On the first day of an administrative hearing that could determine the fate of Missouri’s sole abortion clinic, attorneys for the state questioned the safety of Planned Parenthood’s clinic and said state regulators acted with patients in mind when they did not renew its license.
The lawyers spent hours attempting to prove through witness testimony the state’s Department of Health and Human Services acted legally when it did not issue a renewed license to Planned Parenthood Reproductive Health Services in St. Louis last June.
A member of the Administrative Hearing Commission, a nonpartisan state body that resolves regulatory disputes, will decide if the department acted properly.
Planned Parenthood contends the state was involved in an effort to bring down the clinic. But lawyers for the state say the department was protecting patient safety.
“Patient safety is the lodestar, the touchstone of the entire regulatory process,” Missouri Solicitor General John Sauer told Commissioner Sreenivasa Rao Dandamudi during his opening statement. “It’s not punitive; we don’t impose sanctions as a punishment.”
State health officials have said they couldn’t renew the license because they were worried about unsafe operations at the clinic. To bolster that argument, Sauer and other lawyers representing the state spent hours questioning two witnesses, including an abortion-rights opponent who is trained as an OB-GYN, about their opinions on four instances in which patients at the clinic suffered from complications after having abortions.
The department is unfairly focusing on four rare cases out of thousands, said David Eisenberg, a physician at Planned Parenthood.
“They have twisted the process in a way that four patients might jeopardize the health of over one million women in the state of Missouri, because those four patients experienced a rare but known complication,” he said.
In May, Planned Parenthood lawyers sued the state in circuit court over the license refusal. St. Louis Circuit Court Judge Michael Stelzer said he couldn’t hear the case until the commission made a decision.
In June, Dandamudi extended the clinic’s license, which has allowed it to stay open until he makes a decision on the case.
Sauer argued that a lack of oversight from attending physicians and reckless decisions put patients’ lives in jeopardy.
Sauer focused in particular on one patient who was admitted to a nearby hospital after undergoing an abortion at the clinic because of severe bleeding. He called as a witness Donna Harrison, an OB-GYN who said that could have been because clinicians did not take into account risks associated with an existing medical condition.
Eisenberg slammed Sauer’s choice of witness during a break in the proceedings. Harrison is the executive director of the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
State attorneys also focused on three patients who received abortions but remained pregnant, including a case in which a physician appeared to have aborted one twin but not another.
The state’s attorneys also called William Koebel, a Department of Health and Senior Services administrator who is in charge of licensing abortion and ambulatory facilities throughout Missouri. Koebel noted various “deficiencies” found during inspections and investigations of the clinic, including incomplete record-keeping of complication reports.
Planned Parenthood lawyer Chuck Hatfield told Dandamudi that problems alone do not merit revoking or not renewing a clinic’s license. The state didn’t pursue all options before attempting to close the clinic, he said.
Other state witnesses, including Randall Williams, director of the Department of Health and Senior Services, are scheduled to testify next. Later in the week, Planned Parenthood will call its own witnesses.
A decision is not expected for months.
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