Updated at 3:30 p.m. July 1 with "St. Louis on the Air" audio — Access to abortion in Missouri will continue as a state commission prepares to consider a licensing dispute over a Planned Parenthood abortion clinic in St. Louis.
On Friday, a state administrative hearing commissioner extended the organization’s license until the Administrative Hearing Commission decides how to resolve Planned Parenthood’s complaint against the state Department of Health and Senior Services. The commission set a hearing for Aug. 1.
In its request for an extended license, Planned Parenthood said Reproductive Health Services of the St. Louis Region would suffer irreparable harm if it lost its license to perform abortions. In response, state health officials said granting the clinic an extended license would end administrative regulation of all licensees in Missouri.
In his decision, Commissioner Sreenivasa Rao Dandamudi said the clinic’s license is of great public interest. He said because granting an extension would not be a ruling on the merits of the case, the commission cannot say that doing so would harm other parties. He said granting the extension protects the ability of licensees to appeal the decisions of regulatory bodies.
“The issue of abortion entails great public interests for opponents and proponents,” he wrote. “However, the only issue before us at this time is a motion to stay the expiration of a statutory license.”
The department had decided not to renew the clinic’s license, citing patient complaints and safety concerns. But an order by a St. Louis judge kept the clinic’s license in place until late Friday afternoon.
If the commission had not granted the extension, the license would have expired. That would have left the state without abortion services.
Planned Parenthood officials hailed the extension as a victory for abortion rights.
“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,” said Dr. Colleen McNicholas, an attending physician at the St. Louis clinic.
“This has been a week-to-week fight for our patients and every Missourian who needs access to abortion care. 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.
Kawanna Shannon, the clinic’s director of surgical services, said its extended license came as a big relief to staff members and patients. They now know that they its operations will continue without interruption at least for the next month, she said.
“If you could’ve seen them cheering when we got the news today,” Shannon said. “They’re hugging, and everyone’s crying. It may be until August 1st, but this battle was 24/7 for us.”
In a lawsuit, Planned Parenthood accuses state officials of using the regulatory process to end access to abortion in Missouri.
The legal action follows a decision by state legislators to ban abortion at eight weeks, a bill Parson signed.
St. Louis Circuit Judge Michael Stelzer recently ruled that Planned Parenthood must first take its case to the Administrative Hearing Commission, which resolves disputes between state agencies and private parties, before seeking remedies in the court system.
Planned Parenthood supporters, activists and advocates gathered at 4:30 p.m. on the Eads Bridge to celebrate the commission’s decision to extend the clinic’s license. They also sent messages to Gov. Mike Parson and Randall Williams, director of the Department of Health and Senior Services.
Abortion-rights advocates unfurled three banners over the side of the historic Eads Bridge, which connects downtown St. Louis and Illinois. “Shame on Gov. Parson,” read one banner. “Abortion is healthcare” read another. On the middle banner, in a play on the state seal of Missouri, two bears flanked a coat hanger, a symbol of the illegal measures women onced used to undergo abortions.
“The governor is trying to send women across that bridge in order to get health care,” said M’Evie Mead, Director of Planned Parenthood Advocates in Missouri, as volunteers released the three banners over the Mississippi River. “Well guess what? Today they don’t have to cross that bridge, they can stay in their home state and get the high-quality safe legal care they deserve.”
Read the commission's order:
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