Government & Politics

Hearing on Missouri Planned Parenthood’s abortion license pushed back to late October

The legal fight over a new state license for Missouri’s sole provider of abortions is likely to continue deep into the fall.

Attorneys for Planned Parenthood of St. Louis and the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) asked a state administrative hearing commissioner Tuesday to postpone a scheduled Aug. 1 hearing on the state’s decision to deny a new license to the clinic. Attorneys said they would not have enough time to prepare.

The commissioner, Sreenivasa Rao Dandamudi, re-set the hearing for Oct. 28. The clinic will be able to offer abortion services while the case is pending because of a stay ordered by Dandamudi last week.

The new hearing date is the latest turn in what is shaping up as a long and winding legal dispute.

Planned Parenthood sued DHSS in St. Louis City Circuit Court in May, just days before the agency allowed its license to expire without making a decision on renewal. Judge Michael Stelzer said the case should be taken to the Administrative Hearing Commission (AHC) which hears disputes between state agencies and individuals or businesses. He ordered DHSS to formally approve or deny the license, allowing the clinic to appeal to AHC.

The agency denied Planned Parenthood the new license June 21. Stelzer dismissed Planned Parenthood’s claims and the organization filed its appeal at the AHC last week.

AHC hearings work similar to court trials, though the commission is a part of the executive branch. Commissioners are appointed by the governor for six-year terms and their decisions are subject to judicial review.

Leading up to the hearing, however, both sides could find themselves in circuit court once again to enforce subpoenas for depositions.

After opening an investigation into patient care spurred by failed abortions, DHSS attempted to interview physicians who provided care at the clinic. Two, employed by Planned Parenthood, were interviewed by the agency but the other five have refused. Planned Parenthood has argued that it cannot compel the five physicians, who worked at the clinic through teaching hospitals and medical schools, to submit to interviews as they are not employees.

DHSS said their refusal to be interviewed was one of the major factors in denying the clinic a new license.

In a conference call with attorneys Tuesday, Dandamudi said the AHC had no power to enforce subpoenas before the hearing. Missouri Solicitor General John Sauer, representing DHSS, said he and Planned Parenthood attorney Chuck Hatfield planned to go to court if any witness resisted a subpoena.

“Mr. Hatfield and I have discussed getting that process started early enough to allow review in the circuit court,” Sauer said.

In an interview, Hatfield said Sauer told him he planned to subpoena four of the physicians for depositions. An attempt by Sauer to subpoena the same physicians while in St. Louis Circuit Court was quashed by Stelzer, who said their testimony was not relevant to the matter before him.

Dandamudi said he would set aside five days for the hearing.

The hearing date now falls after a new law banning abortions after 8 weeks of pregnancy would go into effect on Aug. 28.

Planned Parenthood clinic in St. Louis already doesn’t offer the most commonly used technique -- medication abortions -- in the first trimester because it finds a rule issued by DHSS to perform a pelvic exam before the procedure to be “unethical” and unnecessarily invasive. Instead, it directs most of its Missouri patients to a Planned Parenthood clinic across the border in Illinois.

The law is expected to be challenged in court and the American Civil Liberties Union is pursuing a referendum that would have Missourians vote to approve or reverse the law in 2020. The ACLU’s application for a referendum was thrown out by the Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, and an appeal of Ashcroft’s decision is being litigated in the Missouri Western District Court of Appeals.

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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.