Verbal fireworks punctuated the latest round of hearings by a Missouri Senate committee investigating Planned Parenthood's operations in the state, which included accusations and denials that Republicans on the committee are conducting a "witch hunt."
Chairman Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, began by stating that Tuesday's hearing was reserved for comments from the public, which turned out to be top-heavy with official representatives from several anti-abortion groups and one citizen speaking on behalf of the National Organization for Women.
But before the first witness took the stand, Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, asked whether they would be sworn in, as were members of the Deptartment of Health and Senior Services at earlier hearings.
"Nope, this is public testimony," Schaefer answered.
Schupp then asked, "And these witnesses are held to a different standard than the other witnesses who were brought forward?"
Schaefer responded, "The purpose of this hearing is to provide public testimony, so members of the public can weigh in to their elected representatives. That is different than when we subpoena witnesses who have information that's relevant to the investigation that we're doing ... so no, I do not plan on swearing these witnesses in, and it is different."
Schupp again countered with, "But not all the other witnesses were subpoenaed; some were just asked to come here, and they did, and yet they were sworn in."
Schaefer fired back, "That's true, for those witnesses that have information that we want to make sure that they're being complete and truthful with us, we will put them under oath."
After Schupp and Schaefer's testy exchange ended, testimony began, with much of it highly critical of UM Healthcare's working relationship with Planned Parenthood's clinic in Columbia.
Mike Hoey with the Missouri Catholic Conference fired the first salvo.
"Now, I understand that they don't perform abortions at the University of Missouri, I understand that, but they gave hospital privileges to an abortion doctor," Hoey said. "But for the blessing of Mizzou, there would not be the taking of unborn life in Columbia and in central Missouri."
Kathy Forck is with the group 40 Days for Life. She accused the staff at Planned Parenthood's Columbia clinic of using fear and intimidation to discourage their patients from having any contact with anti-abortion protesters, or from visiting an abortion alternative clinic across the street.
"We know of one instance where a woman went back for her follow-up care after an abortion, and because she spoke to us, that care was refused," Forck said. "(An) off-duty policeman came out and told her 'your presence is not welcome here.' She said, 'What do you mean? I paid for this abortion...I took the RU-486 pill.' He said, 'I'm sorry, but if you do not leave, you'll be arrested for trespass.'"
Susan Gibson of Jefferson City spoke on behalf of the National Organization for Women, who began by telling committee members that she wished the Missouri Senate had the same level of outrage over the unrest in Ferguson and over "sexual predators" within the legislature.
"That huge mess of a problem is not isolated to two (lawmakers), so don't think you have successfully distracted anyone," Gibson said.
She continued, "You cannot convince me that your overwrought emotion is not motivated by your thirst for campaign donations (from the ultra-conservative crowd), because you insist on using inaccurate (and) inflammatory language, like babies, body parts, and selling, rather than scientifically and medically accurate language."
And it was Gibson who leveled the charge of "witch hunt" against the committee, "It has been clear from the beginning of this witch hunt that Planned Parenthood in Missouri does not participate in the fetal tissue donation program ... reproductive freedom is essential to our liberty, and your attack can only be interpreted as a tantrum hoping to bring back the mid-20th century."
Minutes after Gibson's testimony, Sen. David Sater, R-Cassville, denied that the committee was conducting a witch hunt, saying that they were "only looking for the truth."
There is no word yet on when the next hearing is scheduled, but Schaefer told reporters he wants Planned Parenthood officials to testify; voluntarily or, if necessary, by subpoena.
When asked if Planned Parenthood would be put under oath if they agreed to testify, he answered, "Yes, I suspect so."
Schaefer is also seeking the Republican nomination for Missouri attorney general.
Follow Marshall Griffin on Twitter: @MarshallGReport