Updated at 4:30 p.m. June 4 with reaction from Planned Parenthood — A St. Louis Circuit Court judge has delayed until Wednesday a hearing that could determine whether Missouri’s sole abortion clinic remains open. Judge Michael Stelzer ruled Tuesday that current and former independent doctors at Planned Parenthood will not have to testify.
Lawyers for the state Department of Health and Senior Services had subpoenaed doctors, aiming to compel them to testify in court. That request pushed back a hearing on Planned Parenthood’s request for a preliminary injunction barring the state Department of Health and Senior Services from delaying or denying a renewal of the clinic’s license. The judge set that hearing for 9 a.m. Wednesday.
Planned Parenthood’s lawyers have asked Stelzer to bar the state Department of Health and Senior Services from delaying or denying a renewal of the clinic’s license.
But before a hearing could get underway on Tuesday, the department’s lawyers told Stelzer they wanted to call as witnesses several doctors state investigators have unsuccessfully sought to interview. Planned Parenthood officials say they could not make them available as they did not work for the organization. The physicians’ lawyers have advised them not to submit to interviews.
On Saturday, the state served subpoenas to four doctors and physician trainees who worked at the Planned Parenthood clinic, compelling theior testimony in court. The state health department first tried to interview the doctors in April.
Russell Lane Makepeace, a lawyer representing two of the clinicians who do not work directly for Planned Parenthood, said because the case centers on the license renewal process and not clinic operations, the physicians would have no relevant information to add in court.
He asked the judge to quash the state’s motion to call the physicians as witnesses.
The physicians “really have nothing to add about compliance of Planned Parenthood for the purpose of evaluating their license,” he told Stelzer.
John Sauer, a lawyer for the state, disagreed. He told the judge that the testimony of those doctors was “highly relevant” because it involves procedures at the clinic, which are relevant to the license renewal investigation.
“The argument their testimony is irrelevant is difficult for me to address because I fail to understand it,” he said.
In his ruling, the judge said because of the limited scope of the hearing the testimony of the four doctors would not be relevant to the issues before the court. They have shown that compliance to subpoenas would present "an undue burden and hardship" on them, he wrote.
The clinic’s license was set to expire this past Friday. But Stelzer issued a temporary restraining order that keeps its license in place until he rules on Planned Parenthood’s request for an injunction.
Planned Parenthood claims that the state is attempting to shut down the clinic — Missouri’s sole abortion provider — by “unlawfully” tying the routine renewal of its license to the completion of an investigation.
The organization’s leaders say Missouri officials are using the investigation to further restrict access to legal abortion, not long after Republican Gov. Mike Parson signed a law banning abortion after eight weeks of pregnancy. The law takes effect in August.
Parson has said state health regulators have concerns about the safety of Planned Parenthood’s clinic and are trying to ensure that it follows state law and regulations.
Anti-abortion activists say annual and unannounced inspections brought to light “grave concerns” about safety and led state health officials to more carefully scrutinize the clinic.
The hearing prompted dozens of abortion-rights opponents to gather outside Reproductive Health Services of Planned Parenthood to protest the clinic’s abortion services.
The rally included speakers representing several anti-abortion groups, including Students for Life of America, Archdiocese of St. Louis Respect Life Apostolate and St. Louis University Med Students for Life.
“Planned Parenthood shouldn’t be above the law,” said Reagan Barklage, the western regional director of Students for Life of America. “If they want to operate like a medical facility then they need to meet the standards like any other medical facility.”
Representatives from Planned Parenthood expressed relief about Stelzer’s decision. But they said access to legal abortion was still “hanging by a thread” in Missouri.
Colleen McNicholas, an attending physician and OB-GYN at the clinic, called keeping the clinic open a “day-to-day” fight. She called the subpoenas to doctors unnecessary abuse from anti-abortion state regulators.
“Planned Parenthood is also relieved that doctors in training will not have to come to court and face the unwarranted harassment we’ve long said is inappropriate,” McNicholas said. “We look forward to another day in this fight.”
Follow Sarah on Twitter: @Petit_Smudge
Send questions and comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org