Missouri's Last Abortion Provider Wins Reprieve, As Judge Rules Against State

May 31, 2019
Originally published on May 31, 2019 2:27 pm

A Missouri judge has blocked the state's attempt to close down Missouri's last abortion provider.

Missouri Circuit Court Judge Michael Stelzer granted a request to temporarily prevent state officials from revoking the license of a clinic operated by a St. Louis Planned Parenthood chapter, as the state's health department had sought to do.

If the license is not renewed, Missouri will become the first state without a clinic providing abortions since the procedure became legal 46 years ago.

Planned Parenthood, Stelzer wrote in his order, "demonstrated that immediate and irreparable injury will result" if Missouri refuses to renew the clinic's license. He added that the temporary restraining order "is necessary to preserve the status quo and prevent irreparable injury."

Stelzer issued his ruling Friday, hours before a midnight deadline. The judge set a hearing on the matter for Tuesday.

"This is a victory for women across Missouri, but this fight is far from over. We have seen just how vulnerable access to abortion care is in Missouri — and in the rest of the country," said Leana Wen, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood.

Anti-abortion-rights groups were dismayed by the decision, echoing the governor's position that there are health and safety concerns at the clinic that need to be investigated.

"Planned Parenthood caused this artificial crisis when they ignored the law and refused to comply with the state of Missouri's very reasonable requests," said Students for Life of America President Kristan Hawkins, who called Stelzer's ruling an example of "judicial activism in favor of abortion."

In a lawsuit seeking to keep the clinic open, Planned Parenthood had warned that closing the facility could force some women to "turn to medically unsupervised and in some cases unsafe methods to terminate unwanted pregnancies."

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, who recently signed one of the country's most restrictive abortion laws, has maintained that state officials need to complete an investigation into a patient complaint before the clinic's license is renewed. Missouri officials have not revealed details about that complaint.

During a press conference earlier this week, Parson argued that the attempt to not renew the clinic's license is not political.

"This is not an issue about the pro-life issue at all. This is about a standard of care for women in the state of Missouri," Parson said. "Whether it's this clinic or any other clinic or any other hospital, they should have to meet the same standards."

In March, state officials cited a number of deficiencies in their inspections of the clinic as part of the annual license renewal process. One problem they noted was that not all of the staff had participated in a fire drill. Then in April, Missouri officials announced an investigation of an unspecified complaint from a patient.

State officials asked to interview seven physicians associated with the clinic, some of whom were employed by Washington University Medical School and were not part of the clinic's full-time staff. Because of that relationship, the clinic argues it cannot force the doctors to be interviewed. It also says the state has not revealed the scope of the questioning, which the clinic's legal team says could include criminal referrals.

Legal wrangling ensued over the interviews, with the clinic saying it did everything in its power to make the sessions happen and state officials countering that the clinic was getting in the way of the interviews.

Jamie Boyer, the attorney for Planned Parenthood, said in the suit that Missouri "is simply wrong in insisting it is entitled to refuse to act on Planned Parenthood's application for license renewal."

But Parson says that because of the audit and investigators' inability to complete the investigation into the patient complaint, the clinic's license cannot be renewed.

Ahead of the ruling, clinics in states surrounding Missouri, meanwhile, told NPR that there were real worries about a wave of patients traveling across state lines from Missouri. It would be a natural response, they said, to the looming prospect of abortions being inaccessible to patients statewide.

"Missouri is already in what's considered an abortion desert where the majority of Missourians live over 100 miles from a clinic," Michele Landeau, board president of the Gateway Women's Access Fund, told NPR member station St. Louis Public Radio. The fund helps women pay for abortions.

"Closing clinics is just going to make that distance even worse," she said.

Supporters of the St. Louis clinic praised the judge's ruling but said the struggle for access to abortions in Missouri continues.

"While temporary, we celebrate today, and tomorrow, we go back to work to ensure access to abortion does not go dark at the last health center that provides abortion in Missouri," said Dr. Colleen McNicholas, an abortion provider at Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region. "While Gov. Parson abandoned our patients, we will not."

NPR's Sarah McCammon contributed to this report.

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