Government & Politics

Limited in Missouri, Planned Parenthood shifts abortion landscape with Illinois clinic

Lucy Kay of Chesterfield, right, felt compelled to speak with anti-abortion protesters Mary Gardner of St. Louis, left, and Ben Gruender of Hazelwood after leaving a large protest against Missouri’s restrictive law at the arch in St. Louis, Thursday, May 30, 2019.
Lucy Kay of Chesterfield, right, felt compelled to speak with anti-abortion protesters Mary Gardner of St. Louis, left, and Ben Gruender of Hazelwood after leaving a large protest against Missouri’s restrictive law at the arch in St. Louis, Thursday, May 30, 2019.

With its sole clinic for abortions in Missouri facing a restrictive new state law, Planned Parenthood announced Wednesday it will expand across the border to Illinois with a new 18,000-square-foot facility.

The new building, which cost about $7 million, will replace an existing “tiny storefront along a strip mall” in Fairview Heights, Ill., that offered only medication abortions, according to Jesse Lawder, spokesman for Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri.

Beginning mid-October, the new facility will offer medication and surgical abortions, along with family planning services, Lawder said. While the old clinic saw about 5,000 patients in the last year, Planned Parenthood is hoping to double its capacity to serve about 11,000, he added.

As states in the Midwest become restrictive, women are increasingly turning to Illinois for abortions.

Part of the urgency to open the clinic came as more Missouri patients crossed the Mississippi River, Lawder said.

Planned Parenthood’s clinic in St. Louis, Missouri’s sole abortion provider, is about 13 miles from the new building. The state has attempted to yank the St. Louis clinic’s license, though the effort is tied up in the state’s administrative hearing commission.

Planned Parenthood is also fighting Missouri in court over its new law to criminalize abortions after 8 weeks of pregnancy. A federal judge issued a preliminary injunction pausing the abortion ban while it is litigated.

After the state told Planned Parenthood it needed to perform pelvic exams before medication abortions last year, the St. Louis clinic stopped providing the service, saying that to perform the invasive procedure was unethical. Instead, it referred patients to Illinois clinics.

The strain on resources and protracted wait times at its Fairview Heights clinic emphasized the need for more abortion providers in southern Illinois, of which there are few, Lawder said.

“In a sense (the state of Missouri) forced us to have to do this,” Lawder said. “They have forced us to have more patients in Illinois because of the medically unnecessary requirements.”

One of the only clinics in southern Illinois to offer surgical abortion is Hope Clinic, which has said about half of its patients come from Missouri.

The new Planned Parenthood facility will offer surgical abortions up to 24 weeks of pregnancy.

It expects to see patients from neighboring states of Arkansas, Kentucky and Indiana, where lawmakers have also pushed regulations that make it challenging to provide or receive an abortion.

“When you are looking at region where the access to care is dwindling and you have the opportunity to provide high quality care for people, and to provide care without judgment, to provide it’s an important investment to make right now,” Lawder said.

The facility was built through a shell company to avoid construction delays that providers in other states have encountered due to protesters or reluctant suppliers.

“Given the urgency of the need in our community we wanted to make sure we could complete it as expeditiously as possible,” Lawder said.

The Planned Parenthood affiliate covers most of Missouri and seven counties in Illinois. It chose to build in Illinois not only because of the hostile climate toward abortion in Missouri, but because of the “affirming policy platform” in Illinois, according to Lawder.

At a news conference Wednesday afternoon at the new facility, Yamelsie Rodriguez, the affiliate’s president and CEO, said she thinks Illinois is leading the nation when it comes to women’s reproductive health.

Dr. Erin King, who runs Hope Clinic, said during the news conference she has seen devastating effects of restrictions leading to barriers for women. She called Planned Parenthood a “strong partner.”

Recently, Illinois lawmakers passed the Reproductive Health Act, which requires private insurance to cover abortion care while also repealing decades-old restrictions on providers and patients.

Meanwhile, Missouri lawmakers passed a sweeping package of anti-abortion regulations this year. The punishment for inducing an abortion is five to 15 years in prison.

A federal judge’s preliminary injunction against parts of the law will be reviewed by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. The appellate court denied the state’s request for a stay Wednesday.

Earlier this year, Missouri’s state health agency refused to renew Planned Parenthood’s license to offer abortions at its St. Louis clinic after physicians who had performed or assisted with abortions at the clinic would not agree to be interviewed by inspectors.

After Planned Parenthood sued, a St. Louis circuit court judge moved the matter to the state’s administrative hearing commission, which mediates licensing disputes. The judge quashed the state’s attempt to subpoena the doctors for depositions.

However, the state has once again returned to court in the last month and tried to subpoena the doctors to testify in front of the state’s administrative hearing commission. As of Wednesday, a judge had not ruled as to whether he would enforce the subpoenas.

Lawder emphasized that even though Planned Parenthood has a new facility in Illinois, it will continue to fight to keep its St. Louis clinic and against Missouri regulations. The clinic continues to offer surgical abortions.

“The lights were on today and they will be on tomorrow,” Lawder said, of the clinic.

The Belleville News-Democrat contributed to this story.

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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.