Government & Politics

St. Louis judge quashes subpoenas of doctors in Planned Parenthood abortion case

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.

A circuit judge on Tuesday denied the state’s request to subpoena four physicians who have worked at Missouri’s sole abortion provider, a Planned Parenthood clinic in St. Louis.

The ruling is the latest turn in the clinic’s legal fight to retain its state-issued license to continue to provide abortions. Planned Parenthood sued last week after the state health department said the license would expire last Friday unless seven physicians who have worked at its clinic submitted to interviews.

Just hours before Friday’s expiration, St. Louis Circuit Judge Michael Stelzer issued a temporary restraining order, keeping the clinic’s doors open to patients.

The next day, attorneys for the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services entered a request to subpoena four of the physicians. The agency maintained that interviews with the doctors were part of an investigation into “grave” concerns found in a review of medical records during the clinic’s annual inspection.

Planned Parenthood said the department is “weaponizing” the regulatory process in an effort to shut down the clinic, exposing the physicians to criminal penalties. It said it cannot compel five of the doctors to submit to interviews because they are not employed by Planned Parenthood and are contracted through teaching hospitals or medical schools. The two doctors who are employees of Planned Parenthood were interviewed by the agency last week.

Stelzer quashed subpoenas, saying the physicians’ testimony was not relevant to the licensing case and placed an “undue hardship” on the doctors. He set a Wednesday hearing to consider a preliminary injunction blocking the state from closing the clinic.

His rulings came hours after a 30-minute hearing Tuesday morning, in which he heard the arguments for and against the subpoenas.

Stelzer began the hearing by saying he had been contacted by those who believed he was weighing in on the law signed by Gov. Mike Parson earlier last month, which would criminalize abortions after 8 weeks of pregnancy.

“The recent changes to the law in Missouri are not in front of this court,” Stelzer said.

The issue before the court was a licensing matter, he emphasized.

The doctors were not represented by Planned Parenthood and retained private attorneys.

One of the attorneys, Russell Makepeace, said the two physicians he represented were residents at Barnes Jewish Hospital who trained with Planned Parenthood for a total of 12 days over the course of four years. They didn’t have access to the medical records, he said.

Makepeace said it would be “obtuse” to consider the matter a typical licensing issue because physicians in Missouri who perform abortions can be charged with crimes.

“The stakes for these witnesses are significantly different,” Makepeace said.

Missouri Solicitor General John Sauer argued the need to interview the doctors was “self-evident,” in reviewing the instances of “egregious” care laid out in court documents. The documents are redacted to protect patient privacy.

In court documents, Sauer argued that during one of the instances mentioned, the resident physician was the only person present during the procedure and had unique insight into what occurred.

Following the ruling, Planned Parenthood is looking forward to fight another day in court.

“For the patients who need access to safe, legal abortion -- we are still here,” Dr. Colleen McNicholas, an abortion provider with Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region, said. “Planned Parenthood is also relieved that doctors in training will not have to come to court and face the unwarranted harassment we’ve long said is inappropriate.”

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