzer gave no indication of when he might rule, although he called Planned Parenthood’s Friday deadline a “looming day.”

“I think my ability to intervene is limited before a decision has been made,” Stelzer said, referring to the license’s expiration.

The hearing is the latest turn in a dispute between state regulators and Planned Parenthood over the findings of a March inspection by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS), which licenses the facility. It also comes against the backdrop of a near-total ban on abortions passed by the Missouri General Assembly and signed last week by Gov. Mike Parson. The law goes into effect Aug. 28.

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson pushed back Wednesday against Planned Parenthood’s attempt to seek a court order blocking the state from pulling the license of the abortion provider’s St. Louis clinic, due to expire Friday. (Technical difficulties)

Parson said earlier this week that the dispute with the clinic was about patient safety and not politics surrounding the new law.

At issue is the department’s demand to interview seven physicians who have treated patients at the clinic in the last year. State officials say they will not consider a renewal of the license until the interviews take place.

Planned Parenthood officials said they were initially told that the investigation was the result of “a patient complaint,” but were given no other details. Court documents filed by the DHSS attorneys Wednesday said the state began investigation after a review of clinic medical records.

Planned Parenthood said that only two of the seven physicians in question are actually employees. They were interviewed by regulators this week.

The other five, who work for a teaching hospital or a medical school, are under contract to Planned Parenthood and can’t be compelled to speak with the state, according to an attorney for the organization. Of those five, two are medical residents who have since finished their rotations and are no longer working at the clinic.

At the hearing, Missouri Solicitor General John Sauer conceded that there was “little” Planned Parenthood could do about the two physicians who were residents. However, he said that in normal circumstances, a facility applying for a license would pressure the other three doctors to comply with the investigation by threatening termination of their contracts.

He noted that Planned Parenthood was telling the court it did not employ the doctors, while also letting those doctors continue to provide patient care at the clinic. The argument would not fly at a colonoscopy center or LASIK facility being investigated by DHSS, he said.

“They are trying to have their cake and eat it, too,” Sauer said.

When Stelzer asked Sauer how firing the physicians would resolve the department’s request for interviews, he said it would lead to closure of the investigation.

Jamie Boyer, Planned Parenthood’s lead attorney, said that if DHSS was truly concerned about patient safety, it could have pulled the clinic’s license immediately.

She said Planned Parenthood could not “in good faith” ask the physicians to comply with the investigation because of the department’s changing interpretations of regulations, which could open the physicians up to criminal penalties. Doctors who provide abortions in Missouri are different from any other medical provider, Boyer argued, because they can be charged with crimes.

Boyer said the clinic has “bent over backward” to comply with all of the department’s other requests, issuing revised plans in response to shifting state demands. She likened the situation to Lucy, from the comic strip “Peanuts,” holding a football for Charlie Brown to kick.

“Every time, Lucy pulls that ball from under him and puts him flat on his back,” Boyer said.

Planned Parenthood submitted a new corrective plan on Tuesday, in which it said it would comply with two regulations approved by lawmakers in 2017. One requires that the doctor who counsels a patient to ensure informed consent also participate in the procedure. The other requires that doctors administer two pelvic exams, one 72 hour hours prior to the abortion and the other on the day of the procedure.

That plan will most likely will be approved by the department, Sauer told Stelzer.

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Crystal Thomas covers Missouri politics for The Kansas City Star. An Illinois native and a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism, she has experience covering state and local government.