Government & Politics

Planned Parenthood in St. Louis granted stay to offer abortions during licensing case

Protesters stand in front of the Planned Parenthood clinic in St. Louis in May.
Protesters stand in front of the Planned Parenthood clinic in St. Louis in May.

An administrative hearing commissioner granted the Planned Parenthood clinic in St. Louis a stay Friday, allowing it to continue to provide abortions while it appeals the state’s decision not to renew its license.

The order by Commissioner Sreenivasa Rao Dandamudi was issued hours before the scheduled expiration of a court order that kept the clinic doors open to abortion patients.

“We are relieved to have this last-minute reprieve, which means patients can continue accessing safe, legal abortion at Planned Parenthood in St. Louis for the time being,” Dr. Colleen McNicholas, a physician with the clinic, said in a statement. “This has been a week-to-week fight for our patients and every Missourian who needs access to abortion care.”

The clinic is the last provider of abortions in the state.

After suing in St. Louis City Circuit Court, Planned Parenthood was told by a judge to appeal the rejection of its license renewal application to the Administrative Hearing commission (AHC), a tribunal in which individual commissioners resolve disputes between state agencies and individuals or businesses. St. Louis Circuit Court Judge Michael Stelzer gave Planned Parenthood until Friday at 5 p.m. to appeal.

On Monday, Planned Parenthood filed its appeal with the AHC, which and has a hearing set for Aug. 1. Dandamudi, appointed by former Gov. Jay Nixon in 2010, was assigned the case.

In an order issued Friday, Dandamudi asserted that there was a likelihood of Planned Parenthood succeeding on its claim and would face irreparable harm if its license were to be discontinued during adjudication of the case.

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) says the basis of its decision to deny the application for license renewal is its inability to interview five physicians who provided treatment at the clinic, according to Dandamudi.

Two of the seven physicians DHSS requested to interview have spoken to the agency. The clinic said it cannot force the other five to submit because they are not employees of the clinic, but are contracted through teaching hospitals and medical schools.

The physicians were involved with the treatment of four patients who had failed abortions, according to medical records DHSS reviewed in its March inspection of the clinic. It opened an investigation in April.

Planned Parenthood filed a document with the AHC Friday that provided context for the failed abortions. It noted that of about 2,500 abortions it provided last year, five of them failed.

Dandamudi wrote that the absence of those interviews in DHSS’s investigation “does not constitute a failure to comply with licensure requirements.”

“At this point, we find DHSS’ position unpersuasive,” Dandamudi wrote in his order. “Our review of applicable statutes and rules finds no provision that affirmatively provides an obligation for DHSS to make, or RHS to procure, such interviews.”

Planned Parenthood was quick to call the stay a victory in the ongoing battle for access to abortion in the state, a fight it maintained was politically driven. It planned to celebrate by unfurling a banner Friday afternoon on the Eads Bridge in St. Louis that sends “a bold message” to Republican Gov. Mike Parson and the state’s health director.

“There are two things that remain unchanged in Missouri: the uncertainty our patients face, and our will to continue fighting for their right to access safe, legal abortion,” McNicholas said in the statement.

Decisions made by administrative hearing commissioners are subject to judicial review. DHSS declined to comment.

This story was updated.